Don't Look for the Union Label

For two years Goya Foods has waged a war to prevent its workers from unionizing. Now things are starting to get really ugly.

"Mary Ann called groups [of employees] into her office," says delivery driver Miguel Then, a union member. "She would say things like, 'There's a group trying to bring the union in -- do you know anything about it?' It made people afraid."

By several accounts Mary Ann and Frank Unanue frequently pledged never to negotiate with UNITE if the union was voted in, and even threatened to close the plant and move out of state. "They told us we didn't need a union, then they gave us two raises in a week," says sales representative Reinaldo "Manny" Bravo. "Frank and Mary Ann used to say, 'We can't give you dental [insurance].' Now they're giving us all that. They're doing things they've never done before." (Mary Ann Unanue resigned in August 1999, and the current regime under Bob Unanue made immediate changes.)

Early in the organizing campaign, Goya retained the Miami law firm Muller Mintz Kornreich, one of a growing number of so-called union-busting specialists. Bob Unanue won't say how much Goya is shelling out in expenses related to the UNITE campaign, but labor scholar Bruce Nissen, program director at Florida International University's Center for Labor Research and Studies, says union-busting experts (many of whom aren't lawyers but often ex-unionists who "organize" workers to oppose unions) charge in the neighborhood of $5000 per specialist per day.

UNITE organizer Willy Gonzalez (left) takes Manny Bravo's troubles personally
Steve Satterwhite
UNITE organizer Willy Gonzalez (left) takes Manny Bravo's troubles personally
U.S. Rep.Carrie Meek (left) and son, state Sen. Kendrick Meek, both Democrats, called a town hall meeting and joined in publicly chastising Goya
photo courtesy Monica Russo
U.S. Rep.Carrie Meek (left) and son, state Sen. Kendrick Meek, both Democrats, called a town hall meeting and joined in publicly chastising Goya

"The public really has no idea how intense the hostility to unions gets within companies, and the extreme attempts to prevent organizing," Nissen offers. "Goya has been a little more obvious than most, because they've been sort of clumsy, somewhat self-defeating in the way they've handled this. Sometimes they've stepped over the line and broken the law."

In October 1998 Goya's warehouse workers and drivers voted 47-7 to be represented by UNITE. Late the following month, the company's sales representatives voted 36-24 for the union. Goya didn't contest the election results, and the labor board certified UNITE as the legal bargaining agent for the two units. Contract negotiations began in December, but after a month no progress had been made. Employees on the union negotiating team tell of company executives reading the newspaper during sessions, even napping. "They came to the table to laugh at us," alleges Alberto Turienzo, one of the union negotiators. (The NLRB also has brought charges against Goya relating to its conduct during those negotiations.)

No member of Goya's bargaining team was available to speak with New Times, but Bob Unanue says, "We were always negotiating in good faith," adding that the union never set forth a salary proposal. "They never presented anything substantive." (Workers maintain their first priority was job security, and that the sessions didn't move beyond that issue.)

By late January 1999, almost two months after the negotiations had begun, UNITE leaders were convinced that Goya intended to drag out the talks until the union gave up from exhaustion. That's a common ploy, and according to FIU's Nissen, one-fourth of the employers negotiating first-time contracts succeed in never signing contracts. Because the labor code punishes companies engaging in unfair labor practices with relatively painless "remedies" -- no fines -- and because, according to union advocates, the understaffed NLRB rarely pursues violations as aggressively as it has in Goya's case, employers stand a good chance of getting away with simply ignoring the mandate to negotiate in good faith.

But UNITE has been through some long and harrowing challenges, and it had barely begun its aggressive public-relations campaign. Among the stream of brightly colored flyers organizers handed out to employees leaving the job site was one taunting, Goya! No te puedes escapar! You can't escape the union! Union organizers and workers went to Spanish-language radio and television stations to explain their cause and to announce rallies and other events. (Goya, meanwhile, continued to pump up the bank accounts of station owners by pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertising to the same audiences.) During a fourteen-hour work stoppage that January, employees called for a one-day boycott of Goya products. In early February members of the union bargaining team sent letters to Publix, Winn-Dixie, and Sedano's supermarkets, asking the management to encourage Goya to negotiate a contract. Later that month a pro-union car caravan, that flag-fluttering, horn-honking Hialeah political tradition, wound its way through the state's most heavily Cuban municipality. Those events got some media coverage but did little to speed up contract talks.

So UNITE began to play hardball. Written complaints from Goya employees began to arrive on the fax machines of regulatory agencies. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services learned of infestations of rats and mice, roaches, and other vermin at the Goya warehouse. UNITE compiled a 26-page formal complaint listing job-site safety hazards and requested an inspection by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). (The agency launched a two-month investigation in July 1999 and, in September, reported ten safety violations for which it fined Goya $9450.)

On June 24, 1999, the state agriculture department temporarily shut down Goya's bean-packaging operation in a small section of the warehouse after an inspector found rodent droppings on the floor and filth on walls and on equipment in the packaging room. The company was ordered to destroy 900 pounds of insect-infested rice and beans. At a press conference the following day, plant workers displayed photos of rats crawling around gnawed-up bags and boxes of food. "The Goya warehouse is infested with live rats, dead rats, pregnant rats, rat excrement, and rat urine," UNITE's Russo exclaimed at the time.

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