By Chuck Strouse
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Goya's then-president, Mary Ann Unanue, quickly issued a letter to customers, inviting them to personally inspect the Miami facility and assuring them that the "malicious and outrageous attempt by [the] union to manipulate the [contract] negotiations" would not affect service. Then Goya accused UNITE of faking the rodent presence. "The company is now conducting its own full investigation into the allegations, which thus far has uncovered no evidence of unsanitary conditions, other than those apparently created by employees involved in the labor dispute," one news release read.
A week after the rat news broke, UNITE held its quadrennial convention in Miami Beach, and unionists from all over the nation converged outside a Winn-Dixie supermarket on NW 34th Street and Eighteenth Avenue. As a giant inflatable rat bobbed above their shoulders, the crowd of about 1200 chanted, "Shame on Goya!" UNITE leaders planned to present a list of demands to the Winn-Dixie manager in its ongoing efforts to enlist Goya clients to encourage negotiations.
That idea would have unanticipated consequences. A group of three union officials and three Goya employees walked into the store, and UNITE's national secretary-treasurer, Bruce Raynor, asked to meet with the manager. According to a report filed by a Miami Police Department sergeant who was in charge of the security team of off-duty officers (required at public gatherings within the City of Miami and paid for by the event organizer), "approximately ten protesters managed to enter the supermarket and were immediately escorted out by the police officers. The rally was peaceful with no other incident."
Seven days later the three Goya workers among the delegation -- Turienzo, Jesus Martin (a forklift operator for eleven years), and Humberto Galvez (a driver for nineteen years) -- were called into the office of personnel manager Maria Cristina Baños and handed one-paragraph letters informing them that their employment was terminated immediately.
"While wearing their Goya uniforms, they went into an important customer and shut it down," an angry Bob Unanue says today. "They shut down the cash registers. They put in jeopardy everyone's livelihood here." Yet the police report and the store's surveillance videotape give no indication that business was affected. "In fact while Raynor was speaking to the police officers, [another union official] placed a finger over his lips and signaled to the employees not to speak," relates an account included in the NLRB's May petition in federal court. The entire videotaped episode lasted less than five minutes.
After the dismissals, the three became the "Winn-Dixie 3." Turienzo immediately stepped into a visible role as a dynamic union advocate with an emotional story to tell. The other two men, both older and less "Americanized," have appeared at public hearings and rallies but haven't been as vocal as Turienzo. Interviewed on cable television by prominent Cuban-American media personality Tomas Garcia Fuste, Turienzo shocked his host when he half-jokingly referred to his ex-boss as "Mary Ann Unanue Castro." He added, with glee: "Donde ella pasaba no salieron yerba" ("Wherever she walked no grass grew").
Manny Bravo was calling on his sales customers the day of the rat rally and couldn't attend. Bravo was one of UNITE's earliest advocates at Goya; his wife, Sori, has been Monica Russo's secretary for two years. Bravo, who is 31 years old, left his native Pinar del Río, Cuba, with his family during the 1980 Mariel boatlift. He has been a Goya sales rep for ten years and, until July 1999, earned about $24,000 per year in commissions. He and Sori bought a house in Southwest Miami-Dade and were planning to enroll their gifted eight-year-old daughter Jessie in a private school. Today, after Goya stripped Bravo of most of his accounts, the couple is in bankruptcy, months behind on their bills, and dependent on loans from their parents to stay afloat. This past fall they ran out of money to send their five-year-old son Kevin to prekindergarten and pulled him out after two months.
Bravo is a thin, intense man whose large brown eyes sometimes take on a haunted, sunken look. His earnings at Goya now are $200 per month, if he's lucky, with $130 going for insurance. A newly acquired part-time job helps a little, but his shift begins at midnight and he's begun taking prescription pills to sleep.
On July 2, 1999, right in the heat of the rat controversy, Bravo was about to unload a box of Kirby mojo sauce at the Winn-Dixie on NW Seventh Street and 37th Avenue. Bravo's usual practice at this store, one of his biggest accounts, was to personally place the products on shelves and check the displays. That day he found a nest of baby rats inside the box, on top of the mojo bottles. He dragged the box to the backroom, borrowed a camera from the store manager, and snapped a photo of the nest. "The manager thanked me and asked me to throw [the box] away," Bravo recalls. "Then he came back and took more pictures."
Snapshot in hand, Bravo drove straight to the UNITE office in Northwest Miami-Dade. Four days later Goya suspended him. Bravo returned to work after three days to learn that Goya was not only accusing him of planting the rats but had also asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to conduct a criminal investigation of him and UNITE. (The FDA concluded the following month that there was no evidence of tampering.) For a short time, however, Winn-Dixie stopped buying Goya products.