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.

Back at the company offices, the regular weekly sales meetings became exercises in humiliation for Bravo. "[Managers] said in front of all my co-workers I'd put the rats' nest there and I was under criminal investigation," he recalls. "They said, 'Because of what your co-worker did, it has hurt our company, and your family is going to lose money.'"

"Several times in the meeting they spoke against [Manny], pointing at him," recalls another salesman and union loyalist who, because he is about to reach retirement age and fears losing his job, doesn't want his name published. "When the union started speaking about rats," he adds, "it's true, there were rats. Everyone knew. And for sure lots [of salesmen] were angry about what happened to Manny and very afraid the same thing would happen to them." The day he was suspended, Bravo filed a whistleblower lawsuit in state court, alleging that Goya had retaliated against him for reporting the rats' nest. He contends that the lawsuit, which is pending, is the only thing preventing the company from firing him. But it has come close: By the end of September 1999, Bravo had been taken off two more big accounts, leaving him with just one client. And despite appeals from the union, Bob Unanue has no intention of assigning other stores to him. "The [store managers] didn't want him in their store anymore," Unanue insists. "That guy was not fired. It's up to his initiative to open a new account." Bravo and other salesmen point out, though, that about the only new accounts they might have a chance of opening would be tiny convenience stores and gas stations. "How many gas stations would I need to make up for a real store?" Bravo wonders.

Around the time of the firings and Bravo's suspension, union leaders enlisted the support of Kendrick Meek, chairman of the state Senate's Agriculture and Consumer Services Committee. Meek and his mother, U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, have been involved with labor causes, including UNITE campaigns, over the course of several years. "I was originally contacted to make sure the warehouse was inspected in a timely manner," Kendrick Meek explains, "because Manny and the others thought Goya would go about trying to clear up the evidence once the word was out there were rats and broken bags. Then, after reading the Department of Agriculture's report and the newspaper, I said, 'Wait a minute, this isn't all coming together. Employees dismissed for reporting the conditions? And in Manny's case, losing all those accounts? And no one is saying anything? Goya knows better.'"

Steve Satterwhite
Alberto Turienzo calls the union fight at Goya a bloodbath
Steve Satterwhite
Alberto Turienzo calls the union fight at Goya a bloodbath

In early August, with news (and rumors) about the rats and the "Winn-Dixie 3" still spreading, Mary Ann Unanue abruptly resigned as president of Goya Foods of Florida. She told Spanish-language media her decision was the most difficult she had ever made, adding she wanted to devote more time to her family. No Goya official ever hinted that her departure was connected to the increasingly unseemly union turmoil. A month later her 46-year-old cousin Bob took over. A friendly, unassuming man, he had previously held management jobs in his family's operations in Puerto Rico, Spain, New Jersey, and most recently in Los Angeles. The differences in style between the two cousins were evident, and workers and management alike expected Bob's more conciliatory approach to mend rifts and build morale. But his superiors clearly expected him to make the union go away, and fast. (A request to interview Mary Ann Unanue was denied by Bob Unanue, who has been speaking at length to the media about Goya and its stand in the union dispute. Calls to Joseph and Francisco Unanue were referred to Goya's director of public relations.)

By the fall of 1999, the state Department of Agriculture had okayed conditions at the warehouse, and the difficulties with OSHA had been largely resolved. UNITE organizers were laboring to maintain enthusiasm among members, personally visiting and calling every employee in the bargaining units and regularly distributing upbeat leaflets to workers leaving the plant. But the punishment of the four workers clearly chilled ardor for the union and trust in its capacity to protect its members. At the same time, Bob Unanue was winning friends with his more generous policies. Attendance fell at union meetings.

In the community at large, however, an unprecedented coalition of politicians was beginning to form in support of the union. Kendrick Meek called every relevant state legislator, as well as local officials. His mother worked on U.S. Congress members. The resulting collection of voices calling on Goya to rehire or return to full service the four Cuban Americans was remarkable, especially in light of existing ethnic divisions and their subsequent worsening in the aftermath of the Elian Gonzalez affair. The Miami-Dade County Commission, the Miami City Commission, and the Hialeah City Council all passed resolutions in support of the workers. The U.S. Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses delivered their own resolutions to Goya, as did the executive board and the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

South Florida's two Cuban-American congressional representatives, Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, conspicuously did not join in lobbying for the workers. And local Cuban-American business leaders, not surprisingly, were outright hostile to the union's efforts. Luis Sabines, the 82-year-old president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce USA (CAMACOL), huffs, "Goya is the number-one Hispanic [food] institution in the United States. It's helped our community greatly. Unions always destroy companies. This union has spread lies about Goya and caused them to lose clients. The business about rats is a lie. If you want to destroy a business, that's how you do it. I won't have anything to do with unions. Our job is to defend businesses."

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