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.

In a September 25, 1999, article in the Miami-based Diario Las Americas, Bob Unanue credited CAMACOL and Sabines with being major defenders of free trade, international commerce, and economic development -- and, by implication, of Goya. Unanue received CAMACOL's Businessman of the Year award that October, though he'd been working in Miami only one month. The gala banquet was marred, however, by the presence of formally attired UNITE members who decorously handed out gold-sealed scrolls to the banquet attendees. When the guests unrolled the papers, they read, printed in fancy calligraphy over the large silhouette of a toothy rodent: Premio Raton del Año (Rat of the Year Award) to Bob Unanue. "That," Unanue comments without amusement, "was stooping pretty low. The employees don't want to be represented by a union that does things like that."


In December 1999 Kendrick Meek presided over a town hall meeting, held at the Hialeah campus of Miami-Dade Community College. He and his mother, as well as Miami-Dade County Commissioner Natacha Millan, state Rep. Rudy Garcia, and aides to state Rep. Annie Betancourt and county Commissioner Katy Sorenson sat at a long table at the head of a full conference room. State Sen. Daryl Jones was in the audience.

"[Goya] has tried to shut us up," declared Alberto Turienzo, jabbing at the podium in front of him. Millan interpreted for the English speakers. "I believe 90 percent of the employees are afraid to come forward and tell the truth about what Goya has done."

"What is this costing you, in the wake of losing your job?" Kendrick Meek asked.

"I have two small children," replied Turienzo, "and I can't take them to the doctor because they don't have insurance now." (The children, but not their parents, have since qualified for a federal medical insurance program.) "My son was sick with the flu once, he was vomiting, but our doctor didn't charge us. Me, I'm about to run out of unemployment benefits. I'm waiting to get my job back. I know I will, but the process takes so long, a person can die of hunger. I feel frustrated by the labor laws that don't take into account what people suffer."

"Is there any negative note in your [personnel] file?" Millan inquired. "Anything about your conduct?"

"Nothing," Turienzo said sharply, the overhead fluorescent light glinting off his glasses as he shook his head.

"This is a company I never thought would treat such good people this way," said Rudy Garcia when Turienzo finished.

"It's in the hands of Goya," concluded Kendrick Meek. "Goya Foods can stop this tomorrow."

But Goya didn't appreciate Meek's next move: He invited a group of politicians (along with the media and union activists) to accompany him the following week to the Goya plant. Meek had alerted Bob Unanue to the visit by telephone and mail. "I respectfully implore you to do the right thing and allow these men to put food on their tables and Christmas gifts under their trees," the senator wrote on December 17. Unanue dashed off a response, warning that he wouldn't be at Goya to receive Meek, and in any case the company had no intention of debating a matter to be settled in court.

On Tuesday morning, December 21, a little more than a week after Goya's warehousemen and drivers celebrated an uncustomary bonus at a spirited Christmas party, operations were running as usual at the warehouse. In the now-nearly spotless packaging room, workers tended to machines filling and sealing one-pound plastic bags of red beans, and uniformed forklift drivers moved bags of rice and cans of beans to the loading docks; most of the big trucks were still out making deliveries. As promised Unanue was not at work in the Goya administrative offices, situated a flight of stairs up from the warehouse, with a panoramic view of the operation.

Out at the plant entrance at the end of Goya Avenue (NW 92nd Avenue), guarded by a security station and metal fence, a crowd was gathering under a cloudless winter sky. Kendrick Meek and his mother; Daryl Jones; state Reps. Luis Rojas, James Bush, Rudy Garcia, Manuel Prieguez, and Gus Barreiro; and Natacha Millan. Joining the politicians were several UNITE officials and a half-dozen former and current Goya employees. At least two newspaper reporters and a Spanish-language television crew observed. After a minute two men walked out of the plant to meet the contingent. The men were attorneys for Goya, and they reiterated the content of Unanue's earlier correspondence to Meek.

"So we met at the gate," Meek recalls. "It wasn't even like, 'Okay, y'all come in and we'll talk a few minutes.' They did it in such a way it really brought to light the way Goya was handling this. We had to stay right there at the gate. They stood right there in front of the TV cameras and talked to us, and then they went back inside." The next day Bob Unanue read headlines like this from the Associated Press: "Elected officials turned away at Goya warehouse."

When Unanue thinks back on that day, he says he believes he was set up in an extreme attempt by the union to bolster its falling standing in the eyes of the public and Goya workers. "They came in a mob to put pressure on us," he asserts indignantly. "Basically it was a lynching." As confirmation he lifts out a copy of a Sun-Sentinel article published shortly after the incident. He has highlighted a quote from Carrie Meek that begins: "[Goya] can be brought to their knees."

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