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 the ten months since Unanue came to Miami, he has, by most accounts, made his family firm a happier place. The plant is cleaner and safer than it has probably ever been. Tensions between workers and management have eased. A lot of employees who once were union activists have changed their minds and become either enthusiastic boosters of company policies or simply decided to keep quiet and do their jobs.

"Goya always has been a good company," says a warehouse worker, pausing during his day shift. Neither he nor the two other employees he's been talking with want to give their names. "You could always knock on [the president's] door if you had problems. But then a new administration came in that made big cost cuts and changed the way Goya operated. So we needed help to resolve our problems, and we signed up with the union."

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

Another warehouseman who, like his friends, is Cuban American, over 40 years old, and has worked at Goya for more than a decade, adds, "But when they got rid of Mary Ann, the change was like day and night. Now they understand us and listen to us. We have good benefits, and they pay overtime again. We're all happy in every way."

"I don't think we need the union now," concludes a third worker. "Things have changed. There was a problem [with conditions in the warehouse]. I'm not going to say there wasn't. But that's been taken care of, and there's no reason any more for the union to come in. Now 80 or 90 percent of the employees are against the union. It's caused more problems than it helped, and it has interfered in a lot of [employment] matters, but these are problems that were all fixed by Bob."

That employee, who was one of the plant's union leaders until this past March, hedged his bets in December by signing an anti-union petition, a pro-union petition in January, and showing up at a UNITE picnic held for Goya workers in mid-March. Just a few days later, he was fired after a confrontation with a supervisor. His wife came to the plant to plead for her husband's reinstatement. Some days later he returned to work. His signature appeared on a March 23 anti-union petition, and UNITE received a letter from him ending his association with the organization. "He had changed his attitude completely," recalls a co-worker. "He always spoke against the union after that."

Union supporters consider this turnaround just one of many made in response to subtle suggestions by management that rejection of the union would be rewarded -- no more direct threats of dire consequences but inducements and handshakes instead. There were the préstamos, loans, of hundreds or even thousands of dollars to employees, available from the company at little or no interest. And warehouse workers now were offered the sweetest of deals on used company cars: no money down, immediate title, and weekly payments of $20 for a 1999 Malibu, for example.

Bob Unanue flatly denies the worker's reinstatement "was in any way, shape, or form related to the union." He adds that employees have long been able to request loans and buy cars on very favorable terms -- part of Goya's family style of doing business (though apparently discontinued during Mary Ann Unanue's tenure). Union members counter that these deals were never before so widespread. "Just about everyone was offered money or a car," says 33-year truck driver Miguel Then, who drives an aged, rusting station wagon. "[A supervisor] asked me why I didn't buy a car, and I said I had too many debts."

About four months ago, driver Rodolfo Chavez was trying to buy a house but didn't have enough money. Chavez, a union stalwart, acknowledges that many of his co-workers, including a supervisor, urged him to "go talk to Bob and he'll take care of everything. But I'm not going to do it," says Chavez, a 33-year-old native of Leon, Nicaragua, who emigrated to Los Angeles in 1985 and moved to Miami six years later. He and his wife have two children, ages nine and six. "In reality this is a compra de gente [a buying of their loyalty]. You give money to someone and he's neutralized."

Chavez and other openly pro-union workers say they often are quietly urged to give it up and stop risking their families' security: "Nobody wants to be like Turienzo, Martin, and Galvez -- without a job. Most people just stay quiet. They're scared. Bob is smart. He knows how to manage people psychologically. It's much nicer than before, but it's more dangerous."

Unanue rejects all that talk as more evidence the union is out to ruin Goya. "We haven't intimidated or threatened to fire anyone. Nobody's under a gun. It's only a small group of people saying these things, and the employees are sick and tired of these constant attacks." As evidence he points to a stack of photocopies of several signed petitions and individual letters from employees, some addressed to UNITE and some to Goya. All wish to convey the message that it's over between them and the union.

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