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.

Goya cited those statements in December 1999, when the company unilaterally withdrew recognition of UNITE as the employees' bargaining agent. "There were some petitions which had the majority of the employees on them," explains Unanue. "After receiving them we wrote a letter to the union saying we doubted they represented a majority of the employees, so we withdrew recognition. Why negotiate with someone who doesn't represent the employees?"

NLRB attorneys have seen all the papers, which Goya submitted to the board five months later with a request for new union elections. The petitions, the company argued, showed most employees had changed their minds. The board quickly rejected the request, calling into question the validity of the petitions. In earlier court documents, the NLRB had stated, "The disaffection petitions ... were tainted by [Goya's] long history of unfair labor practices.... Ample evidence that employees were lured, or coerced, by [Goya] into signing the aforementioned disaffection petitions can be found."

Disaffection with a union is common during long contract disputes, and employers count on it to damage or destroy a union's credibility among its own members. That is a major reason the NLRB took the extraordinary step two months ago of seeking an injunction to force Goya to rehire the fired men and return to the bargaining table. (As of press time, Judge Gold had not issued a ruling.) "What's tragic is the chilling effect of intimidation," UNITE's Monica Russo says. "Workers become so desperate and so afraid, they do things they would not do under normal circumstances where there's not that level of fear."

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

Alberto Turienzo is standing alone on the corner of Goya Avenue and NW 25th Street. About 200 yards to the south glows a giant blue neon Goya logo. The hot, damp, 3:00 a.m. darkness seems to make the amber street lighting vaporize into the thick air. Turienzo is pacing. As usual, even at this hour, he is dressed with precision in a wrinkle-free, patterned cotton shirt tucked into pressed jeans. He's waiting for Willy Gonzalez to show up with a car full of newly printed flyers to pass out to morning-shift drivers leaving on their routes. Turienzo, Gonzalez, and a small contingent of union stalwarts have been gathering at this corner for months now. Over the past year or so they've seen more and more temporary employees driving the trucks (the NLRB cites a "disproportionate" increase in temporary drivers since December 1998, just after the union election). The temps -- workers call them empleados rentados -- aren't eligible to vote or join the union, and have, according to some workers, meant a big reduction in permanent employees' overtime. Gonzalez parks his company Taurus across 25th Street, just west of the imposing Miami-Dade Police headquarters. He ambles across the street, carrying a sheaf of papers and three bottles of water. At about the same time, Rodolfo Chavez drives up in his red Toyota pickup. He'll hang out here until he reports for work at 5:30. He's rubbing his eyes, looking half-asleep, but perfectly shaved and uniformed in a blue Goya shirt. Two semi trucks rumble eastward on 25th Street, and quiet settles in again.

This morning Gonzalez is carrying a stack of yellow flyers in Spanish stapled on top of copies of a five-day-old NLRB ruling (in English) denying Goya's request for a new union election. "Goya, your lawyers can't deceive EL LABOR BOARD," the flyer advises. "YOU'RE NOT GOING TO SEE NEW ELECTIONS!!!"

A Goya delivery truck chugs up the street and halts at the intersection. Gonzalez and Turienzo walk over to greet the beefy man in the cab. Gonzalez hands up a flyer, and the three talk -- yell over the engine clamor -- for several minutes. Then the driver grinds into first gear and pulls out into the eastbound lane. "If I know a guy doesn't want anything to do with the union, I'm not going to give him a flyer," Gonzalez says. "There are a lot of 'em who are too scared, and it makes 'em really uneasy. Of course there are guys who've never liked the union. I can respect that. I won't bother them."

Gonzalez, a stout, bearded man of 30, is the U.S.-born son of Cuban exiles. He grew up in Georgia and Hialeah, and though he's soft-spoken and reticent, used to train professional wrestlers. A couple of trucks with rentados at the wheel pass by. Lawn sprinklers in front of a corner office building suddenly start up and soon drench the water bottles Gonzalez has set on the sidewalk. A young man driving a late-model Camry stops on the side of the avenue. He always has plentiful café cubano to hand out. Everyone gathers around the car, chugs one or two thimblefuls, and chats about nothing in particular. The young employee doesn't take a flyer. The other men later explain that he's one of those who supported the union at first but then bought a car and signed the anti-union petitions. Yet they don't resent him. "Most of them are still friends," Gonzalez says. "They haven't turned on each other. I think they understand some don't think they have a choice. Especially if you're a 60-year-old man who doesn't speak English -- who's going to hire you if you lose your job? What if you have kids and your wife is sick? They can't afford to get the company mad at them."

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