Don't Look for the Union Label
Steve Satterwhite

Don't Look for the Union Label

Alberto Turienzo raps his fist on the hardback cover of El Padrino, a Spanish translation of The Godfather, that venerable Mario Puzo novel about the Italian Mafia. "This book," explains Turienzo in a husky voice, pausing dramatically, "has taught me a lot about what has been going on in my life. This is a book about loyalty, about family, about honesty. And also about deception and betrayal. Know how many times I've read this book? Twelve times."

For close to two years, Turienzo has been involved in a different sort of turf war and family intrigue, lacking the wholesale violence and crime of the novel. His is a battle of minds and nerves. It began as a typical labor-union campaign at Turienzo's long-time job site, the Goya Foods of Florida plant in Miami, and has grown into an ugly, all-out grudge match fueled by legal maneuvering, public posturing, and dark accounts of intimidation, retaliation, and deals that cannot be refused. Even the efforts of local, state, and national politicians have failed to resolve any part of the dispute, which now is being played out before a judge in downtown Miami.

Turienzo was one of the first casualties in the war between Goya and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, commonly referred to as UNITE. When he and two co-workers lost their jobs last summer, their misfortune became the union's strongest rallying point. But even a public outcry hasn't been enough to deter Goya from its relentless drive to rout the union, despite two 1998 elections giving UNITE the right to represent about 120 workers.

Negotiations over a labor contract broke off eight months ago and this past December the company withdrew recognition of the union altogether. Meanwhile the three fired workers and their families have been playing a precarious financial waiting game. They'll probably go weeks or months longer before learning if a plodding legal process will restore their jobs and part of their lost wages. The other Goya employees are in limbo, too. They're being sweet-talked and regaled with easy loans, cheap cars, raises, and better benefits; some say it's all a pretty way of buying their loyalty. Still others say fear and distrust keep them quiet and cowed. Yet many employees are content with their jobs, proud to be part of "the big Goya family," and fed up with two years of feuding.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), an independent agency charged with administering labor laws, believes much of Goya's behavior during the union campaign has been illegal and has charged the company with 40 violations of the National Labor Relations Act. A hearing on the charges (which include the firings) has entered its third week before an administrative law judge at the downtown Miami office of the NLRB. A ruling isn't expected for several weeks, but a U.S. district judge may decide earlier on the matter of the firings and the breakoff of contract talks. Last month the NLRB asked federal Judge Alan S. Gold to issue an injunction ordering Goya to reinstate the workers and return to the bargaining table. It was the first time in more than a decade that the Miami labor board office had taken such aggressive action against an employer. Nevertheless Goya officials have promised to appeal any ruling against the company.

"Remember when the old man is dying?" Turienzo asks, referring to the death of Don Vito Corleone in the novel. "He tells his son if someone comes to him asking for a meeting, it's a sign of betrayal." (And the don's heir, Michael, soon receives a request for a meeting with the family's rivals.) "Well, [two Goya employees] came to me after I was fired and said [Goya president] Bob Unanue would like to meet with me," Turienzo recounts. He's sitting at his glass-top dining-room table at home in Hialeah Gardens. Fifty-four years old and with prematurely silver hair and mustache, he wears a spotless white polo shirt and jeans. His wife, Amarilis, is busy with her weekly housecleaning; their two children are at play in their bedrooms. Nothing suggests that Amarilis, a medical assistant, now pays all the family's bills or that she and her husband have no medical or dental insurance and must rely on the charity of fellow Cuban immigrants in emergencies.

"I went up to Bob's office," he continues. "We talked, but I could see right away he wasn't going to help me. Bob came to Goya as a good guy, someone who was going to fix the problems. So if he's so good, why am I still out of work?"

Many observers have asked the same question: After months of bad publicity, worker upheaval, and mounting legal bills, why won't Goya budge, even if only to take back three workers with a combined 43 years of employment?

Founded 64 years ago in New York by Prudencio and Carolina Unanue, Goya has remained privately held and family run. In 1999 Goya had 2200 employees, almost 27 percent more than the year before. It is the largest Hispanic-owned food company in the United States and distributes more than 1000 products under the brand names Goya, Diana, Kirby, and Nacelle. Sales last year totaled $653 million. Goya was ranked third by Hispanic Business magazine among the top 500 Hispanic businesses in the nation (Miami's MasTec was first) and is among the 50 largest advertisers within the U.S. Hispanic market, according to Strategy Research Corporation, a marketing research firm based in Miami.

Goya is headquartered in Secaucus, New Jersey, and has thirteen facilities in the United States, the Caribbean, and Spain. Two plants in New Jersey have been unionized for decades with few problems. But Goya seems determined to stonewall a union representing 120 employees in Miami. Perhaps executives are convinced that UNITE, despite being one of the scrappiest unions anywhere, simply isn't strong enough to outlast a rich multinational business. But the company may not understand that the union is just as intransigent.

UNITE, based in New York, has teamed with its national umbrella association, the AFL-CIO, to publicize the Goya fight with rallies and press conferences coast to coast. By now the conflict has become a personal, emotional test of wills. Robert Unanue, president of Goya Foods of Florida and a grandson of the founders, asserts that the UNITE campaign has used lies and provocation in an attempt to turn public opinion against him and his company. "The union is conducting a smear campaign which borders on defamation," he says. "They don't want to help the employees. They want to destroy Goya."

That is the desperate logic of a company that has backed itself into a corner, scoffs UNITE Florida director Monica Russo. Based in Miami, Russo directs the union campaign, and she is in agreement with Unanue on one point: The standoff is now a matter of personal honor. "It's definitely the principle of the thing," she says. "This is not going to bring UNITE thousands of new members. Union dues from this little teeny place? This is a major investment for a small bargaining unit; it's a national campaign for 150 workers. It's hard to find a union willing to put these kinds of resources, this kind of heart and soul into this. [Goya] acts like if they ignore it, the whole mess will go away. It's not going away."

On one high concrete wall in the west Miami-Dade Goya warehouse, overlooking a 135,000-square-foot packing area, a sign proclaims, La gran familia Goya/Juntos hoy y en el nuevo milenio (The big Goya family/Together now and in the new millennium). The sign is lettered in primary blue, the color of Goya's logo seen on millions of cans, boxes, and plastic bags across the nation.

In Miami la familia Goya is the very picture of a big, extended Latin family. Most of the Goya warehouse/delivery workers and sales staff -- the two groups that in October 1998 voted for UNITE's representation -- were born in Cuba. Many, like Alberto Turienzo, left the island on the Mariel boatlift of 1980. Goya welcomed these hard-working newcomers and provided a sense of security and familiarity not unlike the state-supplied jobs they had previously. For many of these men (and a few women), Goya has been their first and only U.S. employer, sometimes even paying them cash until they receive their green cards. (Naturally a higher percentage of the managerial and administrative employees is U.S. born and bilingual.)

In the fall of 1998, morale was low among the warehouse/delivery workers and the sales staff, and anger on the rise. Most employees blamed their unhappiness on one person, Mary Ann Unanue, the 39-year-old daughter of Joseph Unanue, Goya's president and CEO in Secaucus. When Mary Ann Unanue became president of the Florida operations in 1995, she apparently had a belt-tightening mandate from the company's two chiefs, her father in New Jersey and his brother, Francisco (usually called Frank), president of Goya Foods of Puerto Rico. According to workers the no-nonsense Mary Ann eliminated or cut back benefits and privileges: She instituted new rules for paid vacation and emergency time off (UNITE alleges that the subsequent firing of a union member for violating the time-off rule was retaliation); eliminated overtime; reshuffled holiday scheduling; forbade personal phone calls during work hours; and made other changes.

The company also began a typical pre-election blitz to dissuade employees from voting for union representation. (An election among the warehousemen and drivers had been scheduled for mid-October, and for the sales representatives about a month later.) During mandatory staff meetings, Goya executives showed videos depicting horror stories, such as unions' roles in the downfall of Eastern and Pan Am airlines; other tapes, some in newscast format, presented stories of UNITE organizing campaigns elsewhere, in which the union either was defeated or failed to negotiate a contract after winning an election (owing to the same types of delaying and stonewalling tactics Goya would use later).

On numerous occasions, the NLRB alleges in its charges against Goya, company managers broke the law in their efforts to discourage union support. Some workers told labor-board attorneys that Mary Ann Unanue warned them that joining a union would cause them to lose benefits, possibly even their jobs. She and other executives, as described in an NLRB complaint, also "interrogated employees about their union membership, activities and sympathies and the union membership, activities and sympathies of other employees."

The National Labor Relations Act guarantees employees the right to form labor unions to bargain collectively with employers and forbids "interfering with, restraining, or coercing" employees seeking to exercise that right. Furthermore the act requires employers to negotiate "in good faith" with a union that has been certified by the NLRB to represent a bargaining unit, or group of workers.

"Mary Ann called groups [of employees] into her office," says delivery driver Miguel Then, a union member. "She would say things like, 'There's a group trying to bring the union in -- do you know anything about it?' It made people afraid."

By several accounts Mary Ann and Frank Unanue frequently pledged never to negotiate with UNITE if the union was voted in, and even threatened to close the plant and move out of state. "They told us we didn't need a union, then they gave us two raises in a week," says sales representative Reinaldo "Manny" Bravo. "Frank and Mary Ann used to say, 'We can't give you dental [insurance].' Now they're giving us all that. They're doing things they've never done before." (Mary Ann Unanue resigned in August 1999, and the current regime under Bob Unanue made immediate changes.)

Early in the organizing campaign, Goya retained the Miami law firm Muller Mintz Kornreich, one of a growing number of so-called union-busting specialists. Bob Unanue won't say how much Goya is shelling out in expenses related to the UNITE campaign, but labor scholar Bruce Nissen, program director at Florida International University's Center for Labor Research and Studies, says union-busting experts (many of whom aren't lawyers but often ex-unionists who "organize" workers to oppose unions) charge in the neighborhood of $5000 per specialist per day.

"The public really has no idea how intense the hostility to unions gets within companies, and the extreme attempts to prevent organizing," Nissen offers. "Goya has been a little more obvious than most, because they've been sort of clumsy, somewhat self-defeating in the way they've handled this. Sometimes they've stepped over the line and broken the law."

In October 1998 Goya's warehouse workers and drivers voted 47-7 to be represented by UNITE. Late the following month, the company's sales representatives voted 36-24 for the union. Goya didn't contest the election results, and the labor board certified UNITE as the legal bargaining agent for the two units. Contract negotiations began in December, but after a month no progress had been made. Employees on the union negotiating team tell of company executives reading the newspaper during sessions, even napping. "They came to the table to laugh at us," alleges Alberto Turienzo, one of the union negotiators. (The NLRB also has brought charges against Goya relating to its conduct during those negotiations.)

No member of Goya's bargaining team was available to speak with New Times, but Bob Unanue says, "We were always negotiating in good faith," adding that the union never set forth a salary proposal. "They never presented anything substantive." (Workers maintain their first priority was job security, and that the sessions didn't move beyond that issue.)

By late January 1999, almost two months after the negotiations had begun, UNITE leaders were convinced that Goya intended to drag out the talks until the union gave up from exhaustion. That's a common ploy, and according to FIU's Nissen, one-fourth of the employers negotiating first-time contracts succeed in never signing contracts. Because the labor code punishes companies engaging in unfair labor practices with relatively painless "remedies" -- no fines -- and because, according to union advocates, the understaffed NLRB rarely pursues violations as aggressively as it has in Goya's case, employers stand a good chance of getting away with simply ignoring the mandate to negotiate in good faith.

But UNITE has been through some long and harrowing challenges, and it had barely begun its aggressive public-relations campaign. Among the stream of brightly colored flyers organizers handed out to employees leaving the job site was one taunting, Goya! No te puedes escapar! You can't escape the union! Union organizers and workers went to Spanish-language radio and television stations to explain their cause and to announce rallies and other events. (Goya, meanwhile, continued to pump up the bank accounts of station owners by pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertising to the same audiences.) During a fourteen-hour work stoppage that January, employees called for a one-day boycott of Goya products. In early February members of the union bargaining team sent letters to Publix, Winn-Dixie, and Sedano's supermarkets, asking the management to encourage Goya to negotiate a contract. Later that month a pro-union car caravan, that flag-fluttering, horn-honking Hialeah political tradition, wound its way through the state's most heavily Cuban municipality. Those events got some media coverage but did little to speed up contract talks.

So UNITE began to play hardball. Written complaints from Goya employees began to arrive on the fax machines of regulatory agencies. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services learned of infestations of rats and mice, roaches, and other vermin at the Goya warehouse. UNITE compiled a 26-page formal complaint listing job-site safety hazards and requested an inspection by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). (The agency launched a two-month investigation in July 1999 and, in September, reported ten safety violations for which it fined Goya $9450.)

On June 24, 1999, the state agriculture department temporarily shut down Goya's bean-packaging operation in a small section of the warehouse after an inspector found rodent droppings on the floor and filth on walls and on equipment in the packaging room. The company was ordered to destroy 900 pounds of insect-infested rice and beans. At a press conference the following day, plant workers displayed photos of rats crawling around gnawed-up bags and boxes of food. "The Goya warehouse is infested with live rats, dead rats, pregnant rats, rat excrement, and rat urine," UNITE's Russo exclaimed at the time.

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.

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.'"

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."

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."

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."

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.

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."

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."

Most of the men have worked together five days a week for a decade or more; their ties are close. Each one's history is known: his legal or immigration problems, how the company helped them, what he signed, what he said to whom.

A white-haired driver stops at the intersection and nods, but doesn't roll down his window. Gonzalez waves in acknowledgment. "He used to be one of the strongest [advocates of the union]," Gonzalez explains with no animosity. "Used to talk about taking over the company. He folded like a cheap accordion."

Turienzo chuckles and takes a quick drag before throwing his smoked cigarette into the gutter. He looks up, past the tops of the trees lining the avenue. The sky is lightening, black to steel-gray. "They say we want to destroy the company, but the workers live because of the company," he reasons. "I want Goya to prosper, but I want the families of the workers to prosper, too. They tried to destroy my family, so I'm fighting them. They won't give in because they don't want to lose power. They've made this into an ensañamiento -- a bloodbath."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >