Food fight: Local union protests company, but company says it's part of negotiations
Union members from across the state recently staged their second local protest of the national Goya Foods chain. The most recent protest, held in Union City, was part of an effort to have the company, which produces Spanish and Latin-American foods and has an office in Secaucus, reinstate four Miami warehouse workers who were fired after they reported sanitation problems in June of 1999. But a Goya representative from the Secaucus facility said protests by UNITE, a union of needletrades, industrial and textile employees, are simply efforts to embarrass Goya and gain support for union negotiations in Miami. Approximately 25 union members holding signs and banners on the eve of St. Patrick's Day stood outside La Roca Supermarket on Bergenline Avenue in Union City chanting "Shame on Goya." The demonstration, organized by the Washington, DC- and Union City-based UNITE, is the second protest in five months. The first protest was held on Oct. 27 with union workers marching across Kennedy Boulevard to the Mi Bandera Supermarket on 32nd Street. According to UNITE representatives, the protests stemmed from the firing of four workers at the Miami Goya warehouse after they reported rodent and insect infestation there. A December article published in the Star-Ledger reported that Florida state inspectors temporarily closed down the bean packaging operation at the Miami Goya warehouse in June of last year after discovering evidence of rodent infestation. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued the Miami warehouse its lowest safety rating. However, Rafael Toro, director of public relations at the Goya Secaucus plant, said in a phone interview last week that Goya's Miami warehouse was temporarily closed to allow authorities to properly inspect the facility only because the union made false allegations of rodent infestation. "We have never gotten a poor report," Toro said. "We cooperated with Florida state so that they could see what was happening. We were given a clean bill of health. The inspectors said everything was okay. We've been inspected numerous times by state and local officials. All of a sudden, the union comes in and says that we were operating a facility that was not sanitary, and that was not true. This isn't about rodent infestation. This isn't about workers being fired. This is about labor negotiations in Miami. The union created this lie just to have people like you talking to me. Labor negotiation tactics are trying to embarrass and intimidate us." In Union City, protestors said they would not back down until the four persons were reinstated at work. Protestors also called for an end to the sanitation problem and for better treatment of Goya workers. "I was proud of Goya, but not anymore," said Richy Guzman, a 28-year old Union City resident and a union organizer from local 99 who believes that Goya is giving a bad name to all Spanish people. "It's a shame that a company located in Puerto Rico, owned by Spanish people, is abusing its own people." "I came all the way from Paterson," said Carmen Flores, a 59-year-old member of local 99. "We want justice for the people working at Goya." "These workers are here under one union," said Luis Ramos, assistant manager of Local 99 of UNITE. "We're picking different locations across the country." Ramos said similar demonstrations have been held in Mississippi, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, California, Ontario, Canada and throughout Florida. In front of the markets
Although both protests held in Union City have been held in front of Goya retailers, Ramos said, "We're not asking them [consumers] not to buy Goya products; we're just educating them." "It's unfair, they need their jobs, they have families," said 43-year old Anna Martinez, a Union City resident and member of local 148. Toro said the workers would not be reinstated because they were fired for reasons other than their reporting a rodent infestation. "Three workers went into a store in Miami and caused a disturbance to the point that they had to be escorted out of the store by police and they were wearing Goya apparel," Toro said. "The fourth employee was let go because he was making demands on his boss and hitting the desk to the point that he had to be let go. They were not let go for any other reason." Toro said the workers caused a disturbance by running around the store and yelling, but did not say why they might have done so. He also did not say what demands were made by the fourth worker. But he said that workers at the Miami warehouse signed a petition in December of last year to get rid of the union. He believes that protests in Union City and other parts of the country are attempts by the union to retain its members at the Miami plant. Hillary Horn, a spokesperson for UNITE in its Washington, D.C. office, said that if a petition had been signed against the union, Goya could have bullied its workers to sign it. "They've done a number of things to try and intimidate and threaten their workers from speaking out about their union preference," Horn said. "Management conducting petition drives is one illegal activity being investigated by the [National Labor Relations] Board. Right now there has been no formal action taken to oust the union." Toro said there is an ongoing investigation into the allegations and a hearing is soon to be scheduled, at which time he believes Goya will be vindicated.