GRANGER — Dolores Huerta, matriarch of the farm-labor rights movement since the 1960s, arrived here Thursday to celebrate the final chapter in a long struggle for farm workers displaced from their jobs in 2004 by workers from Thailand: the awarding of damages for their lost wages and other labor-law violations.
Still going strong at 83, Huerta congratulated the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Los Angeles-based labor contractor Global Horizons and two Yakima Valley growers, citing their persistence in fighting for local workers’ rights.
“This case demonstrates that we cannot allow Congress to weaken protections for migrant and farm workers,” Huerta said in an interview before a celebration that included the actual cutting of checks ranging from $2,000 to $4,500 to individual workers.
Attorneys for Columbia Legal Services are distributing the checks to the class of 650 plaintiffs in the case, which finally concluded last fall when the Washington Supreme Court reinstated $2 million in damages against Green Acre Farms of Harrah, Valley Fruit Orchards of Wapato and Global Horizons. Platte River Insurance Co. of Madison, Wis., which had posted a bond for Global, was also a defendant.
A federal judge in 2007 found “undisputed evidence” of six violations of federal farm labor laws by Global Horizons and the growers.
The farm workers’ chief complaint was that the growers and the contractor illegally and intentionally displaced them with Thai guest workers brought over under the federal H-2A program. Before using H-2A workers, an employer is supposed to demonstrate that the local labor supply is inadequate.
But the court found that the growers and Global Horizons violated labor laws by failing to disclose productivity requirements and then firing the local workers for not meeting them, failing to pay the promised piece rate for pear harvesting, and telling local workers they needed their own transportation to get a job while providing transportation to the Thai workers.
Huerta was also recently in the news on another Yakima Valley case with a different outcome, the sexual harassment lawsuit against Evans Fruit Co.
A jury found last April that 14 female orchard workers did not prove they had been subjected to a sexually hostile work environment, as alleged by lawyers for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Huerta appeared on a recent PBS “Frontline” documentary, “Rape in the Fields,” saying sexual harassment against women in the fields is a decades-old problem that has been kept under wraps because women fear for their jobs and their families if they speak out against employers.
The attorney for Evans, Brendan Monahan, who also represented the two Valley growers in the Thai workers case, said on the program that the EEOC lawsuit had changed the fruit industry for the better by making employers aware of the need to enact tough workplace policies against sexual harassment.
Huerta said she disagreed with Monahan’s broad conclusion.
“Maybe for that one company. But many employers use labor contractors and they are not held to the same standard. I have no doubt that continued abuses are going on,” she said.