Migrant Farmworkers Win Victory

On Friday, June 4th, twelve thousand migrant farm workers in California were ratified a settlement agreement worth well over half a million dollars. After eight years of struggle through the courts, punctuated by threats to the plaintiffs and attempts from California’s Attorney General to discredit the claim and convince the court that the suit had exhausted the statute of limitations, Western Farmers Workers Association (WFWA) scored a well deserved, unprecedented victory.

Early in 1996, at the beginning of the growing season in the fertile San Joaquin Valley, migrant workers returned, like they do every year, to the state-run migrant farm workers camps, only to find that the State of California Office of Migrant Services (OMS), an agency of the Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD), had increased the rents from $3.50 to $7 and $8 per day and doubled their security deposits without prior notice. The year before, winter floods had washed out several of the few privately-run housing units, leaving no option other than to pay the steep increases or be homeless. Most migrant workers are families with children, and it is not possible to enroll a child in school without a lawful address, therefore, the ramifications of homelessness extend far beyond the physical well being of a single farm worker.

Furthermore, The OMS added restrictions to the residents, such as forbidding farm workers and their families from repairing their cars while living in the camps, causing immediate hardship for workers dependent on their vehicles to go to and from work.

Once the farmers were able to make rent, they could not stretch their resources to provide food, clothing and medical care for their families, so they brought their plight to WFWA, an unincorporated volunteer organization based in central California, which started first running drives to the community for emergency food, clothing and medical care and later contacted the Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals (CCLP) for advice regarding the rent increases. The first step was to seek mandamus relief in Sacramento Superior Court, which resulted in a judgment on behalf of the farm workers, declaring the rent increases illegal and immediately reversing the rates to their previous level, because they failed to comply with basic due process. The court did not demand the State to return the monies already taken from the workers, stating that it would cause a “financial calamity,” in spite of the four billion dollar budget surplus declared soon after.

California agriculture historically depends upon the labor of migrant farm workers, many traveling each growing season from Mexico or points beyond, to pick the crops during the six-month growing season. The State of California had decided to defray the growers’ expenses by supplying state-run migrant housing camps open only during a portion of the year. When the rent was doubled, the purpose was defeated, because some workers found it hard to survive and left. Given the lack of pickers, many acres of land were plowed under because small growers couldn’t afford to harvest them.

When the farmers returned in 1997, workers immediately reported to WFWA that the OMS was still offering housing at the doubled rate the court had declared illegal. Obviously emboldened by the court’s refusal to request reimbursement, the State claimed that the order had invalidated the rental provision, leaving them with “no way to collect any rent” and went on to issue “emergency” provisions, seeking to steal the farm workers’ money for the second time.

CCLP attorneys Thomas Walsh and Grant Rosenblum returned to court in May, 1997 for a second mandamus writ, which was promptly issued. In December, a class action suit was filed on behalf of the farm workers, demanding the return of the illegally charged rents, with interest. Many declarations were gathered in preparation of the suit; volunteers visited the camps and discovered the squalid living conditions and documented the details of the workers’ problems. On June 18, 2001 a group of farm workers, volunteers and supporters from Santa Cruz, Stockton, Yuba City, San Francisco, Sacramento and Oakland attended the appellate arguments at the Court of Appeal in Sacramento to hear the CCLP volunteers present an oral statement declaring that thousands of migrant farm workers had been forced to choose between shelter and other necessities of life, because doubling their rents was in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. Ten days later, the Third District Court of Appeal issued a decision reinstating the suit against the State of California. The State was then instructed to return the monies.

Only five days after the Court of Appeals rendered its decision, Thomas Walsh passed away, well aware of the victory he instrumented; Jeff Cereghino, a Bay Area class action attorney, joined the CCLP volunteer team and, throughout 2002 he attempted to negotiate a settlement with the State of California in order to avoid a costly and extended litigation.

Farm labor camps are an exact opposite of the suburban gated communities that most of us are familiar with but never actually see. Usually built in isolated areas away from cities and urban development, they lack the infrastructure that makes a town attain a sense of community. Drinking water is a scarce commodity and schools are always distant. Because of their nature as temporary shelter for families in constant migration, they fall outside institutional supervision and living conditions may be comparable to those in the poorest countries. Residents are subject to the whim of administrators who manipulate and threaten their stay through complicated eligibility procedures. It is really difficult to explain the conditions the people on these camps are forced to endure.

For the last couple of years, the CCLP and affiliates have organized statewide caravans of representatives and volunteers, traveling to the 23 state-run labor camps as well as private camps that were open when the rent increases occurred, trying to locate the 12,000 farm workers who paid the doubled rents under duress on the state-run camps during the 1996 and 1997 growing seasons. The CCLP designed questionnaires and recruited volunteer interpreters, since many of the migrant workers do not speak English. Also, many CCLP volunteers went to Madison, Dixon, Williams and Yuba City to locate workers subject to the overcharges. Bay Area volunteers joined caravans to Hollister, French Camp, Parlier, Los Baños, Planada, Watsonville and Westley. In Southern California, volunteers went to Shafter Migrant Camp in 2003 and traveled to the Ripley Migrant Camp on the Arizona border, the only one open during the winter season due to its location in the desert. Some private camps were also visited as far away as San Diego, looking for class members. Other CCLP organizers contacted Spanish-speaking radio stations and newspapers in California, Arizona and Texas, looking at ways to inform class members of the status of the case and the need to contact CCLP or local farm workers organizations. Volunteers also contacted hometown associations federated by state in Mexico to set up speaking engagements in order to reach a broader audience.

The task of finding the farm workers due the refunds presents a challenge. Their world is always in motion, traveling the migrant stream according to the seasons and the food they produce. They are never stationary, because, among many other reasons, they are under proscription by the State of California, not allowing them to live within 90 miles from the migrant workers camps in the off-season, or they may not qualify to obtain housing there the next season, so they usually leave the state or go to other countries when they’re not working the fields. After eight years of litigation, since the State illegally doubled the rents, the workers forming the class have naturally dispersed and their old addresses are no longer useful. CCLP organizers estimate that through the joint efforts of the three California CCLP organizing drives, along with the volunteers from various other farm worker and service worker associations, having visited each camp at least twice during the last growing season, traveling sometimes up to eight hours, the combined total of class members they located has only reached an approximate 18% of the class.

Migrant farm workers are also subject to arbitrary scheduling changes from the OMS, sometimes thrusting them into homelessness because of a simple delay in the harvesting periods. On February 22, 2003, workers at the Ripley Camp informed organizers that the Artesi III camp near Stockton would not be available until May. Traditionally, the Ripley Camp residents migrate from this winter season labor camp in the desert directly to the Artesi III by the 15th of March, where they transition to spring crops. A six-week delay is devastating for an entire family, because they are required by law to stay away from the camps where other family members sometimes live and also forces their children out of school, unable to meet registration requirements. When the conflict at the Artesi III Camp developed, service worker volunteers from San Diego joined CCLP organizers in a visit to the Ripley Camp, contacting their colleagues from WFWA in Stockton who were able to confirm that the camp would open on time March 15th, to everyone’s relief.

Throughout the discussion with the State, the affected farm workers and their allies have always maintained that OMS should not retain the overcharged rent money. In addition to reimbursing 100% of the monies taken from them, OMS should not be able to keep the money that is not claimed. After refusing to pay back for years, OMS has implemented a burnout strategy, acting irresponsibly and succeeding at rendering a substantial portion of the class unreachable, in spite of the CCLP and farm labor organizing drives to find class members -above and beyond what the court would order as a notice process. However, the best use of those monies would be to make improvements on the camps. Many of them lack potable water and sanitary facilities. Workers and representatives would be willing to assign uncollected money to be used for improvements on the camps at the discretion of and in consultation with the camp residents.

In general, living conditions of farm workers have worsened in the last several decades; given the lack of medical attention and unsanitary conditions they face daily, the average life expectancy of a farm worker is now 41 years, down from 49 years in 1972.

A previous tentative settlement had been reached on May 12th, 2003; although the terms were contingent upon the California State Legislature passing, and the governor signing, a claims bill to allocate the $600,000 to be returned to eligible immigrants. The claims bill passed and was signed by the governor at the end of January this year -a testimony to the dedication and the perseverance of the class members and organizers who never let up the fight on behalf of over 12,000 people affected by the lawsuit. The following migrant centers are included in the settlement: Artesi II, Artesi III and Art Ochoa in Gilroy, Arvin, Atwater/Livingston and Buena Vista in Watsonville, Cortez (now closed), Davis, and F. H. Rehrman in Dixon, as well as Empire, Davis, Hollister, King City, Los Baños, Merced, Newell, Parlier, Planada, Shafter near Bakersfield, Westley, Williams and Yuba City.

Once the HCD has approved a claim and authorized payment, the qualified claimant will receive a refund. Class members may file their claims through October, 2005.

WFWA has been organizing farm workers and other low-paid workers in California since 1983 with the understanding that workers must organize regardless of race, gender, age, nationality or education. WFWA is a free and voluntary, unincorporated membership association, joining low-income workers and their families with students, professionals, clergy, business owners and other concerned community residents. Together they work to improve living and working conditions seeking to eradicate the inequality farm workers experience. They don’t receive government funding or any benefit that would compromise their decision making process. WFWA is run entirely by volunteers who learn basic “on-the-job” skills, offering training programs in Systemic Organizing Methodology, which combines traditional forms of organizing techniques

“Without organization, we could never have gotten money back,” said claimant José Rodríguez, a WFWA member in Yuba County and former resident of the Davis Migrant Center in Yolo County. “The State would have taken advantage of us. This is a real victory for farm worker independent organizing efforts.”

Migrant workers toil for next to nothing harvesting food for the multibillion-dollar agricultural industry, they live in harsh and often unsafe conditions. WFWA has yet to undertake the tremendous task of locating all the farm workers that would be eligible for the rent overcharge refund from the settlement of Vega, et al. v. Mallory, et al. Many more volunteers will be needed throughout this growing season to join teams traveling to migrant labor camps and find class members.

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