Columbia Legal Services Lawyers’ Latest Suit An Abuse of the Legal System

  • July 27, 2020

UFW leader says farm worker lawyers lied in recent court case

Columbia Legal Services lawyers lied. At least that’s what Erik Nicholson, National Vice President of the United Farm Workers, said in a court declaration. CLS attorneys represent Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), a tiny one farm union, and Community to Community, the union worker center run by Rosalinda Guillen. Now, they formed a “class” consisting of two H2-A guest workers and are suing a large Eastern Washington fruit grower.

The case against Stemilt Ag Services shows this is a lawsuit aimed at generating media attention, which it already has. Taking a closer look at the complaint shows how strange their claim is:

According to Columbia Legal Services, Stemilt’s H-2A contract didn’t contain any production standards. Garcia and Rivera were allegedly told that they had to pick a certain number of bins of apples per day. If they didn’t meet this production standard, they would allegedly receive written warnings.

“They were routinely threatened that if they received three written warnings, they would be fired, returned to Mexico without expenses paid, and banned from future employment. The Gómezes claim their working conditions were intolerable due to Stemilt’s threats to fire them if they did not meet the unlawful production standards and due to Stemilt’s threats that they would not be rehired in the future by Stemilt or other U.S. companies,” Columbia Legal Services stated.

Stemilt is required to pay for all transportation expenses including from the workers’ homes in Mexico and return. The federal program requires they provide free housing that is rigorously inspected by the government, subsidized meals and a number of other requirements. This year the minimum wage that must be paid is $15.83 per hour, the highest in the nation and about twenty times higher than what the same worker could earn on Mexico’s minimum wage of $.79 per hour.

Most Washington workers earn more than minimum based on incentive pay. But, according to Columbia Legal Services and the Seattle law firm of Keller Rohrback, Stemilt should allow workers to stand around and do nothing to earn their pay. The farm is accused of setting minimum production standards and providing three letters of warning if the worker will not meet the minimum.

What employer can survive without some requirement to actually work and do the job they are hired for? Maybe we should look at the employee handbook of CLS and Keller Rohrback. Would it say if you are hired you can lolly-gag all you want and there will be no repercussions? Are there no performance requirements and evaluations?

Workers are hired for a reason: to do a job. And we are grateful for our essential agriculture workers who put in long hours to harvest the many crops in Washington State.

The complaint goes further. It says:

H-2A migrant workers are not offered the same federal protections as other farm workers. Columbia Legal Services says migrant workers are exposed to retaliation because labor recruiters in foreign countries “routinely refuse to rehire H-2A workers who try to improve working conditions for themselves and others.”

First, farm workers including guest workers have probably the highest level of legal protections of any category of worker. As an example, the Washington Department of Labor & Industries leveled a $149,000 fine against a Washington blueberry farm for a few late rest and meal breaks.

The court later reduced the fine by half, but can you imagine your employer being fined massively if you took your break five minutes late? Do CLS attorneys stop everything they are doing and take a fifteen minute break or stop for meals at very specific times as is required of farm employers? To suggest farm workers don’t have protections is outrageous. 

However, the complaint also says farmers refuse to rehire guest workers who try to improve working conditions. The fact is, CLS, FUJ and UFW are all in the fields talking to workers and seeking out those who have the slightest reason for complaint, then make promises they don’t or can’t keep in order to use them as the front for the accusations and the litigations they are pursuing.

Unfortunately, it is the workers who fall for their promises and are then hurt. Over 400 guest workers recently lost their jobs and the opportunity to greatly improve their families’ lives due to the action of FUJ and CLS against a Washington farm.

The unions and their lawyers want to take away from farmers the right to hire whom they choose. Perhaps we should apply this same demand to the law firms or the unions and see how it works for them. They would fight to the end for the right to hire and fire those they want, consistent with employment laws.

So why do they want to refuse farmers the same rights they would fight for for themselves?

In short, CLS and Keller Rohrback have no basis for the lawsuit filed against Stemilt. They would not abide by the standards they are trying to impose on farmers. The hypocrisy is evident.

Is this the proper use of our court system? 

Columbia Legal Services’ reputation took a huge hit in the lawsuit in Thurston Superior Court that was resolved on July 17. CLS and FUJ were trying to force the state to ban bunk beds from farm worker housing. They accused UFW’s Erik Nicholson of crafting a secret deal with the growers to allow bunk beds and accused him of profiting personally from this.

Nicholson, in his court declaration not only accused them of lying but stated that their real motive was not worker protection as they claim, but to end the guest worker program. The court refused to allow CLS and FUJ to impose their will of banning guest workers from our farm fields.

More details and the actual court declaration here:

Declaration-of-Erik-Nicholson-Familias-Unidas-1