Growers have won a critical court battle that threatens to deal a devastating economic blow to Cesar Chavez's struggling United Farm Workers Union.
The case, which could cost the union $1.7 million or more, appears to be a return to what was once sardonically called "rural justice" for farm workers.
Until recent years, it was difficult for farm workers in rural areas of the Southwest, such as blacks in the South, to get justice from law enforcement agencies and the courts.
The situation has improved for Southern blacks. And it is no longer like it used to be for farm workers in California and other Southwestern states. In the ugly days of the past, workers were instantly fired if they sought pay raises or tried to form unions. Union organizers were frequently beaten, jailed for trespassing and sometimes tarred, feathered and then chased out of farm communities by anti-union vigilantes.
There is now a California law designed to protect the right of farm workers to join unions, although under Gov. George Deukmejian, the farm labor law seems to be helping growers more than workers. When passed in 1975, however, it provided some help to the union-organizing efforts of Chavez and his followers who, after nearly 30 years, had created the first viable farm labor union.
Even so, the union has never really thrived. And now the legal case stemming from a sometimes violent strike in 1979 could badly weaken, if not destroy, the still-small union.
The logic of the court decision against the farm workers and their union is difficult to comprehend in what are supposed to be these more enlightened days.
Imperial County Superior Judge William Lehnhardt imposed the $1.7-million judgment against the UFW on Jan. 8 for losses allegedly suffered by one grower, Maggio Inc., during the strike. Property damage was estimated at only $3,000. The balance of the judgment was based on what Maggio claimed it couldn't harvest because of the strike.
The union does not have nearly enough funds to pay the judgment. The UFW can appeal, but to protect its assets while the case goes through the courts, it must post a bond of as much as $3.3 million. That would force the union to mortgage or sell off much of its headquarters property, office equipment and other assets.
So far, the union has lost some preliminary appeals to higher courts, and ultimate success even in non-rural courts is far from sure because the union, and especially some of the workers, were not blameless in that long and bitter strike eight years ago.
The walkout began, Chavez said then, as a "dream strike." It started peacefully, and almost all of the nearly 4,000 workers at Maggio and most other vegetable growers' ranches in the Imperial Valley walked off their jobs when contract negotiations broke down. Rarely had so many farm workers joined a strike anyplace in America.
But they faced formidable odds.
Middle-class businessmen and housewives and students from nearby high schools and colleges were recruited as strikebreakers. They weren't professional farm workers, of course, although a few regular workers did join in the harvest.
Most of the strikebreakers saw it as their "civic duty" to harvest crops behind picket lines and tried hard to help their friends, the growers. They could not match the energy and dexterity of the regular workers, however, so there were substantial crop losses.
During the trial, some law enforcement agents conceded that union organizers tried to keep the strike peaceful. But rocks were thrown by strikers, tires were slashed and farm equipment was damaged.
Some strikebreakers and growers were harassed by strikers rushing onto the fields cursing and screaming huelga! (strike) in a rowdy attempt to get their hastily hired replacements to stop harvesting crops.
Municipal police and sheriff's deputies turned out in force, ostensibly to prevent violence.
On one occasion, a large group of noisy strikers marched to the center of a large field where strikebreakers were too far away to hear the cries of "huelga!" Sheriff's deputies tried to repel the "invasion" by tossing tear gas grenades at the strikers. But the wind blew the gas back into the faces of the deputies, and one officer was slightly injured in the melee.
None of the growers or their hired guards, who were armed with shotguns, tear gas, pistols and attack dogs, suffered any serious injuries.
In contrast, the skull of striker Arnoldo Barrazo was cracked open by a grower guard using the butt of his shotgun. Another striker, Isauro Lopez, was permanently crippled when he was struck by a grower's car. Many other strikers were injured.