When immigrant rights activist Nativo V. Lopez appears before the state labor commissioner in Santa Ana today, it will be in an unaccustomed role--that of an employer accused of withholding benefits and paychecks from two former employees.
Lopez, 36, has built up the local chapter of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional (National Mexican Brotherhood) into the leading tenant and immigrant rights group in the county. The Orange County chapter now counts about 3,000 families--many of them illegal aliens--as dues-paying members.
Lopez reckons that he has gone before the labor standards board on at least 50 occasions--but always representing a low-paid worker who claims to have been robbed of wages, or overtime, or both.
"It's ironic, that's for sure," said Lopez of the role reversal in an interview Tuesday.
While the sums involved may be relatively small, the dispute has sprung beyond the internal boundaries of Hermandad in recent weeks. Each side has taken its case to sectors of the Latino and human rights community.
In a letter, the two employees--Maria A. Thompson, former office manager, and Teresa R. Mendoza, a secretary who also did paralegal work--sent out to community leaders in October, they wrote that the treatment accorded them by Lopez "is not only unscrupulous but also compromising (sic) the bylaws of the organization . . . which takes up the fight of unfair treatment in the workplace."
Thompson, 38, who now works in the rectory of a Catholic church in Santa Ana, said in an interview: "It's ironic that a group that says it fights for workers' rights would treat its own workers this way."
Last month, Hermandad lashed back. In a two-page letter sent to the entire Hermandad membership and to local human rights groups and unions, Jesus Astudillo, president of the board of directors, presented the organization's version of events and dismissed the women's allegations as "vicious attacks . . . totally at variance with the facts."
"We expect that the most vile attacks are yet to come," the English-language version of the letter said. "We have been threatened with death (not by Thompson and Mendoza, Lopez said), sued by multimillion-dollar apartment owners, belittled and attacked by the immigration service and politicians, our office defaced, accused of malfeasance of funds, fraud and poor representation.
"Yet our organization . . . has repeatedly shown such charges and accusations to be baseless, false and made by enemies of the immigrant community."
The Hermandad board sent a similar letter in English to the Orange County Coalition for Immigrant Rights, where Mendoza now works part time.
The two women quit because of what they say were intolerable working conditions, unprofessional conduct by the organization's leaders and badgering at the hands of Lopez.
Lopez says the women left for other reasons. They had trouble conforming with Hermandad's policy of asking staff members to join the organization and work a few hours a week on a voluntary basis, he said.
They also chafed under organizational changes made to ease an impending transition in leadership, Lopez said. Lopez has been spending most of his time in recent months in New York City, where he has been organizing a new Hermandad chapter and is slowly turning over the reins of the group to new leaders such as acting director Dinorah Zeledon.
Thompson said she and Mendoza worked volunteer hours, as did Thompson's daughter and husband. "I did everything possible for the members, and I still support the organization--I have no qualms with what it does," Thompson said. "It's the in-house administration that is bad."
Thompson had worked for Hermandad since January, 1986, while Mendoza was hired in January of this year.
When they resigned in September, the two women asked for back wages and unpaid vacation and holidays, and Thompson requested reimbursement for gas mileage and other office expenses.
No one at Hermandad has ever received vacations or paid holidays, and neither Mendoza nor Thompson was ever promised any, Lopez said.
The group sent the women their paychecks about a month after they quit, and the benefits still under dispute just barely exceed $1,000.
Thompson's final paycheck totaled $228, and Mendoza received $98. Thompson is still claiming $835 in unpaid benefits, while Mendoza is asking for an additional $393.
Thompson and Mendoza insist that a previous board of directors approved the accumulation of such benefits.