Farm Worker Justice, Fresno State’s Day of Action

Ξ March 3rd, 2011 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Wine & Politics, Wine News |

In 2005 then-California Governor Arnold Swarzenegger signed new farm worker legislation which required
 
“employers to provide workers with four cups of water per hour, shaded resting areas, paid break periods of at least 5 minutes, safety training and an emergency plan.”
 
Is this too much to ask? Apparently it is. For in May of 2008, 17 year-old farm laborer Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez died of heatstroke. Her first job, and only her third day as a California farm laborer, she was training wine grape vines in a blistering Farmington vineyard when she collapsed after a 9 hour shift, her temperature spiking at 108. But no assistance was offered on site by the employees of labor contractor Merced Farm Labor. In fact, still quoting from a contemporaneous Decanter report, her fiancée, Flaurentino Bautista,
 
“told officials that the supervisors did not call for medical help after Jimenez collapsed, didn’t offer her water or shade, and later told him to lie to hospital staff about his fiancee’s age and whom she was working for.”
 
She was two months pregnant.
 
From an article written in 2009, the author Dana Goodyear writes,
 
“The State of California cited the labor contractor that had hired Jimenez, Merced Farm Labor, for a number of violations, including failure to provide accessible drinking water and shade, and fined its owner a record $262,700. [....] In late April, the San Joaquin County district attorney submitted a criminal complaint against the owner of Merced Farm Labor and two of her employees, for involuntary manslaughter.”
 
The wheels of justice move slowly. Here they appear to be altogether skidding down an icy slope, for as the Sacramento Bee reported on January 21st, 2011, the district attorney decided, and without prior notification of Maria Isabel’s family, that a plea bargain would instead be submitted. Defendants Maria De Los Angeles Colunga and Elias Armenta – the third defendant, Raul Martinez is believed to have fled to Mexico – will plead no contest lesser charges in exchange for community service, probation, and a $1000 fine.
 
“Their lawyer and prosecutors said Thursday they had reached an agreement for the pair to plea to lesser charges in early March, when the case is next set to go before San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Michael Garrigan.
 
‘There will be some guilty pleas, but the consequences will be bearable,’ defense attorney Randy Thomas said. ‘Enough time has elapsed and everyone needs to move along with their lives. My clients are very, very nice people and very remorseful.’”
Sacto Bee op cit.
 
“Everyone needs to move along with their lives.” So says the defense attorney Randy Thomas. Are the terms of the plea bargain enough of a punishment for Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez’ family to ‘move along with their lives’? No. It is not enough for her brother, Luis Vasquez, or her uncle, Doreteo Jimenez; it is not enough for her widowed mother, Jovita Jimenez Bautista, in Oaxaca, Mexico. (Maria Isabel’s father, once a policeman in Oaxaca, died 10 years ago. In fact, it was in order to support her mother that Maria Isabel originally came to America.) Neither is it enough for the more than 27,000 people – and growing – who have sent emails and signed the United Farm Worker petition urging District Attorney James Willett to withdraw the deal or for county Superior Court Judge Michael Garrigan to refuse the plea. A trial before a jury is demanded. Yet time is short. A decision on the plea bargain is expected March 9th.
 
It was not the first time Merced Farm Labor had run afoul of the law. I spoke with United Farm Worker’s deputy political director Merlyn Calderon who told me,
 
“Her uncle also worked for that company. He was not there that day, but he did comment that there was rarely water available for the workers. It was not a one time occurrence. Keep in mind that this company had been fined back in 2006 for not having a heat safety plan in place. But Cal/OSHA never went back to make sure they actually did that. Or even collect the fine. So it was not the first time.”
 
I also asked Ms. Calderon about defense attorney Randy Thomas’ claim “that Vasquez Jimenez lied about her age, and didn’t tell the employer she was pregnant.” Was blaming the victim an honorable defense?
 
“Farm workers are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act. Child labor law for farm workers is very different. But setting that aside, that is completely irrelevant to whether of not they provided shade of water. She was working for their company. They were still liable for providing water and shade. They hired her. She was working there. The law is clear.”
 
In addition to the petition campaign, the United Farm Worker’s organization is participating in what they call The Laptop Rally, aka the Fresno Day of Action, Monday, March 7 · 10:00am – 5:00pm. From their Facebook page,
 
“Join us at the Free Speech Area in CSU Fresno where we will be taking action and sending emails to the District Attorney, James Willett, not to set a precedent that farm workers’ lives are unimportant. There must be serious consequences. We need to tell him that jail time is a must and nothing short of that will satisfy the family or the public.”
 
The contact for this event is Matt Rogers. I called him for more detail.
 
Admin Thank you for agreeing to speak with me. First of all, why is the Fresno Day of Action taking place on the California State Fresno campus?
 
Matt Rogers I’m an alumni of Fresno State and I keep in close connection with many of my fellow alumni and students here on campus. We got together as more and more people began learning of this case. It is unfortunate that the media has really not taken the lead on educating the public on what happened to Maria Isabel and all that has followed. Though the death happened two years ago, many of us are only now finding out the full details of the case. The Day of Action is taking place here because about two weeks ago we got together and began discussing the issue. We learned of the United Farm Worker’s campaign through the emails they’ve sent to the district attorney; we thought we could do something on campus to not only educate the students about what happened, to draw attention to the case, but to see if we could get possibly a 1000 emails sent into the district attorney on our Day of Action.
 
It is an issue, that of farm worker rights, that is very dear to many of our hearts. We are alumni of Fresno State, we’re students of Fresno State, and Fresno, the county and the valley, is home to tens of thousands of farm workers. Attending Fresno are many students who have parents and grandparents who are or were farm workers. We felt what better place and what better way to take action than doing this.
 
And can you tell me a little more about yourself, your educational background at Fresno State. And how you’ve become involved in this?
 
MR I grew up in the valley in an agriculturally related family. Agriculture has changed over my years growing up; it’s drastically changing into corporate ag. The more corporate it’s become, the less family oriented and the less care for the worker do we see. I attended local schools; I attended Fresno State where I got a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science. I’ve been involved in numerous campaigns, both political for candidates, and causes. I’ve most recently worked for Senator Dean Florez who many recognize as one of the champions of farm workers in this area. He spearheaded the effort last year for farm worker overtime. They are the only workers in the entire State of California not granted the right to overtime pay. So working with him, especially on the overtime legislation, really put the message even deeper into my heart that farm workers are folks who don’t have a voice. And if we don’t work on their behalf to give them a voice, who will?
 
Well said. Before Maria Isabel’s death, Merced Farm Labor had a checkered history. Can you tell me a little about them?
 
MR Merced Farm Labor stands out from others because they were cited previously for violations of state law in regards to worker safety. And you had a failure on the part of the State of California and Cal/OSHA to properly investigate. What they should have done was shut down this company. But they allowed them to continue; now we see that failure resulted in a death.
 
I recently read on a UFW Facebook site that there have been 11 heat-related deaths of farm workers since the implementation of the 2005 heat safety regulation. Clearly enforcement is lax, and Cal/OSHA is stretched very thin.
 
MR There are somewhere around 120 to 140 inspectors for the entire state of California. I’ve lived in the valley all my life – I’m from a family involved in agriculture – so it is very clear to me that the laws on the books are not the laws in the fields. They never have been. The laws that are passed in Sacramento, they sound good, the public thinks they are good – which they are, they mean well – but they are never implemented. There is not enough staff, and therefore not enough oversight in the fields.
 
And the labor contractors know this, of course.
 
MR Absolutely they know that. Because of the heat-related illnesses, the previous Governor Schwarzenegger signed into law some legislation which was promoted by the United Farm Workers. But it is one thing to sign something into law; it’s quite another to go out and enforce it. That the laws are not enforced is wide-spread knowledge throughout the agricultural industry. There is nobody to provide oversight. That’s why you end up with negligence like this.
 
And the negligence is so basic, so trivial. In the case of Merced Farm Labor it’s getting a drink of water, providing shade, providing immediate medical attention… I mean, we’re not talking about much here.
 
MR It is not that difficult. The problem that we have seen over the last two decades is that every time there is a crisis like this, the ag industry believes they should be exempt.* Every other industry has certain standards they have to meet for their workers, but for a long time we have exempted the ag industry for reasons not altogether clear. But that exemption has to end. When you begin exempting one industry, essentially telling them they don’t have to play by the rules everybody does, then you have negligence and tragedy. We must hold everybody to the same standard.
 
I must tell you, the hostility displayed in the comments section of various newspapers where notice of the plea bargain has been posted is really quite ugly. At the very least, the indifference to farm worker issues is staggering…
 
MR That’s why we’re doing this. Since we started this Day of Action, the days leading up to this, the people we’ve talked to, even personal friends of mine, had no idea that this had happened. They had heard rumors, but it had never been brought close to home. It is unfortunate the media has not drawn attention to this. I will say that ABC 30 here in Fresno did a great job recently in highlighting the Oaxacan community which has come together; they did a segment on our Day of Action encouraging people to come out… But other than that it’s been very mute. We’ve tried to get onto a couple of Morning shows here in Fresno. We were told it was too political. They would come out the day of the event but declined to do anything prior. It is really unfortunate that it takes someone like yourself who has to dig deep to find out this information. It shouldn’t be that way.
 
Well, we are in a chilly political environment. And from my perspective, the wine writing community tends to shy away from such matters, shall we say.
 
MR I spoke with friends this morning who are attending a local wine tasting this weekend, actually. And we talked about that very thing. We are so detached as a public from agriculture. We sip wine, we eat fruit, we eat vegetables, but we’re so detached from the people who are responsible for bringing that to us. If the public were more aware of who it is, the faces of these people who are providing these products to them, I believe we’d see a lot more action taking place.
 
Do you know whether Maria Isabel’s mother will be attending the event?
 
MR She will not. There is a possibility that her uncle [Doreteo Jimenez] might be there. During the Fresno event there is also a vigil taking place outside the courthouse in Stockton. We want to make sure it’s a local event. Everybody is welcome to attend, but it is very important to us that the folks who are up there in Stockton, who will be going to this vigil Monday and Tuesday, not be asked to drive down to Fresno. That vigil, the public presence at the courthouse, is very important. The judge and the D.A. need to know that this matters, that adherence to the law matters.
 
But it’s because this is about a farm worker, someone who is deemed by this court, by this D.A., I guess as less than a person, that we’re having to do this Day of Action. In fact, prior and up to the time District Attorney James Willett made this plea bargain deal, he had not even talked with the members of Maria Isabel’s family. At this point over 10,000 emails have been sent to him via the UFW’s website. So our hope is that the more we bring this to the public’s attention, the more we put their feet to the fire, the better they will understand that they will be held accountable for their actions. Any attention that people such as yourself can draw to this issue is vitally important.
 
Great speaking with you, Matt. I shall do my best.
 
MR Same to you, Ken. You may want to know: To our knowledge, this is the first time in Fresno State history, on the campus, or anywhere n the county, that a group of students has come together to utilize the power of the internet and social media on behalf of farm workers. This is the first time any organizing on campus has taken place using email and the internet to stand up for farm workers. March 9th is historical. If the judge rules in our favor, in the favor of justice for this young lady and her family, than that will be the first time in history that a judge will have sided with a farm worker over a labor contractor and an employer. I am happy in only this, that we have organized folks willing to stand up and take action.
 
A question suddenly occurs to me. Were the plea bargain rejected then the case would go to trial. So perhaps it is less important to stress imprisonment for those who have plead guilty, than that a public trial take place.
 
MR Yes. Our goal is to make sure the judge rejects the plea bargain so that they can move forward to trial and be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. No exception should be made in this case because of who the victim was, what her surname was, what was her profession.
 
So the plea bargain would, in this case, be a function of just how invisible farm workers are in America.
 
MR Absolutely. They thought it would be a quick deal. Let’s get this over with. Let’s get these guys community service; and let’s move on. Nobody will notice. But the United Farm Workers noticed, and then tens of thousands of people would start noticing. Now they realize they are in hot water, or they should.
 
Thank you, again, Mr. Rogers.
 
MR Thank you for drawing attention to this.
 
Admin
 
*Per a phone call from Mr. Rogers following upon the appearance of this article: It is important to stress, he insists, that the regulatory burden be placed upon the labor contractors; and that wine grape growers increasingly demand that the laws be followed.

 

4 Responses to ' Farm Worker Justice, Fresno State’s Day of Action '

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  1. Louise Hurren said,

    on March 4th, 2011 at 12:58 am

    Re. Randy Thomas’ quote (”everyone needs to move along with their lives”) – words fail me. Ken, very simply, to repeat Matt Rogers: thank you for drawing attention this.

  2. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on March 5th, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    Thank you, Louise. Very kind of you to say.


  3. on March 11th, 2011 at 5:39 am

    The victim blaming, the lack of accountability… it is so callous. And now to top it all off, the plea bargain deal has been made.
    Who owns the vineyard where this young woman was working? They too, are accountable for her death and for the lack of human dignity with which workers are treated on their land.

  4. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on March 11th, 2011 at 6:34 am

    Hi Julia. The plea bargain was accepted. And the vineyard is owned by Bronco of Two-Buck Chuck fame. It is a sad day for farm worker justice in California.

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