VENTURA, Calif. (CN) – A state labor agency sought a restraining order against a strawberry grower that allegedly hired armed guards, including a Taser-clicking man in military gear, to coerce and intimidate Mixteco farmworkers who were trying to organize.
The Agricultural Labor Relations Board sued Montalvo Farms in Superior Court on behalf of the United Farm Workers and Constantino Rodriguez. Montalvo is the only named defendant, though many of its employees are named in the complaint. And although he is not named as a plaintiff, the board also demands that Montalvo rehire Bernardino Martinez, whom it allegedly fired for his union sympathies.
Ventura County Superior Court Judge Tari Cody on May 12 ordered Montalvo to reinstate Martinez, 3 days after the lawsuit was filed, according to the Ventura County Star.
The Labor Relations Board says in its complaint that Montalvo violated the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 by trying to stop its workers from organizing under the UFW.
Many of Montalvo’s workers are Mixteco, a Mesoamerican people whose homeland is primarily in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
Mixteco farmworkers are linguistically isolated because most speak neither English nor Spanish, but only their native Mixteco,” the complaint states. “They encounter worse working conditions than other agricultural workers, including pervasive undercounting of their strawberry boxes picked, supervisors who charge for rides to work, injuries on the job that are ignored, and outright discrimination due to their inability to speak Spanish fluently. This language barrier impedes their ability to negotiate with their employer to improve their working conditions.”
Strawberry season in Ventura starts in January and ends in June or July.
The labor board says Montalvo hired Bernardino Martinez to harvest berries for 2009, 2010 and 2011 strawberry seasons.
During his third season, Martinez started speaking out against the horrible working conditions the Mixteco workers faced.
“(O)n three separate occasions he requested better working conditions such as cleaner drinking water, cleaner restrooms placed closer to where the employees are working, a wage increase, and an end to the discrimination against and mocking of the way Mixteco employees speak Spanish,” the labor board says.
Martinez’s ability to speak Spanish and Mixteco enabled him to act as spokesman for the other Mixteco workers, who relied on him to protect their rights and promote their interests to Spanish-speaking supervisors, the state says.
Martinez this year has been encouraging his co-workers to unionize under the UFW-but not while they were at work, the labor board says. He talked to people at their homes or at soccer games.
Montalvo did not rehire Martinez for its 2012 harvest season, and has refused eight requests to give him back his job, the state says. It claims farm supervisor Roberto Arroyo knew that Martinez had been trying to unionize the Mixteco workers since last year, and that in early February, Arroyo told Martinez to stop it.
“Supervisor Arroyo told Mr. Martinez that he had to protect the employees from Mr. Martinez, who he knew was asking them to sign union authorization cards. Supervisor Arroyo told Mr. Martinez that he talked too much about his rights and could not let him bother employees by asking them to sign union authorization cards,” according to the complaint.
The labor board says Arroyo discouraged union activity by telling workers they would and lose their jobs if they tried to unionize, and asking them to identify pro-union co-workers.
“Supervisor Arroyo and forewoman Consuelo Arroyo interrogated employees, including Mr. Rodriguez [the plaintiff], by asking them if they supported the union and asking them to identify the employees involved in the union organizing campaign,” the complaint states.
Then things got even more troubling. “On March 10, 2012, at about 6:30 a.m., approximately 80 to 100 of respondent’s employees, supported by UFW organizers, went on a peaceful day-long economic strike,” the complaint states.
“Respondent responded to the strike by placing armed security guards, self-described ‘strike management’ and ‘labor dispute’ consultants, outside their property, where the strike was occurring. They wore camouflage pants, gray baseball caps with an image of a black spade under a skull and crossbones, and ‘special forces’ buttons on a jacket embroidered with ‘Heli Assault’ and ‘US/NAS INM.’ One of the consultants, Rhett Searcy, was armed with a gun and a Taser. He kept the gun in a visible holster on his side.
“Mr. Searcy clicked his Taser while approaching employees in their vehicles who were arriving to work, and telling them to pass quickly. Mr. Searcy also approached striking employees, swinging his arms, brandishing the Taser and clicking it to emit sparks of electricity.”
Searcy that day refused to give UFW organizers access though they filed a Notice of Intent to Take Access and filed it on Montalvo, the labor board says. When the UFW organizers were permitted in, later that day, “Respondent’s anti-union campaign escalated to the point that anti-union employees physically assaulted a pro-union employee, surrounded UFW organizers and assaulted them. Forepersons Faustino Anastacio Hernandez and Carmen Perez Vazquez, who were in plain view of this behavior, did nothing to stop this conduct.”
Also that day, Arroyo verbally abused the UFW organizer, Mr. Cerritos, in front of the workers when Cerritos served Arroyo with the notice of intent to organize. “As Mr. Cerritos left respondent’s property in his vehicle, supervisor Arroyo followed him in his truck within inches of Mr. Cerritos’ bumper, honking and yelling at him, in full view of respondent’s employees,” the labor board says.
“Because respondent encourage and condoned violent behavior during the times that UFW organizers have taken access, the UFW has ceased taking access at respondent’s property, to prevent any danger to the agricultural employees.”
The Agricultural Labor Relations Board alleges coercion and interference with labor rights, and discrimination. It seeks a restraining order and injunction against Montalvo to prevent it from interfering with workers’ right to organize,
It is represented by house counsel Eduardo Blanco and Sylvia Torres-Guillen.