Courage to Come Forward

Dolores Huerta with Sr. Perez

Written by John Midgley, Advocacy Director
Columbia Legal Services

After many twists and turns, the farm worker rights case Perez-Farias v. Global Horizons resulted in court decisions resoundingly supporting protection for the workers, and ended happily with substantial payments to affected farm workers at a special celebration in Granger. On July 25th, the great Delores Huerta, who started United Farm Workers along with Cesar Chavez, celebrated the victory with clients and the legal team. Huerta, a veteran of many battles over more than 50 years, remains full of energy and urged everyone to keep fighting for their rights. The case started nearly a decade ago when two large Yakima farmers hired unscrupulous (and now defunct) labor contractor Global Horizons to bring in “guest workers” from Thailand because of a claimed labor shortage in the Yakima Valley. Many local workers were let go or not hired and were replaced by Thai workers. CLS sued for about 600 local workers who claimed violation of rights under the Washington Farm Labor Contractors Act (FLCA) and other laws. (The Thai workers were mistreated as well, and ended up filing a separate lawsuit.)

After trial in federal court in Yakima, the jury decided that Global Horizons discriminated against Latino workers on the basis of race, and also committed other violations. The jury awarded damages to three representative plaintiffs and also $300,000 in “punitive” damages (for outrageous conduct). The judge later decided that the Growers were liable to all the workers for FLCA violations but not for discrimination. However, the judge refused to require the Growers to pay $500 per violation as FLCA requires, and awarded only about $250,000 instead of the $2 million plaintiffs claimed. The workers appealed and a federal appeals court at first held plaintiffs were entitled to the $2 million but then decided to ask the Washington Supreme Court to advise them on this state law question. The result was a unanimous Washington Supreme Court decision affirming that FLCA’s purpose is strong protection of farm workers and that the workers were owed $2 million at $500 per violation. The workers showed courage to come forward and, after a long battle, the courts backed their cause and strongly affirmed the protective purposes of FLCA. CLS staff Lori Isley, Joe Morrison, Amy Crewdson, Cheli Bueno, Rachael Pashkowski, and former staffer Yolanda Lopez (and others) worked on the case, along with Richard Kuhling of Paine Hamblen and (on appeal) Matt Geyman, then of Phillips Law Group and now with CLS.