Growers Complaining About Legal Aid Office

Rick Brown. The Odessa American. December 24, 1985

A federally funded legal aid office in Hereford has come under fire from the U.S. Congressman and agricultural growers, who claim growers have been litigation targets as a result of union-organizing activities.

Meanwhile, Texas Rural Legal Aid of Hereford continues to gather evidence for a planned class action lawsuit on behalf of workers at a Pecos County vineyard, TRLA attorney Steve McIntyre said Monday.

Wesley Fisher, Hereford mayor and potato grower, charged Monday that the five TRLA attorneys in his city are “young, well-educated, liberal attorneys” who are involved in “social engineering.”

“They find a cause and choose a plaintiff later,” he said. “They’re not taking care of the people they’re supposed to be taking care of.”

As a result of TRLA actions, Hereford area growers have stopped onion cultivation on about 2,000 acres, costing the Panhandle city’s economy about $4 million, Fisher claimed.

“People just don’t want to plant anymore,” he said, mentioning a grower switch to potatoes, which require less labor-intensive cultivation.

Fisher said he was a member of a panel organized by U.S Rep Larry Combest, R-Lubbock, that offered testimony Thursday at an El Paso directors meeting of TRLA’s administering parent, the Federal Legal Services Corp.

Combest-whose district includes Odessa and much of the Texas Panhandle-said Monday that he requested the hearing because of complaints from his Hereford constituents.

According to program notes from the panel hearing, Combest “expressed his opinion that the action of TRLA has caused social economic upheaval in his community, resulting in serious negative consequences for his constituents.”

A 3,000-signature petition submitted by Hereford residents also prompted Combest in February to call a Legal Services Corp. investigation into TRLA activities, the congressman said.

While investigators already have prepared a draft report, “continuing complaints from throughout Texas regarding TRLA have delayed completion,” Combest said.

TRLA attorney Randall Marshall charged Monday that “those people complaining are generally people who have lost their cases in court. Now, rather than abide by the law, they seek to prevent poor people from having access to justice by taking away their lawyers,” Marshall said.

Among TRLA victories, Marshall counted an Amarillo state judge’s August decision that seven state statutes that restricted the right of workers to picket and organize were unconstitutional.

Responding to charges that TRLA activities have led to economic hardship among growers and the workers they employ, Marshall blamed the “ups and downs of the agricultural business.”

“That has nothing to do with our office,” he said.

TRLA attorney McIntyre said Monday that the complaints are not to blame for his office’s delay in filing a class action lawsuit announced in August against the Ste. Genevieve Vineyard, 75 miles south of Odessa.

That suit originally was planned to address alleged minimum wage violations at the vineyard, he said, but the increasing number of farm worker complaints have expanded the proposed litigation’s scope.

New aspects of the suit could include complaints about pesticide use, field sanitation, worker transportation and insurance, said McIntyre.

Jesus Moya, director of the Hidalgo-based International Union of Agricultural and Industrial workers, called for a boycott of Ste. Genevieve wine during a workers’ march held Nov. 16.

Moya is seeking a union contract at the vineyard. He has said he wants workers to have guaranteed work hours, pension and medical plans, vacation and holiday pay. Moya also has requested an arbitration committee to settle disputes.

McIntyre said two TRLA attorneys who led the workers’ march while riding in a Volvo were providing a service to Moya, their client, in case marchers were arrested or ran into other legal trouble.