Farmworkers Strike in South Texas

Pickets Politics and Power

 

The Farm Worker Strike in Starr County

 

Introduction

 

In the summer of 1967, during what the newspapers called “a severe heat wave”[1], I went to Starr County to defend the Farm Workers union against La Casita’s application for a temporary injunction to ban all picketing at its farms.  That hearing proved to be the first of a series of lawsuits and appeals that would engage me and my senior partner, Chris Dixie, for the next seven years.

The Politics

It is appropriate to begin this story with a brief discussion of politics because I am convinced that the course of the strike as well as the state court litigation had more to do with political power than with law.

Starr County, an arid stretch of cactus, mesquite and huisache along the Rio Grande River between McAllen and Laredo, in 1967 was one of the poorest counties in the nation.  The mostly Mexican-American population depended on farm labor for survival.  Wages varied from a dollar to forty cents an hour, most at the low end. Farm laborers worked with no protection from pesticides, no bathroom facilities, no medical coverage.  Texas workers competed with laborers who commuted from Mexico.

Like other South Texas counties, Starr County politics had changed when returning WW II GI’s successfully challenged entrenched political machines to form “New Parties.”  Political organizations used employment by local governments and school districts as patronage to command political loyalty.  By 1967, the corporate owners of the large farms were closely allied with “New Party” that controlled the County government.

A key component of the “New Party’s” political organization was the 79th District Court.  Judge Laughlin appointed the commissioners who chose the grand jury members.  He had the power to empanel grand juries and to dissolve them. This ability to initiate or not criminal prosecutions was a powerful way to impose political discipline.  His ability to hear and decide election contests[2] and to issue injunctions was also a significant weapon, limited only by supervision from the San Antonio Court of Appeals.

Judge Laughlin had an impressive record of political survival.  He was elected in November 1952, strongly backed by George Parr’s political machine.  In July, 1953, a group of lawyers, using an obscure provision in the Texas Constitution, filed a petition in the Supreme Court of Texas, seeking his removal for misconduct.  After a hearing, the Court, on March 17, 1954, ordered his removal.  They did not, however, ban him from seeking re-election.[3]  So, he promptly filed for re-election.  On Saturday, July 31, 1954, he won the Democratic Primary election which was, at that time, in the word generally used to describe it, “tantamount” to election.[4]

On November 17, 1966, about six months before La Casita’s temporary injunction hearing, one of Judge Laughlin’s “special” grand juries issued a “report” that stated, referring to the Farm Workers union, “This group has initiated a course of activity, incident to their wage demands, interlaced with threats, violence and breaches of the law and of the peace, in an attempt to terrify the true farm laborers from their work.”  The “report” went on to state that the union’s activities were “contrary to everything that we know in our American way of life.”[5]  Five indictments were returned.  The names were not released to the press.

Despite this colorful language, it is fair to note that, six years later, following two evidentiary hearings, one before Judge Laughlin and a second before a three-judge federal court, the latter court stated, “On December 28, 1966, pickets gathered at the entrance of La Casita; an employee of La Casita, Manuel Balli, was driving a pickup truck into the farm when Librado De La Cruz, one of the pickets, reached through the truck’s open window and apparently attempted to grab Balli by his coat.  The attempt failed and Balli drove on through the entrance.  Deputy Sheriffs immediately arrested De La Cruz and charges of assault were filed in the State Court.  It is also of importance to note that this is the strongest evidence presented to the Court of an assault on anyone by union people during the strike.[6]

The Pickets

The strike, known locally as La Huelga, began in May 1966.  The leaders were former activists in the efforts to organize farm workers in California, led by Cesar Chavez.  The Starr County huelgistas combined traditional picket lines with demonstrations, prayer vigils and symbolic marches, tactics that were typical of the civil rights movement.

Cesar Chavez, like Dr. Martin Luther King, was committed to the non-violent philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi.  The leadership of the Starr County union embraced those ideas.  As stated earlier, despite relentless accusations by the growers that the strike was violent, no evidence was ever produced that any striker committed any act of violence against anyone.[7]

The La Casita Hearing – The Power

In June 1967, the un-air-conditioned 70th District Court courtroom in the Rio Grande City county courthouse was sweltering.  The gallery was packed with union sympathizers who erupted in joyful yelps when I seemed to score a point.  The jury box was populated with armed Texas Rangers, railroad detectives and Deputy Sheriffs.  When I suggested to Judge Laughlin that pistols should be left outside the courtroom, he replied that he had “known these men all my life.  They’re just here to protect lives and property.”  Though no surprise, that confirmed for me the degree of impartial search for truth I could expect.

There had been no discovery at the time of this hearing and I had not been involved in any previous litigation related to the strike.  I met some of the union leaders for the first time during recesses.

As Gary Gurwitz, La Casita’s very good lawyer from Morris Atlas’ firm, blazing away at his barrel of fish, called witness after witness to testify about punctured tires, mal-functioning truck engines and “mass picketing” [then defined as any two pickets or union sympathizers caught closer than fifty-feet apart], I felt like I was watching a bad Civil War movie. I did not know what would happen next, but I knew who won.

There was testimony about mysterious gun shots that did not hit anyone, a railroad bridge that was damaged by a fire and provocative behavior that was characterized as an effort to “pick a fight.”  No shooter or arsonist was identified and no blow was struck by any union member or sympathizer.

There was evidence of brutality and violence, all of it committed by the Rangers and Deputy Sheriffs.  For example, Captain A.Y. Allee testified that on June 1, 1967, he went to a house occupied by Kathy Baker and Benjamin Rodriguez, looking for Magdaleno Dimas.  Magdaleno had been seen earlier that evening walking along the highway, carrying a twenty-two rifle.  He explained that he had intended to shoot a chachalaca bird for dinner, but did not find one.  Captain Allee claimed to have been convinced that Dimas intended to kill someone, although he offered no evidence to support that belief.

Before entering the house, Allee encountered Alex Moreno and Bill Chandler, two union supporters, on the sidewalk.  Allee knocked Alex down, jamming a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun in his chest, and continued into the house.  There he found Benjamin Rodriguez and Kathy Baker sitting at a small table. He brandished the shotgun and ordered Rodriguez to put his hands on the table.  When he complied, Allee struck him across the head with the shotgun, knocking him to the floor.

Allee then attacked Dimas, who had entered the house. Dimas sustained a brain concussion, multiple bruises and a serious injury from being hit in the back.  Rodriguez had cuts and bruises, a broken left little finger and the nail was torn off.[8]

This episode produced a response from a witness that I have no trouble recalling, even after forty years.  On cross examination, I asked Captain Allee what he would have done if Benny Rodriguez had hesitated when asked to put his hands on the table.  The Ranger replied, “I would have shot him as quick as I would step on a cockroach.”[9]

On March 23, 1970, Captain Allee was interviewed for a New York Times feature story on the Texas Rangers.  The lead paragraph was “’This civil rights’ grumbled Capt. A.Y. Allee, his tan gabardine jacket sliding back to reveal the star-in-a-circle badge of the Texas Rangers pinned over his heart.  ‘That’s the doggondest business I ever heard of.’”[10]

The story described the Captain as “the last of the old-time Rangers.”

     At the conclusion of the hearing, Judge Laughlin issued a temporary injunction that banned all picketing of La Casita farms.

Eighteen months later the San Antonio Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision.[11] Their opinion began by ruling that Judge Laughlin’s findings and conclusions based on “mass picketing”, trespass, and violations of the “Right To Work” law did not justify the blanket ban on picketing.[12]  The court based its decision on Judge Laughlin’s finding that the union’s picketing had become “’so enmeshed with violence, threats of violence, harassment, vandalism, and destruction of property, creating an imminently dangerous and aggravated situation’ as to divest it of its status as constitutionally protected communication of the facts of a labor dispute.”[13]  The court stated that its “scope of review” was limited to deciding whether the granting of the injunction was “a clear abuse of discretion.”[14]

Then the court affirmed Judge Laughlin’s picketing ban based on claimed similarity between the facts of the case and those that persuaded six members of the U.S. Supreme Court to approve a blanket injunction in Milk Wagon Drivers v. Meadowmoor Dairies, 312 U.S. 287 (1941).  The court admitted that “[t]here is no testimony that anyone was physically injured.”[15]  Here is the evidence they claimed justified the injunction: “. . . three shooting incidents, one car-rocking incident, one ‘grabbing’ incident [a reference to Mr. Balli, see supra page 7] and three or four attempts to ‘pick a fight’ during a period of one year.”[16]

For comparison purposes, here is Justice Frankfurter’s description of the violence that persuaded a divided Supreme Court to strip First Amendment protection from picketing during a labor dispute:

“Witnesses testified to more than fifth (sic) instances of window-smashing; explosive bombs caused substantial injury to the plants of Meadowmoor and another dairy using the vendor system and to five stores; stench bombs were dropped in five stores; three trucks of vendors were wrecked, seriously injuring one driver, and another was driven into a river; a store was set on fire and in large measure ruined; two trucks of vendors were burned; a storekeeper and a truck driver were severely beaten; workers at a dairy which, like Meadowmoor, used the vendor system were held with guns and severely beaten about the head while being told ‘to join the union’; carloads of men followed vendors’ trucks, threatened the drivers, and in one instance shot at the truck and driver. In more than a dozen of these occurrences, involving window-smashing, bombings, burnings, the wrecking of trucks, shootings, and beatings, there was testimony to identify the wrongdoers as union men.”

 

The San Antonio court acknowledged that no union member or sympathizer was identified as having committed any of the claimed acts of vandalism cited by Judge Laughlin.  Nevertheless, to the San Antonio court, the Meadowmoor Dairies facts were sufficiently similar to justify Judge Laughlin’s suspension of the union’s First Amendment rights.

The Federal Re-play – the “Rashomon Effect”[17]

My experience with Starr County justice convinced me and my senior partner, Chris Dixie, that if the union was to survive, it would need protection from the federal court.  We knew that, even if the San Antonio court dissolved Judge Laughlin’s temporary injunction, the case would be back in his court and we had no reason to believe that his next ruling would differ from his last one.

So, in June, 1967, we filed a complaint in the Southern District of Texas at Brownsville.  We challenged the constitutionality of five Texas statutes:  The “mass picketing” law,[18] the “secondary strike” law, [19]the “unlawful assembly” law, [20]the “obstructing the streets” law, [21]and the “breach of the peace” law,[22]  The defendants were Captain Allee and his Rangers, the Starr County Sheriff and his deputies, Jim Rochester, a La Casita official who was also a “special Deputy”, and a Starr County Justice of the Peace.  The plaintiffs were the union, Francisco “Pancho” Medrano, a UAW official, David Lopez, a Texas AFL-CIO official, and several union members and organizers.[23]

Our complaint was filed in June, and amended in October, 1967.[24] In addition to the statutory challenges, we alleged that Rangers and other peace officers had lawlessly brutalized and intimidated union members and supporters; had, in bad faith, filed multiple criminal charges against union members and supporters; had acted as strike-breakers by offering inducements to strikers if they would abandon the union; and otherwise used their authority to support the growers and oppose the union.

Because the case involved the constitutionality of state statutes, a three-judge panel was convened to hear it.  The panel consisted of two U.S. District Judges in the Southern District of Texas, Judge Woodrow Seals from Houston and Judge Reynaldo Garza from Brownsville, and Judge John Brown of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

On June 13, 1968, at the conclusion of a three day hearing, Judge John Brown said, “If ever there was a case that warrants expedition, this is it.”[25] Four years later, on June 26, 1972, the court finally issued a decision.

The court declared all five Texas statutes to be unconstitutional.  They found that the Rangers, the Sheriff and his deputies, including Jim Rochester, the Special Deputy, had unlawfully used their authority to break the strike.  Permanent injunctive relief was granted to protect the union, its members and supporters from further abuse.[26]  The opinion is a litany of brutality and misuse of authority:  Magdaleno Dimas and Benjamin Rodriguez, assaulted by Rangers; Domingo Arredondo, the union president, struck and threatened with a pistol for shouting “Viva La Huelga” while in a Starr County jail; Eugene Nelson, a union organizer, arrested while picketing at the international bridge and then jailed without charge for four hours, told he would be investigated by the FBI and accused of threatening to blow up the courthouse; twenty-five union supporters peacefully picketing at one of the farms, forced to disperse by Sheriff Deputies; Bill Chandler arrested and charged with “breach of the peace” for arguing with a Deputy Sheriff; his bond was set at $500 although the maximum fine for the charged offense was $200; Reynaldo De La Cruz, a union supporter, arrested by Rangers for “secondary picketing” and, while under arrest, told that if he would abandon the strike, he would be hired by La Casita at $1.25 an hour (the rate being sought by the union); Gilbert Padilla and Reverend James Drake, union activists, arrested for “unlawful assembly” while kneeling in prayer on the steps of the Starr County courthouse, leading a prayer vigil in support of union members who had been jailed; several groups of peacefully picketing union supporters and members arrested at various times, including one occasion when five Catholic priests were arrested for trying to persuade field workers to leave their work and join the strike; David Lopez, knocked to the ground for arguing with a Ranger.[27]

The most serious violence was committed by Ranger Captain A.Y. Allee.  His armed assault on Alex Moreno, Magdaleno Dimas and Benjamin Rodriguez was described in some detail in the opinion.[28]  On another occasion, Captain Allee arrested Reverend Edward Krueger, his wife and Magdaleno Dimas while they were picketing at a railroad station where a train load of struck produce was due to pass.  After arresting them, as the train passed, Captain Allee held Reverend Krueger and Magdaleno Dimas so that their faces were inches from the moving freight cars.

The court found that Deputy Sheriffs picked up and distributed copies of a violently anti-union newspaper, La Verdad, printed in Corpus Christi.  There was abundant evidence of bad faith arrests. The civil rights committee later reported that there were 113 arrests of union members and supporters during the strike.  Only 13 charges were ever brought to trial.  Ten of those were dismissed.[29]

The decision was appealed to the United States Supreme Court.[30]  On May 20, 1974, that Court affirmed the lower court’s injunctive relief against the Rangers, Sheriff, Deputy Sheriffs and Justice of the Peace.  Three of the challenged laws had been repealed or amended, so the lower court’s ruling on those issues was moot.  The case was remanded for further proceedings in light of Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971) and Steffel v. Thompson, 415 U.S. 452(1974).  Younger was rendered after the hearing in the lower court but before the June, 1972 decision.  Steffel was rendered in the same term as Medrano v. Allee.  Younger and Steffel established standards for federal intervention in state court criminal prosecutions.  The Court found insufficient information in the lower court opinion to establish whether injunctive relief against prosecutions under the “mass picketing” law and the “secondary picketing” law was justified.  If no future prosecutions were threatened, injunctions against them would not be appropriate.

The result of that ruling was that the “mass picketing” law remained on the books until 1993, when it was amended to depend on actual obstruction of ingress and egress from struck premises.[31]

Epilogue

By the time the Supreme Court granted relief from predatory law enforcement, the union no longer had a presence in Starr County.  There were, however, some salutary results of the effort.  The Rangers stopped engaging in the kind of brutal lawlessness of which they were found guilty.  Captain Allee retired September 31, 1970, at the age of 65.[32]  The union sponsored other efforts in West Texas and the South Plains. Political insurgency was sparked in South Texas. Perhaps most important, Medrano v. Allee proved that even the vaunted Texas Rangers could be restrained by the law, thus stripping them of the most effective weapon of any oppressive power: the perception that resistance is hopeless and futile.  The Medrano case confirmed the adage, often repeated by Delores Huerta, an activist in the California farm worker movement, “La esperanza a muere al ultimo” – Hope dies last.

 


[1] New York Times May 13, 1967.

[2] See, e.g. City of Roma v. Gonzalez, 397 S.W.2d 943 (Tex.Civ.App.- San Antonio 1965)(no writ).

[3] See his entry in the section entitled “The Corrupters” in The Finest Judges Money Can Buy, Charles R. Ashman. Nash Publishing, Los Angeles 1973. pp. 149 -152.

[4] New York Times, August 1, 1954; and see New York Times May 9, 1954.

[5] New York Times, November 18, 1966.

[6] Medrano et al. v. Allee et al., 347 F.Supp. 605, 617.

[7] See New York Times, May 19, 1967 for a contemporary description of the strike and its background.  And see Note 13 and related text, supra.

[8] Medrano v. Allee, 347 F.Supp. 605, 616-617.

[9] I have searched, without success, for a copy of the statement of facts from that hearing.  This quote, therefore, may not be verbatim but it is pretty close.  What I remember is the quick response and the cockroach comparison, all of which told me of Captain Allee’s resemblance to John Wayne’s character in The Shootist, who told his young friend that he didn’t “hesitate” when confronted with a killing situation.

[10] New York Times, March 23, 1970.

[11] United Farm Workers Organizing Committee v. La Casita Farms, Inc., 439 S.W.2d 398 (Tex.Civ.App. – San Antonio, December 31, 1968).

[12] Ibid. at 399-400.

[13] Ibid. 400.

[14] Ibid. 401.

[15] Ibid. 402.

[16] Ibid. 402

[17] “Rashomon” was Akira Kurosawa’s 1951 film in which three participants in a single event described it in three completely different ways.

[18] Art. 5154d, VACS.

[19] Art. 5154f, VACS.

[20] Art. 439,Texas Penal Code.

[21] Art. 784 Texas Penal Code.

[22] Art. 474 Texas Penal Code.

[23] One of the named plaintiffs was William Chandler, a union organizer.  For some reason, both the three-judge court opinion and the Supreme Court opinion refer to him as “Raymond Chandler”, the mystery story novelist and creator of “Phillip Marlow, Private Eye.”

[24] Allee et al. v. Medrano et al., 416 U.S. 802, 94 S.Ct. 2191, 2197-2198. (1974)

[25] Valley Morning Star, June 27, 1972, page 1.

[26] Medrano v. Allee, Not reported in FSupp., 1972 WL 714 (S.D.Tex),86 L.R.R.M. (BNA) 2303, 74 Lab.Cas. P 10,159 U.S.D.C., Brownsville Division.

[27] Medrano v. Allee, 347 F.Supp. 605, 612-615 (U.S.D.C. S.D. Tex. 1972)

[28] Ibid. 616-618.

[29] New York Times, May 13, 1970.

[30] All of the work on the appeal was done by my law partner, Chris Dixie, a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

[31] See Texas Labor Code § 101.152.

[32] New York Times, March 23, 1970.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 218 other followers

%d bloggers like this: