Las mujeres problematicas

The grueling labor in the grape fields was the least of the abuse these women say they were subjected to. Now, these Yolo County fieldworkers are fighting back.

Former R.H. Phillips fieldworkers, from left: Angela Aparicio, Elena Perez, Antonia Chavez and Amelia Alcauter

Former R.H. Phillips fieldworkers, from left: Angela Aparicio, Elena Perez, Antonia Chavez and Amelia Alcauter

Photo By Larry Dalton

At first glance, the gathering in Esparto’s public park looks like nothing more than a casual picnic among friends and family. A dozen or so women, men and children sit around the park tables or talk in small groups on the grass. A father pops open a soda while he keeps watch over his young daughter, perhaps 4 years old, who is learning to negotiate the monkey bars. Other folks heap paper plates high with boiled ears of corn, and tamales full of shredded pork or chicken and spicy green chilies.

Esparto sits at the mouth of the Capay Valley, one of the region’s richest agricultural areas. Many of the residents are Mexican immigrants, and not all of them are in the country legally. Of the families gathered here, many of the adults work long hours for low wages in the surrounding farm fields—driving tomato trucks or working through the night picking grapes in the local vineyards.

A couple of the men say they just finished 12-hour shifts early this morning at the big winery up the road, Rancho Phillips, and they appear bleary-eyed from lack of sleep. Still, there is plenty of laughter at this gathering, and there are compliments to the cook for her excellent tamales.

But the friendly atmosphere and good food belies the serious purpose of the get-together. These families have assembled to organize a multi-pronged legal and public-relations campaign against the local winery R.H. Phillips, which employs some 400 workers in its fields several miles north of Esparto in the town of Dunnigan. R.H. Phillips makes several popular wines, including the Toasted Head label, which is prominent in local stores. In 2000, R.H. Phillips became a subsidiary of the largest Canadian winemaker, Vincor International. The merger made Vincor the fourth-largest winemaker in North America.

Two of the women, Antonia Chavez and Amelia Alcauter, have filed lawsuits in Yolo County Superior Court alleging that they were routinely subjected to verbal abuse and sexual harassment by one of their supervisors at R.H. Phillips, a man named Jose Miramontes. According to their court claims, the women frequently complained to Miramontes’ higher-ups about his behavior, but nothing was done to stop the abuse.

Worse, the women say, complaining earned them reputations as troublemakers and ultimately cost them their jobs. Their court cases charge that they were “blacklisted” by R.H. Phillips and a local labor contractor for being mujeres problematicas (problematic women) and that, as a result, they no longer can find farm work in the area, even now, a year later.

Chavez is 39 years old, and Alcauter 50. In many ways, their personalities are completely different: Chavez likes to joke and speaks her mind readily. Alcauter is more serious and reserved. But both women show the same careworn expressions on their faces—perhaps fashioned by years of farm work and trying to keep their families afloat. Neither Chavez nor Alcauter, nor the other former R.H. Phillips employees interviewed for this story, speak English. (All of those interviews were conducted through an interpreter.)

“It has been a lot more difficult, very rough,” since she last worked at R.H. Phillips, Chavez said. She explained that she has three sons in Mexico who are attending high school and college, and another who recently graduated “with straight A’s” from a high school in the town of Arbuckle. Her work at R.H. Phillips “was our foundation,” she added.

Two other former R.H. Phillips employees, Elena Perez and her adult daughter Angela Aparicio, also have joined Chavez and Alcauter in filing complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging sexual discrimination and retaliation for complaining about working conditions at the company.

The two lawsuits were filed in April of this year by Chavez and Alcauter without the help of attorneys. In July, attorneys Dean Johansson and Natalie Wormeli agreed to represent the women. Chavez’s suit was dismissed in July, without opposition from her attorneys, in part because of the ongoing EEOC investigation. Wormeli and Johansson also have filed to dismiss Alcauter’s claim and say they may refile the cases, pending the outcome of the EEOC complaint.

Outside of the claims in the original lawsuits and EEOC complaint, the women state that working conditions at the winery were unsanitary and unsafe—that the company often failed to provide clean restrooms or clean drinking water to workers. The women have gathered support from local activists, labor organizers and student groups to help put together a boycott and media campaign against the company.

Chavez explained that she wants to bring attention to her own experience at R.H. Phillips, but she also wants to improve working conditions for other farmworkers in Yolo County. “We don’t want this to happen to another woman at R.H. Phillips. We expect that when somebody else goes to work there, that they will treat them better,” she said.

In contrast, officials at R.H. Phillips have described the women as “disgruntled employees” who are making up stories to hurt the company.

“A lot of what they are saying is very bizarre and unsubstantiated. They are just sort of throwing these things out there,” said Lane Giguiere, one of the co-founders of R.H. Phillips. The company has responded by issuing its own press releases disputing the women’s allegations. R.H. Phillips also has hired one of the top labor law firms in the country and has threatened to bring its own lawsuits against the women’s lawyers and against activists who have made public accusations against the company.

That hasn’t stopped the women, or their supporters, from telling their stories to anyone who will listen—reporters and government officials alike—even turning to Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante and former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso for assistance.

“We are looking for help. We didn’t steal from them or do anything but stand up for ourselves,” said Alcauter. “What we did was we defended ourselves.”

For Alcauter, working at R.H. Phillips was, at first, an improvement over her old life. A mother of six children, all under 18, Alcauter came to the Capay Valley from Michoacan, Mexico, about four years ago. She was happy to find steady work, even at minimum wage ($5.75 when she started) and even with the long hours and grueling labor.

The work wasn’t easy: spreading fertilizer by hand, digging holes in the fields for planting grapevines, and endless days of tying the grapevines to the lengths of wire that traversed the rows of the grape fields.

But after working at Rancho Phillips for about a year, Alcauter learned that she was going to be transferred to work with another crew, under the supervision of foreman Miramontes. The transfer meant little to her at first, but she said she soon learned that Miramontes had a reputation as a particularly unkind foreman, who was verbally abusive to the workers he supervised.

“The other women all said, ‘Oh boy. Now you are going to see what happens,’” Alcauter recalled.

Before long, Alcauter said, she became the target of verbal abuse by Miramontes. She said that one day, after being caught idly chatting with a co-worker, “he started saying to me, ‘Put yourself to work. Don’t make yourself stupid like those others.’”

But that was mild compared with the insults that would follow in the next weeks and months. Alcauter said that the gritando (the hollering) got louder and more insulting and almost never stopped. “The words he would say to us would hurt us very badly,” she said.

It is clear that Alcauter and the other women are embarrassed to repeat some of the more vulgar phrases they say were hurled at them siempre (all the time).

Activist Art Apodaca has become the women’s interpreter and tireless advocate.

Photo By Larry Dalton

In interviews and in court documents, the women claim that the foreman Miramontes routinely referred to them as “lazy,” “stupid,” “whores” and “dykes.” And they say the foreman’s verbal assaults were often extremely personal and vulgar.

Miramontes would “holler and scream at the women to ‘move their ass like they did last night and stop being a bunch of lazy whores,’” according to Alcauter’s lawsuit.

On one occasion, said Perez, when she had trouble climbing through a wire fence between fields, Miramontes called to her, “Move your ass, it’s not like you are going to break your hymen.”

Perez and the others say the insults were made worse because they were often used in front of the women’s husbands and adult children who worked beside them in the fields.

But complaints to Miramontes’ supervisor, Miguel Fernandez, about his behavior and about other working conditions, always went unheeded, they say. Fernandez also was named in the two lawsuits that were filed. R.H. Phillips refused requests to interview Fernandez.

Then, at the beginning of the 2003 season, the women weren’t called back to work at R.H. Phillips.

The company decided at the beginning of the 2003 season to use an outside labor contractor and not to hire its seasonal workers directly. But Chavez said that when they asked the contractor for work, they were repeatedly brushed off. Eventually, she said, a foreman working for the contractor clued them in. “He said, ‘Look, Antonia, I don’t know what you guys have done, but I’m hearing that you have done some tattling,’” Chavez explained. “He said, ‘There’s a lista negra, and you guys aren’t going to get any work’” at R.H. Phillips or anywhere else in the Capay Valley. In her lawsuit, Chavez claimed that “she was told she was not going to be given work because she was on a list of ‘problematical women’ because they had complained about their treatment and their wages.”

Although the labor contractor is not mentioned by name in Chavez’s and Alcauter’s lawsuits, SN&R did attempt to contact him to ask about Chavez’s version of events and about whether the women had been blacklisted from working in the area. Those phone calls went unreturned.

In August 2003, after more than six months during which they say they could not find work, the four women filed complaints with the EEOC, which is responsible for enforcing federal anti-discrimination employment laws. Attorneys for the women say that the EEOC investigation is moving forward. In April of this year, Chavez received a letter from the agency, which would seem to bolster their case.

EEOC District Director Joan Ehrlich wrote that, based on a preliminary investigation, “I have reasonable cause to believe that Respondent [R.H. Phillips] discriminated against Charging Party and a class of women, in violation of Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act].”

The letter makes no mention of the alleged retaliation against Chavez and the other women. Instead, it seems to concern itself only with whether Chavez and other women were not hired back simply because they were female. Chavez’s attorneys say that 15 women in all lost their jobs at R.H. Phillips at the beginning of the 2003 season.

Ehrlich refused to comment to SN&R about the case and said that the agency’s policy is not to publicly acknowledge an investigation unless it decides to bring legal action against an employer.

R.H. Phillips co-founder Giguiere said there was no policy at R.H. Phillips against hiring women, though she said men tend to apply more often because the work is so strenuous. Giguiere said that several women still work for the company and for the labor contractor. She also said that the charges that the women were blacklisted or not hired back because they were troublemakers are completely unfounded. “No such list exists. R.H. Phillips has never made any effort to keep their former workers from being employed elsewhere,” she said.

As for the claims that the women were routinely sexually harassed and verbally assaulted by Miramontes, and that their complaints about this harassment were ignored, Giguiere initially said the company was conducting “a thorough, thorough investigation.”

But that investigation was made more difficult by a bizarre twist of fate.

Miramontes, the subject of most of the women’s accusations, died in a car accident on February 22 this year, just a few days before Alcauter and Chavez filed their lawsuits.

“We are looking into it. But Mr. Miramontes has died. And he was the person we needed to talk to,” Giguiere explained. “But all of the people we have interviewed said that he was demanding, but that he treated the workers with respect.”

Shortly before this story went to print, Giguiere e-mailed a prepared statement to SN&R that said the company had completed its internal investigation and had found “that the accusations are unfounded and without merit.”

The current lawsuits and EEOC complaints, however, are not the first legal tangles between R.H. Phillips and las mujeres problematicas.

Earlier this year, the California Department of Labor fined R.H. Phillips more than $8,000 for failing to pay the women for some of the hours they worked. Chavez, Perez, Alcauter and Aparicio all said that in 2002, at the end of a long Friday, they were told by Miramontes that their work was so unsatisfactory that they would have to return that Saturday and work for free.

The women did return the next day, though they expected to be paid for their work. But they said the hours were not reflected in their subsequent paychecks. The four women said they asked for several months about the missing hours before deciding to file a complaint with the Department of Labor for their lost wages. “I have five kids,” said Elena Perez. “I needed to get paid for those hours.”

Giguiere confirmed that the California Labor Commission awarded each of the four women more than $2,000 in lost wages and penalties, but she said the underpayment was the result of an administrative mix-up stemming from a change in the way the company calculated wages. In a written statement from R.H. Phillips, the company called the women’s story an exaggeration: “Workers are always compensated for their time; there has never been any instance of an employee working for free.”

Late in August, the four women were joined by a crowd of about two dozen supporters when they crowded into a square, too-small conference room at the state Capitol. The room, one of the offices of Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante, held little more than a long conference table, which took up most of the floor, and the California and American flags. A portrait of Cesar Chavez hung by the door.

The women all sat at the table, along with Art Apodaca, a 65-year-old community activist who has been helping the former R.H. Phillips employees. Each of the women wore a bright purple T-shirt that proclaimed, “Support Women! Boycott RH Phillips!”

Amelia Alcauter, at right, flanked by supporters, tells her story to aides for Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante.

Photo By Al Rojas

Their friends and family lined the walls of the room, as did representatives of the UC Davis student chapter of the National Organization of Women and the campus La Raza Student Labor Coalition—all wore the same purple T-shirts. Also present were farm-labor organizer Al Rojas, a colleague of Cesar Chavez who helped found the United Farm Workers union, and labor organizer Luis Magana, another veteran organizer who works mostly in the Stockton area.

Bustamante aide Cesar Dias, looking a bit overwhelmed, stood quietly with his hands folded in front of him, listening. He had invited them in after the group finished a spirited but poorly attended rally on the west steps of the Capitol earlier that day.

A young woman trained a digital video camera on Alcauter as she began telling Dias her story. But before long, Alcauter began to choke up when she repeated—as she has countless times before—words like putas (whores) and the other insults she said the R.H. Phillips foreman would hurl at them. She began to sob, and it was contagious, as Antonia Chavez and Perez, sitting across from her at the table, began to tear up, as well. One of Alcauter’s young daughters, 9 years old, stepped to her mother’s side and placed a small hand on her shoulder. The lieutenant governor’s man, Dias, looked at his shoes.

After a few moments of silence in the room, Alcauter began again. Before she had finished, she’d told the governor’s representative of a long litany of abuses and alleged labor violations.

For example, she spoke of the problem of agua sucia (unclean drinking water).

Chavez had told SN&R earlier that on one occasion, she became sick after drinking water that had a funny taste. “It was like diesel,” explained Chavez, and she said she got a bad headache and became quite nauseated after drinking it. She said the water came from a hose near a winery shop building. The foreperson would fill up jugs from the hose.

As Alcauter repeated this story to Dias, another former R.H. Phillips employee, a man named Ferrer Roma, stepped forward from his spot against the conference-room wall.

Roma said he had left the company in October 2003, after he was injured from a fall while digging a ditch on the property. Roma told Dias that he had gone into the winery’s restaurant building and complained about the funny-tasting water and that he had asked for clean water from inside. “No, esta bien,” (No, it is good) he said he was told.

Dias, after hearing these allegations, said, “They are such sad stories. It sort of makes my skin crawl.” But he said that Bustamante’s office is unlikely to get directly involved in the dispute. “I understand these things do occur. That’s no revelation,” he said. But he said he personally has no way of knowing if all, or any, of these allegations are true. “I will say that it certainly left an impression on me,” he added.

In earlier interviews, all four women also told of unclean and even nonexistent bathroom facilities. They claimed that during the day, there sometimes would be only one restroom, often unclean, which women would have to line up to use on their lunch breaks. And they said that they often were allowed to use the restroom only on their lunch breaks, not during other parts of their shifts.

They also said that on some occasions, particularly during night shifts, there would be no restrooms available at all in the area where they were working. Using the cover of night as privacy, said Perez, workers would urinate or even defecate in the fields.

“We just had to go in the rows,” she said, adding that she often saw toilet paper in the fields.

Roma also told of problems with the restrooms. When there were portable toilets near the work areas, he said, “they were usually dirty.” And sometimes, he said, there simply weren’t restrooms available, leaving workers to improvise. “They would frequently have to relieve themselves in the fields,” Roma explained through an interpreter.

Roma is not the only former R.H. Phillips employee who supports the four women’s claims.

Eloisa Duran, interviewed at her home in Dunnigan, not far from R.H. Phillips, said that her years at the company—from 1995 to 2001—were una pesadilla (a nightmare). She said workers’ paychecks often didn’t reflect the hours they had worked.

“People would be missing five, 10 hours from their checks,” Duran said.

Indeed, Duran said that there was a sign hanging in the R.H. Phillips payroll office that read, in Spanish, “Anyone trying to claim their hours will be fired.”

Chavez’s and Alcauter’s lawsuits both make a similar claim, each stating, “The office window where the women could register a complaint for not getting paid all their hours had a sign posted that said any one [sic] complaining about their hours would be fired.”

Duran said that, for the most part, people did not complain too much or too loudly. There was the constant threat of la migra (the immigration authorities), she said, explaining that many R.H. Phillips workers were undocumented.

Duran, however, said that she did complain. In fact, Miramontes and Fernandez “always called me ’huelgista,’” from the Spanish word for a striking worker. “I got chased out of there [from R.H. Phillips] two or three times for complaining about my hours.”

Ultimately, she said, she was fired from R.H. Phillips after an altercation with another female employee. But Duran maintains that she did nothing to provoke the fight, and she believes she actually was fired for being “problematical,” for complaining about missing hours and other working conditions.

Duran, too, said that dirty or nonexistent bathrooms were a constant problem. And she also spoke of funny-tasting water given to workers from the hose near a winery shop building.

When asked whether she had ever heard Miramontes use abusive terms like “whore” or “dyke” against female workers, she said, “Yes, but that was the easy stuff.”

Duran said that she was the subject of constant harassment from Miramontes and that he even threw a beer in her face after she rebuffed a sexual advance. On another occasion, she said, “He told me, ‘I will never leave you alone, even when I am dead.’”

The women and their supporters demonstrated outside the Grape Escape wine festival, which featured R.H. Phillips wines.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Giguiere has said she has seen no evidence that Miramontes was abusive to, or sexually harassed, workers. And she said claims that workers have ever been denied clean bathrooms or drinking water are “absolutely untrue.”

The written statement sent by Giguiere, responding to those allegations, reads, “R.H. Phillips strives to offer a comfortable environment for all of its employees, and provides them with clean restroom facilities, cold ice water and adequate meal and rest periods.”

Records kept by the state Department of Industrial Relations show that R.H. Phillips has had a number of minor violations of workplace-safety rules in the past five years. None of the violations cited had anything to do with drinking water or restrooms.

Lee Pliscou, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) group, said that unclean and inadequate bathrooms on Sacramento Valley farms are “a huge problem that we are dealing with, and it seems to be pretty common.” Earlier this year, CRLA settled a case with a farmer in Gridley, whom Pliscou said had not provided adequate restroom facilities or drinking water for his workers.

SN&R asked for a tour of the R.H. Phillips winery and vineyards and to speak to workers there, but Giguiere declined. Giguiere did not return subsequent phone calls seeking a response to the allegations by Roma and Duran.

Giguiere did say in an earlier interview that the questions from SN&R were the first time she had ever heard many of these allegations. “I’m horrified at some of these stories. They aren’t part of any documentation that we have received at all. It’s alarming that people would be circulating this about our company.

“No company is built without the help of its people. We pride ourselves on having a place that is fair and comfortable to work in. We wouldn’t have been able to build a really great winery without that,” Giguiere added.

Aside from the lawsuits, the women are getting help in their media campaign from the La Raza student organization at UC Davis and a local chapter of the National Organization for Women. These groups have organized several demonstrations and rallies, in front of R.H. Phillips, at the state Capitol and most recently near the site of the Grape Escape wine festival in Sacramento, where R.H. Phillips wines were featured along with those of several other vintners.

The women also have found a tireless advocate in Apodaca. At first, the women weren’t sure where to go for help with their complaints about R.H. Phillips. They tried the local unemployment office and the local social-services clinic for migrant workers, but they had trouble negotiating the various bureaucracies. It was then that they heard from a friend about Apodaca, who had a reputation as a community activist and for stepping in to help migrant workers in Yolo County.

“It’s sad that there was nobody to help these women but this old retired guy who spends most of his time sitting under a tree,” Apodaca joked. He has since become their advocate and, on occasion, has pitched in financially to help their families.

He has a law degree but has never practiced law or taken a bar exam. But he prepared the lawsuits for Chavez and Alcauter. (The suits were filed “pro per,” meaning they were filed by the individual, not a lawyer.)

It wasn’t until after the suits were filed that Apodaca found attorneys Wormeli and Johansson, through the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Wormeli said the attorneys didn’t oppose the motion by R.H. Phillips to throw out Chavez’s case. The court ruling said that “the pleadings are uncertain and ambiguous” and that “it is not clear whether plaintiff exhausted administrative remedies.” Wormeli explained that state law prohibits Chavez and Alcauter from suing while the EEOC is investigating their claims. The women’s attorneys have filed to dismiss Alcauter’s suit themselves, pending the outcome of the EEOC investigation in the next several weeks.

In addition to organizing rallies and meetings with the lieutenant governor’s staff, Apodaca has taken the women’s story to the Yolo County Board of Supervisors, asking for funding to set up a county office that would field complaints from migrant workers. He has yet to hear whether county officials are interested.

But, earlier this month, Apodaca and the women, along with their supporters, met with Reynoso, the former California Supreme Court justice, and asked him to get involved. Reynoso confirmed that he has agreed to help form a citizen’s commission that would look into both alleged problems at R.H. Phillips and, more broadly, migrant-worker issues in Yolo County.

“If what these women are saying is true, then it is clear that they were being exploited because they were undocumented,” Reynoso said. Although many of the workers interviewed for this story declined to be specific about their legal status in the United States, it was clear that at least some of them are undocumented and are not legally working in the United States. When asked whether he found the women’s stories to be credible, Reynoso said, “Sadly, it would not surprise me if it were true.”

The multi-pronged campaign apparently has caused concern for R.H. Phillips, to the point at which the company has threatened to sue Apodaca, the attorneys involved and possibly other activists for publicly smearing R.H. Phillips’ good name.

On July 30, during an interview on Berkeley radio station KPFA, attorney Wormeli made this remark when prompted by an interviewer to compare conditions of migrant workers to those of sharecroppers of years past: “You might as well go back to slavery. But when they no longer have slaves, then they mistreat their sharecroppers; the tradition continues out here in California.”

That drew an angry response from Seyfarth Shaw, the law firm retained by R.H. Phillips after the lawsuits began to get some media attention. Seyfarth Shaw has offices in nine U.S. cities, as well as in Brussels, Belgium, and bills itself as one of the leading employment law firms in the nation. A letter from Seyfarth Shaw called Wormeli’s comment on KPFA “slanderous” and charged her with making “gross misrepresentations” to the media. It also threatened legal action if Wormeli or supporters of the four women continued to make certain claims to the media.

“If your media campaign against RH Phillips continues in its current form, RH Phillips will have no choice but to take appropriate legal action to protect its reputation in the community. Such legal action would include a claim for punitive damages given that you have been advised against such slander. The action would be directed against you personally and each and every person, including Mr Apadaca [sic], who has made such outrageous statements.”

Wormeli said Seyfarth Shaw had yet to make good on its threatened action. And another of the women’s attorneys, Johansson, wrote his own angry letter back to Seyfarth Shaw. He accused the winery of using the “financial muscle of RH Phillips/Vincor to intimidate and harass those involved in an attempt to keep them from exercising their rights.”

Giguiere refused to answer questions about the letter from Seyfarth Shaw, calling the matter “irrelevant.”

“What’s important is that all of these allegations are completely without merit,” she added.

Rojas, who worked alongside Cesar Chavez to organize farmworkers in Yolo County almost 30 years ago, said he wasn’t surprised to hear about the allegations. “In my years of organizing experience, this is pretty typical,” he said. Clean water, a lack of restrooms, harassment and intimidation all were part of the landscape for migrant workers when Yolo County was a hotbed of union organizing in the 1960s and 1970s. “We went through hell in Yolo County,” Rojas said. But he said there has not been a single farm organized in this area since 1975. Rojas said working conditions have since deteriorated. “If anything, I’d say they are worse than they were when we were organizing out here,” he said.

Rojas said that he and Magana, who heads an independent farmworkers union in the Stockton area, are ready to help organize workers at R.H. Phillips. If R.H. Phillips’ workers start signing union cards, it will be one more front of trouble opened by las mujeres problematicas.

Now, Antonia Chavez said, “I’m a little angry at myself for being so afraid, for not speaking up sooner” about her experiences.

But since she and the others began legal actions against the company, and have gathered support from Apodaca and others, she said she feels like a luchadora (a fighter). “Fighting has made me understand a lot of things about the law and about my rights. Realistically, I feel equal to anyone, even the richest person,” Chavez added.