January 24, 2005

The Struggle for the Health and Legal Protection of Farm Workers: El Cortito

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The Death of El Cortito
The Struggle for the Health and Legal Protection of Farm Workers: El Cortito
Maurice “Mo” Jourdane
Arte Publico Press, 2004
By Marjorie Cohn

When Cesar Chvez died in 1995, perched atop his wooden coffin was el cortito –¬†the short-handled hoe. Until it was banned in California in 1975, the short hoe was responsible for the excruciating pain and permanent disfigurement of hundreds of thousands farm workers. Forced to stoop in the fields as they used the deadly tool to weed and thin the crops that yielded huge profits for agribusiness employers, laborers were required to work as many as ten to twelve hours a day, often in blazing heat.

It was through the relentless, and ultimately successful, efforts of Mo Jourdane that farm workers now stand tall in the fields, not required to use the short hoe.

Cesar told Mo when they first met in 1967, “Like so many, I wake up in the night with the pain that comes from stooping in the field all day. The short hoe is the nail they use to hang us from the cross.” Cesar’s doctor later confirmed, “stoop labor had destroyed Cesar’s back.”

Just before Christmas in 1970, Cesar was released after spending 12 days in jail for his nonviolent protest against the Teamsters, who falsely claimed they represented members of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union. The day after he was freed from jail by a unanimous order of the California Supreme Court, Cesar, weakened from his fast, met with Mo, a young staff attorney at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA). “Will you get rid of the short hoe?” Cesar asked Mo bluntly.

A few days later, Mo began his five-year battle to ban el cortito from the fields of California. In this book, Mo takes the reader on a journey through a riveting legal and political saga. From recording the back-breaking injuries workers had suffered, to securing medical evidence documenting the crippling effects of the hoe, Mo built his case. He describes his legal strategy, the testimony, and ultimately, the decisions of the Industrial Safety Board and the California Supreme Court.

The short-handled hoe was emblematic of the conditions farm workers faced. These, mostly Mexican, laborers did the work their U.S. counterparts shunned. Lacking union assistance, they were subjected to slave-like employment conditions and forced to live in nearly uninhabitable shanty-towns, for nearly a century before the UFW and CRLA came to their assistance.

In the mid-1970s, the pro-grower administration of then California Governor Ronald Reagan ended with the election of Jerry Brown as governor of the country’s most populous state. It was a new political climate that created the conditions for the demise of el cortito. And with the Brown administration, California farm workers, heretofore excluded from the protections of the National Labor Relations Act, became the first in the United States to secure collective bargaining rights, with the revolutionary Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA).

I met Mo in 1976, when we both worked at the newly-established Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), the agency charged with administering the ALRA. Although Mo worked in the field offices and I worked in the Sacramento headquarters of the ALRB, I ran into him one day at an unfair labor practice hearing in Salinas. I didn’t know Mo, but as soon as I entered the room, I knew I was in the presence of a great trial lawyer. Mo’s presentation was mesmerizing, and he advocated passionately for his client. The administrative law judge was equally impressed, and ruled in his favor.

In his book, Mo details the struggles in the fields, and in the courts, to achieve justice for those who put food on our tables. “Working for CRLA meant a great deal more than helping farm workers solve the particular problems they brought through the door of our nine offices daily,” writes Mo. “Long hours spent at the office and in the fields were part of fighting the war on poverty, an epic campaign that involved efforts to challenge systematic inequalities in America.”

Mo also succeeded in preventing the children of migrant workers from automatically being placed in the mentally retarded classes, simply because they didn’t score well on a test that was not administered in their native language.

Early one morning, while Mo was on his way to interview witnesses in an unfair labor practice case in rural Kern County, an 80,000-pound oil rig pulled off a dirt access road into the path of Mo’s car. He was severely injured in the collision. Mo survived the crash and ten surgeries to repair his badly damaged face, eyes and head.

Mo went on to be a Superior Court judge in Monterey County from 1982-1985, appointed by Governor Jerry Brown. For the past 20 years, Mo, a marathon runner, has been a staff attorney for the Fourth District Court of Appeal in San Diego.

Besides being an invaluable historical chronicle for all readers, this book is an inspiration to aspiring lawyers. Over and over, Mo fought the odds to secure incredible victories for his clients, through individual and class actions. He sets forth important strategies about how to win when you don’t have the law on your side: marshal the best facts you can; anticipate defenses; never give up. In the words of the familiar UFW chant, S Se Puede! (It can be done!)

This article first appeared on Truthout.