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According to the workers' sworn accounts, for at least eight and often ten hours a day (the companies claim the average workday was just six hours), the workers would bend over and grab an armful of the freshly burnt cane, hack it off at the base with a machete, chop off the leaves, and stack the stalks in one pile and the waste in another. Cutters claimed they often had no more than five minutes to eat lunch. Sometimes they'd make only $15 for the day. Many of the men say they never knew the company was supposed to guarantee a minimum wage of $5.30 an hour.
"The sun hot, your clothes wet right through, and some guys get their fingers cut off clean," says Frazer, now 68 years old. "You have to work hard, really hard, to make $40 or $45." He says cutters who tried to organize protests were sent back to the islands.
Frazer and his fellow workers won their case the first time around in 1992, when a circuit court judge in Palm Beach County ruled that the contract clearly provided for a minimum row price that at least equaled the minimum hourly wage. The judge awarded them $51 million in back pay and interest. But a three-judge state appellate panel found that the contract was ambiguous and remanded the case for trial in 1995. Last year one of the defendants, U.S. Sugar Corp. of Clewiston, settled for $5.7 million, with $1 million going to the plaintiff's three attorneys. But the four other companies decided to keep fighting. That's when the three Fanjul-owned companies hired Gary as lead counsel.
"Willie Gary did migrant farm work himself, so he understands an honest day's pay for an honest day's work," says Mark Cheskin, of Steel Hector & Davis, a blue-chip Miami firm that's also representing the Fanjul companies. "His sincerity will help us in assuring that the jury goes with the truth."
David Gorman, a North Palm Beach attorney who represents the cane cutters, believes Gary simply sold out for a big fee. "Did he come from poor?" Gorman says. "He must have forgotten." Gary, who was busy hosting President Clinton and running his 21-attorney firm in Stuart, did not return calls requesting comment.
If they win the four cases, Gorman and his two co-counsels stand to reap millions, depending on the judge's discretion. But Gorman says he's sunk thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars of his own money in the case over ten years and would walk away empty-handed if he loses.
Cheskin calls the lawsuit "frivolous." The growers never agreed to pay a price per ton, only a row price that varied with field conditions, he says. "The lawyers after the fact are trying to change the deal between the workers and growers, and that's grossly unfair," says Cheskin, who offers faint hope of any settlement.
"This case is not about the workers but about creative lawyering," Gary said when he took the case last year. He justified his involvement in the case by saying, "If you're in the right, I'll represent you, big or small, white or black. If I didn't, I'd be a hypocrite."
But Gorman has damning new testimony from the growers' West Indian field bosses, who weren't willing to come forward previously because they still worked for the sugar companies. Several now say in sworn depositions that the companies told them not to credit the cutters for hours actually worked so that they wouldn't have to pay them the guaranteed hourly wage. If the field bosses refused to go along, they were warned that they'd be "put back on the knife" cutting cane.
Cheskin insists that the hours issue is irrelevant and hints that the growers will try to block the plaintiffs from introducing this evidence.
Gary's role, Cheskin admits, will be to blunt the cane cutters' heart-tugging claims of mistreatment by saying, essentially, "I've been there myself and it ain't so."
Ultimately, Gary's reputation as champion of the little guy may be more at risk than the Fanjul's fortune, which would hardly be dented by a $50 million judgment. "What really impresses me about [Gary] is that he hasn't caught amnesia," the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. said in 1992. "He remembers where he came from."
Ray Marshall, a former U.S. Secretary of Labor who supports the cutters' position, sees it differently. "If you're a lawyer," says Marshall, the son of a poor sharecropper himself, "where you stand is determined by where you sit, not where you've been."
Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address: Harris_Meyer@newtimesbpb.com