MAXWELL:  Bush acts on behalf of farm workers

11/22/1998 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Even before taking office in January, Florida’s Gov.-elect Jeb Bush is fulfilling at least one of his major campaign promises.

In September, candidate Bush traveled to Immokalee, a small farming town in Collier County, and spent two hours listening to grievances outlined by members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a non-profit organization representing several thousand poorly paid area laborers in various industries, including tomato harvesting.

“My hope is that everyone here today and all residents of Florida can earn a decent wage and be able to provide for their kids, be able to get adequate health care,” Bush told reporters following the meeting. “Part of the reason that I aspire to serve is to create the best possible climate for the greatest number of people, so that they can pursue their dreams independently. And part of that is getting a good wage.”

Although the farm workers at the meeting liked Bush’s words, most doubted that this wealthy young man and son of a U.S. president would do more than talk. But they, along with skeptical reporters, may have been wrong. Shortly after becoming governor-elect, Bush telephoned a friend, J. Luis Rodriguez, former president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, an umbrella group for farmers.

“He called on me on Thursday, two days after the elections and then again on Saturday of that week, and urged me to see what could be done,” Rodriguez told the Naples Daily News. “He would like to help those people. Those were his words. I think he has the migrant labor force at heart, and I think he’ll have agriculture as a whole at heart.”

On behalf of Bush, Rodriquez met privately in Immokalee with some of the area’s largest tomato growers. After the meeting, Pacific Land Co. and Nobles Farm Inc., two of nearly a dozen commercial growers targeted by coalition protests last year, agreed to increase the piece rate from 40 cents to 45 cents per bucket, roughly a 13 percent pay increase.

This is the first increase pickers have received in 20 years. The average picker earns less than $10,000 a year.

The agreement of these two companies follows that of Garguilo Inc., which agreed last December to pay workers 45 cents per bucket then and 50 cents during this season that is now under way. Several other growers at the meeting agreed to incremental wage hikes in the near future.

Rodriquez, an agriculture consultant in Fort Lauderdale and former federal agriculture official, said that he and the growers also discussed worker housing and living conditions. In fact, a task force _ consisting of growers and leaders in other industries _ has been formed to address housing problems.

“The coalition appreciates the efforts of Gov.-elect Bush in helping to bring about this raise, and we look forward to working with the governor and agribusiness leaders in the future to continue to improve working and living conditions for our members and farm workers throughout the state of Florida,” coalition leader Lucas Benitez said.

“Wages and other conditions in Florida’s fields have been a disgrace for our state since before the Harvest of Shame, the famous CBS documentary filmed here in Florida, and it is gratifying to see that Gov. Bush will bring his political and moral leadership to efforts to aggressively address those conditions once and for all. Greater justice for Florida farm workers is not just good for the men and women who pick our fruit and vegetables, but good for agriculture as an industry and for the state as a whole.”

While welcoming the modest pay increase, coalition leaders know that the biggest hurdle remains: The growers _ except for Garguilo _ refuse to sit down and talk with the pickers’ representatives.

“Their hard-line refusal to meet with the coalition in a respectful dialogue on wages and other working conditions represents a continuing challenge to us as organized farm workers and to all those who would work for significant change in Florida’s fields,” said coalition representative Greg Asbed. “Indeed, until that obstacle is overcome, until growers and workers can meet and work together as partners in the same industry, significant change will remain a distant goal.”

Corey Tilley, Bush’s spokesman, told the Naples Daily News that the governor-elect, referring to the tomato growers’ agreement to increase the bucket rate, is “very encouraged by what seems to be a positive step forward. The important thing is the rank-and-file workers, the people that the coalition represents, get additional money. Now we can go from there and see what else can be addressed.”

Bush is to be commended for these early efforts. No other governor since Reubin Askew, who left office in 1979, has taken such a direct interest in farm workers. Bush said during his acceptance speech that he intended to do “things the new way.”

Taking the plight of farm workers seriously and doing something about it is certainly doing “things the new way.”