MAXWELL:  Farm workers need a governor’s help

8/19/1998- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Florida farm worker advocates who want our next governor, either Buddy MacKay or Jeb Bush, to help those who put food on our tables had better prepare for continued disappointment.

If the campaign money chase means anything, then neither MacKay nor Bush will seek to improve the lot of farm workers. Both candidates, MacKay to a less extent, are in the pockets of Florida’s $6-billion-a-year agriculture industry _ a group responsible for some of the world’s worst labor practices.

Neither candidate has shown signs of focusing on farm worker issues. Yet Bush implied that he would do so. A few months ago during an interview, he suggested that, if elected, he would take up the cause of farm workers. He may keep his word.

“As to who represents people in the political process that don’t have lobbyists, it’s the governor,” he said. “If the cause is just, I think it’s appropriate for governors to intervene. In the case of farm workers, they do play a critical role. If laws are being violated, if health and safety laws are being violated, if laws related to pay are being violated, we should enforce the laws.

“The disenfranchised are deserving of a voice. And while I might not agree with every case in this regard, I will listen to every case because I believe that it is an important responsibility of being governor to represent people who have been left out or who don’t have the ability to hire a lobbyist.”

While Bush’s words seem sympathetic toward farm workers, his campaign pursues wealthy growers _ mostly conservatives dismissive of farm workers and their issues. Florida’s agribusiness, in fact, has dumped mega-bucks into Bush’s campaign. And the nation’s largest sugar cane grower, U.S. Sugar, has divvied up as much as $300,000 among Bush and other GOP hopefuls.

Recently, writes Mark Hollis for the New York Times, Bush mailed letters to GOP members of Congress asking them to support a federal proposal requiring country-of-origin labeling on import products. Growers want the legislation. Supermarket executives oppose it.

“Jeb is an advocate of free enterprise and capitalism,” Luis Rodriguez, a fifth-generation farmer who heads an agricultural consulting firm in Fort Lauderdale, told Hollis. “When he talks about . . . getting government off your back, that is very attractive to people in agriculture. I think MacKay understands it, too. But he (MacKay) puts it in the scale and weighs it with the environment.”

Indeed, many farmers hate MacKay’s support of the environment. Big Sugar, especially, despises him for backing efforts to force growers to pay their fair share to clean up the Everglades.

To add insult to injury, MacKay hired Robin Rorapaugh as his campaign manager. Rorapaugh, a former labor organizer, moved to Florida two years ago to lead the Save Our Everglades campaign, which, while failing to win a penny-per-pound tax on sugar, won two less glamorous measures aimed at Everglades cleanup. Big Sugar cannot forgive her and her boss.

Still, MacKay, like Bush, is no friend of farm workers. Belonging to an old farming family, MacKay enjoys loyal support among many citrus growers. Although the citrus industry always has been one of the most abusive to farm workers, MacKay and his running mate, former state Sen. Rick Dantzler, who represented farmers in his native Polk County, are making overtures toward citrus mogul Ben Hill Griffin III and other growers.

Obviously, these overtures do not include improving the plight of farm workers. And, like Bush, MacKay has concocted various plans to improve education, to bring money into inner cities and to increase farmers’ profitability. Where are their slick plans to help farm workers?

Let me suggest to MacKay and Bush that the cause of farm workers is a just one, that their rich pals routinely violate health, safety and wage laws. This just cause needs the next governor’s blessings, political skills and moral leadership to convince legislators and voters that farm workers are humans worthy of fairness and decency.

Our new governor ought not ignore the plight of farm workers. If he does, he will be as morally insensitive as his predecessors. He, along with the secretaries of labor and agriculture, should remember that they represent not just farmers but farm workers and their children, as well.

To start their understanding of the problems that farm workers face, I challenge MacKay and Bush to telephone Lucas Benetiz of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers at (941) 657-8311, and Tirso Moreno of the Farmworker Association of Apopka at (407) 886-5151.