MAXWELL:  Jeb Bush goes to the farm workers

9/9/1998- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Everyone talks about the harsh life that Florida farm workers lead, but no one does anything to improve the situation _ at least not until now. On Saturday, Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate for governor, came to this Collier County town to listen to the grievances of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

This is the same group that staged a brief work stoppage and a 30-day hunger strike last year in an attempt to get local tomato growers to meet and negotiate a request for a 10-cents-a-bucket pay raise, from 40 cents per bucket to 50 cents. Of the 10 companies the coalition sent letters to, only Gargiulo Inc. met with the pickers. The meeting produced a 5-cents hike in the bucket rate, the first raise for pickers in 20 years.

Other growers dug in their heels. The hunger strike did not budge them nor did an appeal from former President Jimmy Carter temper their arrogance.

Farm workers, tomato pickers in particular, have the simplest of appeals, said Lucas Benitez, a coalition leader: “Sit down with us and talk. We must look at the farm worker/grower relationship as the fulcrum of all possible change. If real change is to be made, we must seek to change that relationship, from one of imposed will to one of reason. Because the more modern and more human that central relationship becomes, the more modern and more humane will be the conditions in our fields.”

Bush met with the coalition and, for nearly two hours, listened and asked questions of the nearly 40 people representing workers in several crops, the clergy, civic organizations, firefighters and paramedics. Speakers described the conditions under which farm workers toil and offered a few remedies. Benitez told Bush that farm workers are suffering and that, as governor, he can improve conditions.

In several ways, Bush’s visit was historic. Growers have abused farm workers with impunity, and the Legislature and governors have done nothing. Lawton Chiles made a feeble effort during the hunger strike to get growers to talk with the pickers.

Reubin Askew is the only governor to take the plight of farm workers seriously. He commissioned a task force, for example, that wrote a report showing that farm workers should have the right to organize. Growers and their powerful lobbyists in Tallahassee squashed the report, and, nearly 20 years later, farm workers still cannot organize in Florida.

So, for Bush to come here at all is significant. He mixed well with the crowd, and his fluency in Spanish won over many. Several speakers thanked Bush for accepting their invitation, and the crowd gave him an ovation.

Bush learned that the workers want more than minimum wage. They want a living wage _ enough money for decent housing, nutritious food for their families and health insurance for their children. Today, the average farm worker earns less than $10,000 a year. As one speaker said, farm worker issues are “justice” and “moral” issues that require principled leadership in the governor’s mansion to help solve them. Bush was reminded that farm workers should not have to starve themselves to get the rights and benefits other Americans take for granted.

“I came here to listen and to allow people to share their experiences,” Bush told reporters after the meeting. “They told me that they have been struggling to earn a decent wage. These are very good, noble, hard-working people. I’m here to collect all of the information I can, so that I can determine the role the governor can play.

“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. 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.”

Greg Asbed, a coalition staff member, said that the pickers were happy that Bush had traveled to Immokalee to listen to them. The coalition’s objective is not to get Bush to necessarily support their request for a piece-rate increase. They want him to persuade the growers to sit down and talk with them.

“You don’t need to collect much information to do that,” Asbed said. “I must say that the workers believe that Mr. Bush was sincere.”

Asbed said that the coalition still has not heard from Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, the Democratic candidate for governor. He believes that, like Bush, MacKay would learn a lot if he would come to Immokalee and listen.