MAXWELL:  Starving to be paid a living wage

1/21/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Tomato pickers Roberto Acevedo, Domingo Pablo Jacinto, Samuel Mar, Pedro Lopez, Antonio Ramos and Abundio Rios ended their hunger strike on Sunday after refusing to eat solid food for 30 days.

The six, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, began their fast after a general walkout of about 2,000 tomato pickers brought only one of the area’s nine growers to the bargaining table. Immokalee’s 2,500 pickers, now earning 40 cents for each 25-pound bucket they harvest, are asking for 60 cents per bucket, their first raise in 20 years.

Until Monday, only Gargiulo Inc. _ of its own accord _ had even talked with the pickers. It also is the only company _ again, of its own accord _ that has given the pickers a raise (10 cents per bucket, from 40 cents to 50 cents).

The area’s eight other growers are making tepid overtures to talk with the pickers _ but only after former President Jimmy Carter, reacting to the plight of the hunger strikers, wrote a letter urging the two sides to get together.

Carter offered to have his human rights foundation in Atlanta recommend a mediator in the labor standoff. But before talking with the pickers, the growers will meet today and Thursday in Orlando.

“They didn’t want to talk directly with us, but now that the ex-president has intervened out of concern for our health, there might be mediation,” Jacinto told reporters through an interpreter. “I just don’t think they will treat him the way they treated us. They will have to respect the ex-president.”

Perhaps. Historically, tomato growers have been hostile toward the interests of workers. A major problem is that most lawmakers bow to the growers’ powerful lobbyists in Tallahassee. Few elected officials, including Gov. Lawton Chiles, have ever put real pressure on farmers to treat their field workers fairly.

When Chiles recently visited the St. Petersburg Times editorial board and was asked if he would intervene for the pickers, he spoke vaguely, suggesting that his hands are tied. As much as I like Chiles, he yet has to prove to me that he truly cares about the state’s farm workers, one of our most precious assets.

Why must a former president, who lives in another state and who heads international peace missions, lead the effort in solving a problem here? Clearly, Chiles could and should do more.

Although Mexican farmers and the North American Free Trade Agreement have cut into the profits of Florida’s tomato growers, they can improve conditions for themselves by paying their pickers a living wage. Nationally, according the labor department’s National Agricultural Survey, farm workers earn a median income of between $2,500 and $5,000 annually for individuals and $7,500 and $10,000 for families.

Bucket or piece-rate wages, when adjusted for inflation, dropped 16 percent from 1989 to 1995, the survey shows. Many workers and their children are living in conditions similar to those Edward R. Murrow described decades ago when he filmed the TV documentary Harvest of Shame in these very fields and camps.

The plain truth is that when people do not earn enough to care for their families, they move around, leaving growers with less-qualified workers. All growers know this fact but remain tightfisted. Johnny Goodnight, who owned a 600-acre tomato farm until recently, acknowledged that high picker turnover is a serious problem, that it results mainly from low wages, that workers stay with jobs that pay a living wage.

In an interview with the Naples Daily News, Goodnight said that when he farmed, he used about 60 workers a day. By the end of the year, however, he would complete 4,500 W-2 forms for different pickers.

Christian Leleu, CEO of Gargiulo, said that he raised the bucket rate because he wants to reduce turnover, thereby making the company more productive and competitive with Mexico.

Indeed, the growers and elected officials have a duty to ensure that farm workers receive a living wage and enjoy decent living and working conditions. But the most important part of this labor/human rights equation is ordinary consumers who rarely consider why their produce is so fresh and inexpensive.

The lives of farm workers will improve only when consumers become concerned enough to demand that their legislators take positive action. Men such as Acevedo, Jacinto, Lopez, Mar, Ramos and Rios should not have to starve themselves to get us to treat farm workers fairly.