MAXWELL:  Dirt in the faces of farm workers

2/3/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

Much of the goodwill that Gov. Jeb Bush built between himself and tomato pickers here has evaporated.

First, some background: During the final weeks of the recent gubernatorial campaign, Bush, then the Republican candidate, came to this agricultural town and met for two hours with members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

It was an extraordinary meeting in that Bush _ a longtime friend of Florida growers _ came here at all. Elected officials tend to avoid issues of concern to the state’s farm workers. They certainly do not come here. Even Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay stayed away during the campaign.

After the meeting, Bush spoke empathetically of the workers’ plight, praising them as decent and hard-working contributors to Florida’s wealth. Members of the coalition, a non-profit farm-worker advocacy group, were cautiously optimistic.

A few days after the election, Bush telephoned an old friend, Luis Rodriguez of Fort Lauderdale, and asked him to meet with selected tomato growers in Immokalee to request that they raise the piece rate for a bucket of tomatoes from 40 cents to 45 cents. Rodriguez, a former Florida farmer and U.S. Agriculture Department appointee under President Bush, is an influential agribusiness consultant. He seemed to be an excellent choice for the new governor’s ambassador.

Two growers consented to the rate hike out of respect for Bush. As small as the raise was, it represented the first for these pickers in more than two decades.

All seemed well until Jan. 17, when Rodriguez was interviewed by the Naples Daily News. Rodriguez indicated that, unlike Bush, he did not meet with members of the coalition. In fact, instead of praising the coalition, Rodriguez condemned the advocacy group, its leaders, Lucas Benitez and Greg Asbed, in particular.

Excerpts of the interview are worth quoting at length because Rodriguez is the governor’s unofficial adviser on agriculture and farm worker affairs.

“I did not meet with the coalition because the growers do not recognize the coalition as legitimate,” he said. “They feel that that is a front for a farm worker union, and they are really not true representatives. And after doing my research, I feel that they may have a point there.

“Florida is a right-to-work state. Whether this Mr. Lucas Benitez or Mr. Greg Asbed or the clergy, who have every good intention in the world. . . . Like someone told me, “I look at them as a bunch of white liberal guys who want to go to heaven on the backs of the farm workers.’ You have to be suspicious of their motives.”

Although Rodriguez did not give the Daily News any evidence to back up his claims, he continued to paint a sinister picture of the coalition. “Lucas Benitez didn’t have a history of working in Immokalee or being seen at the 7-Eleven, or driving around town or having family roots,” Rodriguez said. “You have to remember that the Mexican lobby spends about $3-million to $5-million a year on various lobbyists in Washington. . . . So, to some extent, growers here are suspicious of how these folk are being financed. . . .”

Benitez said that he is not a shill for the so-called Mexican lobby, and, in a letter to Bush, he asked if Rodriguez speaks for the governor. “If these views accurately reflect your own, then we have badly misjudged you and your vision of a new Florida for our state’s farm workers,” Benitez wrote. “If not, then Mr. Rodriguez has deeply tarnished an otherwise bright promise for progress in one of the state’s most intractable social problems, making it imperative that you clarify your position on his interview.”

As a former grower, former president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association and current point man for the Florida Farmers and Suppliers Coalition, Rodriguez may be the wrong man to help Bush significantly improve wages and other conditions for farm workers.

Benitez is right that Rodriguez’s comments were “undignified and totally irresponsible” and right also that Bush should let farm workers know if his envoy speaks for his administration.

This is Bush’s e-mail reply to Benitez: “Lucas, thanks for writing. I have told (my press spokesman) that it is appropriate to clarify publicly that I do not agree with everything that my friend (and he continues to be my friend) Jose Luis said in the interview with the Naples paper. That’s all for now.”

Given the poverty and harsh working and living conditions that Florida farm workers face, such a response from the governor is not acceptable.