MAXWELL:  Young farm worker’s labor yields fruit

11/14/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



On any given morning, 23-year-old Lucas Benitez can be seen observing activities in the loading ground near the office of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Here, hundreds of farmhands, mostly young, single Hispanic men, gather before sunrise to catch buses to the tomato fields.

As co-director of the nonprofit labor coalition, Benitez is intimately aware of the harsh conditions under which these workers toil, and he has dedicated his life to improving their plight.

“Agriculture is still the most backward industry in regard to labor relations in this country,” he said. “Yet, instead of trying to modernize and improve relations and working conditions, agricultural employers struggle to maintain their privileges _ privileges other industries gave up long ago in the name of social progress _ and preserve a system that oppresses its workers rather than compensating us fairly and supporting us as partners in the industry.”

For his efforts, the national youth leadership organization Do Something and Rolling Stone magazine chose Benitez as America’s Best Young Community Leader and honored him with the prestigious $100,000 BRICK Award national grand prize at a ceremony in New York City.

“Lucas is a powerful example of how young people can transform America’s communities,” said Andrew Shue, the actor who co-founded Do Something in 1993. “We believe in the power of young people to change the world.”

Selected from among 500 applicants nationwide, Benitez was one of 10 BRICK Award winners honored at the Do Something gala. The nine other winners each received a $10,000 grant from Do Something in recognition of their community-building efforts. Benitez accepted the Do Something BRICK Award after walking from Washington, D.C., to New York as part of a march that began in October to raise awareness about poverty in America.

“My parents always worked hard, and they gave me a sense of pride in the work that you do with your hands,” Benitez said. “My father cannot read or write, but he is a good teacher. He taught me to respect people for who they are and not for the wealth or power that they may possess.”

At the coalition, Benitez leads education and organizing initiatives, serves as a spokesperson for the labor action campaigns and oversees leadership training and a Labor Action Rights program to improve farm worker rights. “Just as people struggled to change their working conditions in the mines and factories throughout the country, we, too, must change the conditions of our work so that we can earn a living wage, live in decent housing and be treated with dignity and respect,” Benitez said.

The son of peasant farmers from rural Guerrero, Mexico, Benitez started working in the fields at age 16 to help support his parents and five younger siblings. He picked tomatoes, peppers, watermelons and oranges in North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. He joined the coalition after seeing a poster for a meeting at a local church.

Even with his many administrative duties, Benitez still gets his hands dirty and is awed by his own success: “As a farm worker, I truly had no reason to believe that I would one day meet with governors and former U.S. presidents, with cardinals and bishops, with labor and community leaders from across the country as I have over the past three years. Throughout all this, I still work in the fields. I don’t want to leave farm work only to have others end up suffering in my place.”

Do Something launched its annual award in 1996 as a way to honor and financially support the best young leaders in America. Since the program’s inception, it has awarded more than $700,000 in grants to 40 young leaders who have measurably strengthened their communities. Winners are selected based on essays and interviews before a panel of veteran community leaders. The judges evaluate the applicants’ leadership and entrepreneurial skills, long-term vision for their community and the measurable results of how their efforts have created lasting, positive change.

Based on these criteria, Benitez is an ideal choice for the award. “Seeing the injustice and living it from day to day here in Immokalee,” he said, “we decided that only we as workers have the power _ because of our place within the industry as one of two principal partners that produce our country’s fruits and vegetales _ to change this system, and so we started to organize to search for solutions as a community united around a single cause.

“I personally feel strongly that the abuses that we continue to suffer as farm workers _ poverty wages, abusive crew leaders, even salary _ cannot continue to exist for long within a truly democratic society. I know that in this great democracy that we enjoy in the United States, change is always possible if we organize and make our concerns heard.”

Benitez and his peers face an uphill battle in their righteous struggle because Florida growers see them as the enemy, a class of people to be exploited in every way. At the same time, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush appointed a personal friend as his agricultural ambassador _ a man who sees the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, along with Benitez, as a shill for a labor union and for what he calls the Mexican lobby.

Under these circumstances, Benitez may win many more awards for his efforts on behalf of farm workers.