MAXWELL: Farm workers get short shrift over fair wages

10/29/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



The newspaper headline reads: “Farm workers threaten strike for better pay.”

Here is an excerpt from the article: “About 250 migrant farm workers and crew leaders in the impoverished vegetable belt of southwest Florida (Immokalee) have banded to demand better pay. The workers are prepared to strike to get their demands and may form a union, the Rev. Bill Talty said in a telephone interview Thursday. Talty, who is leading a migrant workers’ movement, said tomato pickers were demanding a one-third increase in piece-work rates, from 30 cents to 40 cents per bushel.”

About 100 miles to the south in Florida City, the Associated Press reports another tomato pickers’ strike. An excerpt: “The strike began last Thursday as pickers demanded 45 cents a bucket _ about 32 pounds of tomatoes. This was five cents over the going wage at the close of last year’s harvest.”

These articles could have been written yesterday, but they were not. The first was published in 1976, the second, 1978. Incredibly, the dozens of workers gathered in front of the old Capitol building this weekend for two days of prayer and fasting, say that conditions have barely changed for Florida tomato pickers nearly 25 years later.

Most field laborers still earn between 40 cents and 45 cents per bucket. If inflation and cost-of-living expenses are factored in, tomato pickers are financially worse off in 2000 than they were in 1976. According to latest U.S. Department of Labor statistics, 3 out of 5 farm-worker households live in poverty. Half of all farm workers earn wages of less than $7,500 a year.

Everyone _ including growers, consumers, news outlets, the governor and other politicians _ should be ashamed. Here we are in 2000 still openly discounting the worth of one of our most important work forces.

Representing five of the state’s major farm worker organizations, participants came to Tallahassee to ask Gov. Jeb Bush to help them secure regional meetings with the state’s major tomato growers. And they are requesting that Bush attends one of the meetings.

In a formal petition, the United Community of Florida Farm Workers, requested that, after the regional summits, the governor produces a “report with his recommendations for a practical mechanism for fair and appropriate resolution of labor conflicts in agriculture in the future.”

On the surface, the pickers’ request is simple. Not so, however, when the interests of farm workers and the arrogance and greed of growers collide. Only one grower, the Gargiulo company, has negotiated a wage settlement with pickers. Two years ago, the company agreed to increase per bucket wage from 40 to 50 cents. Because Gargiulo officials negotiated with the pickers, theirs is the highest wage for tomato picking in the state. And the company is not going broke, the excuse other companies use to justify their stinginess.

Those companies outright refuse to speak with their pickers. In letters to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Immokalee, Bush washed his hands of the effort to get the pickers and growers together at the same table. No report will be produced, of course. In one letter ladened with sarcasm, innuendo and dismissiveness, Bush wrote that “a number of growers were contacted to gauge their interest in a farm worker summit. There was no interest among the growers contacted. As I mentioned in my initial response, I cannot compel Florida’s growers, as I would not compel any of Florida’s private sector businesses or workers, to enter into labor and management negotiations.”

The pickers did not ask Bush to “compel” the growers. They requested that he “encourage” them.

In another letter, Bush wrote: “To involve the Office of the Governor in private sector wage and labor disputes would set a precedent without boundaries.”

The governor is being disingenuous. If he or someone in his office spoke with growers, they should have known that the growers would refuse to sit down with pickers. Growers have utter contempt for their field crews. Here is where the governor’s moral suasion could possibly make a difference. What law prevents a governor from intervening in private sector situations where great abuses occur?

The governor simply is not telling the truth. Consider: A few days after being elected, Bush telephoned an old friend, Luis Rodriguez of Fort Lauderdale, and asked him to meet with selected tomato growers to request that they raise the piece rate for a bucket of tomatoes from 40 to 45 cents.

The growers gave Bush his wish.

The governor took credit for the raise. Now, however, he says that he has no right to intervene in the private sector. Bush cannot have it both ways. Either he can intervene _ as he did _ or he cannot.

Since that historic meeting with the growers, moreover, Rodriguez has, without presenting any evidence, demonized the coalition as being a shill for the so-called Mexican lobby. He has, in effect, helped to destroy any goodwill that Bush had built with farm workers. Rodriguez has said that he will not meet with coalition members because growers do not consider the organization a legitimate farm worker representative. Growers reject all farm worker advocacy groups. Like Bush, Rodriguez is being disingenuous.

This is a sorry turn of events, because Bush’s initial contact with farm workers offered, in his own words, a “new way.”

“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,” he said in Immokalee. “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.”

Apparently, Bush has had second thoughts about using his considerable weight in helping farm workers “earn good wage.” Yes, he has garnered some modest gains in less controversial areas, such as housing and health care. But the lack of a living wage is at the core of farm workers’ problems.

Bottom line: Farm workers will never earn a living wage until they can bargain collectively, until they can sit down with the growers. But growers _ protected by winks and nods from Tallahassee and Washington _ do not want farm workers to organize.

To enble growers to keep their workers powerless, Congress excluded farm workers from the Wagner Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the National Labor Relations Board, the Fair Labor Standards Act and other labor legislation and panels. Farm workers have been regularly fired, quarantined and physically attacked for trying to organize. Firing farm workers for union activity is not illegal. These workers need someone to fight for them.

In addition to problems with Gov. Bush, more trouble for Florida farm workers may come out of Washington. As of this writing, a bill sponsored by Florida Sen. Bob Graham and Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith is being debated. It may be voted on this week. Supporters are trying to hide it in an omnibus bill. Or, as a Graham spokeswoman lightheartedly said in a telephone interview, they are trying to attach it to “any moving vehicle.”

Called the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act, the proposal would replace H-2A, the nation’s current foreign guest-worker program. The goal of the bill, Graham said last year, is to transform a heavily illegal work force into one that is legal. Under the new system, illegal workers could earn legal status if they satisfy specific requirements. Undocumented workers would need to spend five more years in the fields to qualify for permanent legal status.

Those who can show that they worked at least 150 days as farm hands within the last year could immediately receive legal status as temporary non-immigrants. Pickers who work a minimum of 180 days annually in five of the next seven years would qualify to apply for a permanent residency. The proposal also contains modified standards for housing, transportation and wages. Graham claims that the bill will improve the plight of both domestic and foreign workers.

But farm worker advocates disagree, arguing that the proposal will widen the gulf between workers and management. Greg Schell, managing attorney for the Migrant Justice Project in Belle Glade, said: “This bill represents an enormous step backwards for America’s workers. Florida’s farmers would be guaranteed a limitless supply of cheap foreign labor at bargain basement prices. If this bill is adopted, all competitive incentives will be removed for Florida growers to improve wages and benefits for farm workers.”

If the bill passes, Gov. Bush will have even more reason to reaffirm the “new way” he touted while a gubernatorial candidate on the stump. He and other politicians should realize now that they are dealing with intelligent, hard-working people who deserve to be treated better, who, according to demographers, will become a powerful voting bloc in the very near future.