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Someone to fight for farm workers' rights

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MAXWELL
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By BILL MAXWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001


We're not human beings; we're just a pair of hands. -- A Ruskin tomato picker

The uphill struggle for farm-worker economic dignity and justice continues.

On this occasion, about 200 people, most of them farm workers, gathered last Sunday outside the Taco Bell at 5210 34th St. S in St. Petersburg to protest the deplorable working conditions of Florida's migrant farm workers.

This protest, like thousands of others before it, was organized because, until now, farm workers did not have any well-connected people in the private sector or in government to represent their interests in the halls of power. Members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers have tried -- but failed -- to persuade tomato growers and Gov. Jeb Bush to meet with them to discuss low wages and other problems.

Growers adamantly refuse to meet with the workers. During the last gubernatorial campaign, Bush met with the coalition and made a few vague promises. Later, he played a major role in getting a nickel raise for some pickers in Collier County.

But Bush's friend and personal agricultural labor emissary, Luis Rodriguez of Fort Lauderdale, apparently has convinced the governor that the coalition has its own agenda, one unrelated to the welfare of farm workers. Rodriquez claims that the Immokalee coalition is a front for a shadowy group he calls the "Mexican Lobby." If Bush believes such nonsense, how many other elected officials, growers, consumers and journalists believe it?

Undaunted, coalition staff members say that they will continue to protest outside individual Taco Bells, and they will try to enlist college students to establish a national boycott of the Taco Bell chain. The organization is singling out the chain because it is a primary user of tomatoes.

Harvesting tomatoes is back-breaking work. On average, pickers are paid 40 cents for each 32-pound bucket they fill, a rate that has been the standard for nearly 30 years. Only one grower, the Gargiulo company, has sat down with the coalition and negotiated a wage settlement, an increase per bucket wage from 40 to 50 cents. This is the highest wage for picking tomatoes in the state. Gargiulo officials apparently have not bought into the "Mexican Lobby" tomfoolery.

For the first time that I can recall, a real glimmer of hope is on the horizon to get something substantive done for farm workers: An elected official -- freshman State Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg -- is sponsoring a bill that, if passed, will dramatically improve some working and living conditions.

For a start, Peterman, who is an African-American, wants to regulate several practices that rob pickers of their wages. For example, many growers own the buildings their pickers live in. Instead letting the workers live in these squalid structures free-of-charge to offset low wages, the growers charge disproportionately high rents. Company-owned transportation is another area where some pickers are forced to pay.

Peterman acknowledges that he can do little in areas involving federal law, but will try to make a difference in state-controlled policy.

"Farm workers in Florida earn wages just a few levels above slavery," he said. "They're treated unfairly, and their living conditions are often deplorable. I'm going to see if I can do something about this."

This is good news and is fitting that it is coming from a black Democrat -- someone who understands the hardships of field work. Interestingly, Peterman is fighting a battle that his mother, Peggy Peterman, a former St. Peterburg Times writer, championed 20 years ago in her articles and columns.

Most white Republicans, who are cozy with agribusiness, and the Legislature's Cuban delegation are hostile toward farm-worker issues.

To Peterman's credit, he is recuriting other members of the Florida Congressional Black Caucus to support the legislation. My hope is Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, will join the effort because he represents a district with a large farm-worker population. Some of the worst living conditions for farm workers in the state are in Hillsborough County.

During a telephone interview, Peterman said that other African-American lawmakers and lobbyists will support the bill because they have firsthand knowledge of the farm workers' plight. Some have worked in the state's fields and groves as children and were forced to live on subsistence earnings. Until now, black lawmakers, like their white and Cuban counterparts, ignored farm-worker issues.

Peterman's initial step is just a start, but it is necessary one. He may even change a few attitudes in Tallahassee. The hard-working people who harvest our bounty deserve better treatment.

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