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Farm workers: No progress in 25 years

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Tallahassee, Fla.

The recent farm workers march in Florida highlighted more than the farm workers’ demand for better pay. Beyond pressing for better wages, the often-repeated theme of marchers was the desire to have their contributions to American life recognized and valued. Signs proclaiming, “We put the food on Florida’s tables,” and “Farmworkers deserve respect,” sprouted above demonstrators’ heads.

The Jan. 13 and 14 march also marked the first time in Florida’s history that five farm worker groups banded together under one banner -- Farmworkers United for Justice. The alliance, comprised of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Farm Labor Organizing Committee AFL-CIO, The Farmworkers Association of Florida, Farmworkers Self-Help and United Farm Workers, brought together workers from around the state in a 25-mile march from rural Quincy, Fla., to the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee.

Espen de la Batista, tomato picker from Immokalee, Fla., was one of 500 who marched in what was called “A Long Walk for Justice” to ask Gov. Jeb Bush to intervene with growers on their behalf. The governor didn’t answer the door.

Ironically, the protesters are voicing the same concerns they voiced 25 years ago when Immokalee tomato pickers, who then earned 40 cents a bucket, were threatening to strike.

For the past two years, the Florida Catholic Conference has been working behind the scenes on a Farmworkers Alliance, bringing together all the farm worker organizations and religious leaders to dialogue with agri-business owners. Although not involved in organizing the demonstration, the Catholic Conference offered marchers encouragement. Pat Chivers, the conference’s associate for social concerns, told marchers camped out for the night at Blessed Sacrament Parish hall, “The bishops of Florida love you and support you in your efforts.”

Farm worker advocate Greg Asbed of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers said the real issue is economic. “Most farm workers are paid by the piece. In 1978, tomato pickers were making 45 cents a bucket. Now 22 years later, they’re still making 40 to 50 cents. The numbers show each year you get poorer.”

United Farm Workers union organizer Frank Curiel said the governor sent regrets that he would not be home when the marchers arrived and said that farm workers were important to him and he thought he had done a lot for them. A demonstration at the state capitol last October failed at getting Bush to call a meeting between pickers and growers to discuss wages.

Chivers gave Bush credit for bringing low-cost federal housing money to the state. What she’d like to see next is revision of regulations, allowing farm workers to qualify for benefits that can only be accessed with a Social Security number. “It doesn’t sound important, but without it you can’t get a driver’s license. Without a license how do you get to work? These people work, live and contribute to the state.”

On the federal level, she says raising the minimum wage and modifying guest worker legislation is the place to start. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., introduced a bill that would have allowed more Mexican workers to come into the country to help with harvesting crops. He modified the proposed legislation after the Florida Catholic Conference pointed out the inequities to the farm workers who live in the state year-round and are unable to obtain legal immigrant status.

Alvira Abalos worked a 10-hour day, then loaded her five young children on a bus to ride all night from Homestead, Fla., to join the march. Tired and wearing only light clothing and sandals, Abalos shivered in the crisp north Florida morning as she talked about her life as a farm worker.

“My family lives in a four-room house. My husband and I each earn $258 a month. We pay $233 dollars a month for rent. We just try to live day to day. There are times when we run out of everything, so we go hungry.”

As one mother to another, Abalos said she would tell Columba Bush, the Mexican-born wife of the governor, “I want you to understand what my life is like.

“Maybe if she understood, she could influence her husband and tell him all we want is steady work and a living wage,” Abalos said.

National Catholic Reporter, January 26, 2001