FLORIDA FARM WORKERS FAST FOR BETTER WAGES;
5 ENTER DAY 24 OF HUNGER STRIKE TO FIGHT
PAY THEY SAY IS LOWER THAN IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO
DONALD P. BAKER
WASHINGTON POST STAFF WRITER
Tuesday, January 13, 1998 ; Page A03
IMMOKALEE, Fla. -- Blue-and-white buses straggled into the potholed
parking lot about 5 p.m. and disgorged hundreds of migrant workers
from Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti, their hands and clothes stained
green from another day of picking tomatoes under the hot Florida
Augustin Soriano, 24, walked to a nearby pickup truck and joined
a line of workers waiting for their daily paychecks. Soriano,
who came to Southwest Florida from Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1992, shrugged
when he looked at his check for $51.72. It said he had picked
140 buckets of tomatoes, at 40 cents each, in six hours. Including
the bus trips to and from a field operated by B & D Farms,
plus waits in the field for the plants to dry from rain showers,
it had been another 12-hour day.
In the view of many migrant workers here -- encouraged by the
Coalition of Immokalee Workers -- that is too long for too little.
Five of the farm workers are in the 24th day of a hunger strike,
protesting wages they say are lower than they were 20 years ago
and demanding talks about a raise from the growers who hire them
and their fellow migrants.
The strikers got a boost Friday, when Cardinal William H. Keeler,
the Roman Catholic archbishop of Baltimore, stopped by to pray
with the striking workers. "It was a chance to pray and
to bless," said Keeler, who was accompanied by Bishop John
Nevin of nearby Venice, Fla., also a supporter of the fasters.
One of the fasters, Domingo Jacinto, 32, said the cardinal "made
me feel we should continue on with the struggle." But Jacinto,
who had just been released after a two-day stay in a Fort Myers
hospital, was so weak that he gave up his fast on Saturday. He
vowed to stay with the remaining five, whose ages range from
24 to 47. "I want to be with my companions," he said
With the cardinal and accompanying reporters gone, the strikers
stretched out on the cots where they have been living for 3 1/2
weeks and discussed their struggle. They began drinking only
water and juices Dec. 20, a couple of weeks after more than 1,900
of their co-workers signed documents demanding a meeting with
the region's 10 leading growers. The workers' goal is 60 cents
for each 32-pound bucket they pick.
According to the nonprofit coalition, workers in these sprawling
tomato fields at the edge of the Everglades made about 50 cents
a bucket 20 years ago. That rate was cut to 45 cents 10 years
ago and now is 40 cents.
Growers say the lower rates are offset by improved working conditions,
such as staked plants, that allow the workers to pick more tomatoes
in a day.
"Tomato workers make a lot more than other farm laborers,"
said Larry Lipman of Fort Myers, an owner of Six L's, one of
the biggest growers in a region whose abundant fields have led
2,500 migrants to make their home base in Immokalee, the most
of any town in Florida.
In the early days of their protest, the fasters went to Tallahassee,
the state capital, and won a meeting with Gov. Lawton Chiles
(D), who subsequently urged that "growers begin a meaningful
dialogue with representatives of these workers."
In a letter to Chiles, Michael J. Stuart, president of the Orlando-based
Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said, "FFVA sincerely
regrets that these individuals have chosen to endanger themselves."
He said "tomato growers, as a matter of course, communicate
with their employees each working day" in the fields "to
stay informed about worker issues and concerns."
Stuart said "southwest Florida tomato harvesters compare
very favorably with farm workers in other states, earning from
$6 to $12 an hour, or more."
Yet, Stuart said, because of "increased competition from
foreign producers . . . more than half of Florida's tomato growers
have folded in just the past five years and thousands of farm
jobs have been lost."
Greg Asbed, an activist who grew up in Bethesda and helped organize
the nonprofit workers group five years ago, conceded that while
a picker can make $80 a day at the height of the season, on many
days, particularly rainy ones, the workers get nothing. The important
figure, Asbed said, is that the workers average only $9,000 a
The coalition also wants to eliminate a pay system used by some
growers called "a day and a dime," which it contends
punishes the best workers. Under that plan, workers are paid
the federal minimum wage of $41 for an eight-hour day -- they
get no overtime, regardless of how long they are in the fields
-- plus 10 cents a bucket.
A chart on the wall, titled "No More Day and a Dime,"
illustrates what the workers describe as the scheme's shortcoming:
A worker who picks 140 buckets in a day, as did Soriano, earns
$1 less than if he had been paid the straight piece rate of 40
cents a bucket; at 160 buckets, the loss is $7; at 200 buckets,
One of the major growers, Garguilo Co., of Naples, Fla., accepted
the coalition's invitation to meet with the workers. Following
the meeting, it agreed to a 10-cents-an-hour raise for the current
season and is considering another 10-cent raise next November.
The other growers have refused to meet with the coalition.
"We did what we thought was the fair thing for our workers,"
said Gerry Odell, head of Eastern operations for Garguilo.
Picking tomatoes is "hard work, and no one wants to do it,"
he added. "The only labor force available for harvesting
fruits and vegetables are migrant laborers."
And the best of the workers find better jobs, in fast-food restaurants
or in tourism, or head north for other fields after the peak
picking season here, Odell said, leaving growers with less-experienced
workers for the equally important jobs of planting, staking and
tying the tomatoes.
Those who stay here year-round go three months without work,
crowding into overpriced shanties or trailers that rent for $1,000
or more a month.
Augustin Soriano, who lives with his wife, a couple of brothers-in-law
and several other men in a rickety triplex for which they pay
$154 a week for two bedrooms and a tiny kitchen, said he is counting
on the fasters to win concessions from the growers.
"You have to kill yourself" in the fields, he said,
"and some days, it's not enough to make your day."
Cutline: Tomato pickers fast at Coalition of Immokalee
Workers headquarters in Florida. Growers say lower wages are
offset by better working conditions.