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Fla. Farmworkers Strike Over Wages

January 15, 1998

IMMOKALEE, Fla. (AP) _ Pedro Lopez has spent 34 of his 46 years tending to crops, yet he has never seen a ``ranchero.″

The fruit and vegetable growers who control this farming town rarely make an appearance in the fields. But when they do, workers say, they stay close to their luxury cars and scan the fields through binoculars _ like a king casting a watchful but distant eye over his subjects.

``We don’t exist for them,″ Lopez, a Guatemalan tomato picker, said of the rancheros.

Immokalee, which produces nearly a third of Florida’s tomato crop, is a community of poverty and great wealth, with very little in between.

``It’s low class and high class,″ said Cathy Whidden of the Southwest Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. ``When you drive through Immokalee, you get the impression you’re in Havana, Cuba.″

Things have gotten so bad, six tomato workers went on a hunger strike Dec. 20 to draw attention to their plight. As of Thursday, three were still not eating.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers claims workers have been making the same wage _ 40 cents a bucket _ for 20 years. They want an increase to 60 cents a bucket.

But the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, which represents growers, said the current rate provides workers with an hourly wage of $6 to $16 and an average annual salary of $16,640.

That’s above the state average for farm workers, association President Michael Stuart said.

Workers claim the association is including higher paying supervisory wages in its average, and the annual average salary is well beyond what anyone could make because very few are offered 40 hours of work a week all year long.

Stuart said increased foreign competition has taken a toll on growers, forcing half the farms to fold in the past five years. Messages left with five growers were not returned. One grower who answered the phone declined to talk or give her name.

Neither side disputes that life is hard for Immokalee workers.

Because rent is up to $1,000 a month for a trailer, workers are forced to cram in as many people as possible. One rundown two-bedroom trailer housed 12 people: three couples, three single men and three children.

Workers also live in collections of rundown wooden shacks, three and four to a room. Roofs often leak in rainstorms and mice run across the floors.

They have no personal space, no telephone service, no radios. Because they rarely use banks, they are often the prey of looters looking for the few dollars hidden inside.

Meals often consist of rice and beans and tacos _ meat is a treat when there is enough money to spare.

Workers say all they really want is to sit down and talk with the growers. One grower agreed to raise wages by 10 cents a bucket; nine others have refused to even meet with the workers.

Gov. Lawton Chiles asked Stuart to agree to talks. But Stuart told the governor in a Jan. 6 letter there was no need for negotiations.

``Southwest Florida tomato growers, as a matter of course, communicate with their employees each working day,″ he wrote. ``The dialogue is often direct and immediate.″

The refusal to meet has not surprised workers who say growers for decades have maintained a feudal type of structure in Immokalee.

``The growers know, with the salary they give us, they will have us under their foot always,″ said Benitez, who was elected by his fellow workers to be a spokesman for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

A strike is out of the question because the workers cannot survive without their daily wages long enough to cripple the growers, Benitez said.

The situation hurts others as well.

Several businesses have gone under in this town of 14,000, whose main street is peppered with fast-food restaurants catering to tourists headed for a nearby Indian casino.

After paying for food, rent and clothing, there is little left to spend on entertainment or other items.

``In the last two years there’s been a big change because it’s very slow,″ said Paula Gonzalez, 33, a former farmworker who now owns a souvenir and food market, Mimi’s Pinatas.

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