Hard Life in Immokalee

Tomato Pickers in Florida

Revolutionary Worker #1137, February 3, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

The following article was written by an RW correspondent who has been traveling in the South.

As part of a traveling team taking out the Draft Programme in the South, I attended a conference in Durham, North Carolina last fall and went to a workshop on the struggle of tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida. The workshop was led by Lucas Benitez, a leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). I talked to Lucas afterwards about our Draft Programme and showed him the section on agriculture, nationalizing of the land and the role of farmworkers in transforming agriculture in building socialism. A few weeks later, a couple of us drove through the beautiful everglades to Immokalee. The town was fairly barren --it had none of the bright blooming flowers and huge palm trees we had just left in Miami, no coffee houses, no bars where people hang out and play pool, not even fast food restaurants and supermarkets. What we saw was lots of trailers, rows of small houses, and corner stores. By the end of our visit, we knew why the town was this way-- it's a place where workers come from places like Haiti, Guatemala, and Mexico to pick watermelons and tomatoes and that's it.

Running in the Fields

We drove up to a small building covered with a bright mural depicting the life of the tomato pickers and knew we were at the right place -- the center for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Right away we saw Lucas Benitez and sat down to talk.

He said, "The biggest problem we are confronted with is the low pay for picking tomatoes.... For many years, the farmworkers are being paid the same money. Right now it is 40 to 45 cents a bucket; it is at the same price as in 1978. Also, there are no benefits, no health care insurance, nothing. You work overtime, you don't get paid overtime.

"The pay per hour is minimum wage, $5.15 an hour. When you work for a contractor [who hires farmworkers for the farmers] you don't get paid per hour, you only get 40 cents for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. You need to pick two tons of tomatoes in a day for $50. It is very difficult. One day you work only three hours, another day you work 12 hours, it all depends. You are not guaranteed eight hours a day or 40 hours a week. In the morning you go into the fields and you work two hours and it rains, you go home. Or you go to the fields, and the field is not very big, so you work four hours and go home. The next day you go to a field and work all day, 12 hours or more. By the end of the week, you might work maybe 40 hours or 20 hours in a week There is no guarantee of 40 hours in a week. You work three hours and you pick only 40 buckets, it's 16 dollars, that's all. The salary for the tomato worker is about $7,500 a year."

On the wall, I saw a picture of a 71-year-old farmworker named Jose. Under the picture Jose is quoted: "You make enough to eat poorly." Lucas said, "Jose is still working in the fields and still migrates from field to field, but he isn't a typical case in the life of the farm laborer. But sometimes you work and work into your 50s and even 70s because...you don't have a chance to save money in the bank because you live day to day.... You go and pick in the fields and you get $40 or $45 a day, so you go to the store and you buy food for a week long and pay the rent and save a little money to send to Mexico or Guatemala or Haiti or whatever. It is very difficult to have a savings account in the bank to save for the rest of your life when you are old. But many older farmworkers are forced out of the fields by the growers... They don't want the old people. They want the young people who can work fast and run in the fields to make more production for the company. Right now there are more and more young people from 15 to 30 years old. They are the majority."

When I asked Lucas what he meant by "running" he said, "You pick the tomatoes right here for example, and you fill the bucket. You have to dump the tomatoes in the truck. The truck is 100 feet away. You have to run to the truck and then get back fast to pick more tomatoes. You get a ticket from the guy at the truck. The bucket is a 32-pound bucket and sometimes it is a little more if the bucket is overfull. If you don't have a mound of tomatoes over the top of the bucket, you don't get ticket. You don't get paid for that bucket. And if you don't run in the fields, you pick only $20 worth all day... You pick, you are running, you work and work. You have the one goal, to pick enough to get the $50 for the day. You don't want to talk to another worker, you work and run, that's all. Sometimes when you go from one field to another field, the break is in walking to another field. For lunch, you get 30 minutes. That's it for the 12 hours or more. And the toilets, they are in the fields but they are 500 to 1000 feet away from where you are picking."

I asked him, "What are some of the ways people fight back, have there been strikes?" He said, "Yeah, we tried but it is very difficult to have a strike because you work every day to live every day. So if you don't work a week, two weeks, the people say 'I don't have [money] for my rent, for my lunch.' And the growers say, 'Okay, you go on strike, I don't care. You go on strike a week, two weeks, and you will come back because you are hungry.' They know the farmworkers are hungry because the pay is not good. But we did have a strike for a week in 1995. There were over 3,000 workers on strike. This strike put a lot of pressure on the growers. In a week the tomatoes went bad and so the companies gave the workers on hourly $4.75 an hour and the people said, 'Okay, before the strike I made $4.25, now after the strike it is up 50 cents an hour.' But most of the farmworkers are contract workers, not hourly. So this increase made no difference for the pickers. The hourly workers plant the tomatoes and work in packing houses. The strike was called because the growers were trying to drop the hourly wages and the amount paid for each bucket. This strike also helped to cut down on the violence against the workers. In the past, workers were beaten for requesting water or not working fast enough."

A couple of Mexican women at the center had just come from working in the fields and I asked 19-year-old Lucia if we could interview her. At first she turned away, like she had nothing to say. But I told her how much it would mean to have a young woman like her speak out and so she told us what it was like to work in the fields. She said, "I have to pick a lot of tomatoes. Right now they are paying very cheaply, 40 cents a bucket. For someone who can't pick a lot of buckets she doesn't make anything. Every day we work more and gain less. So the work is really hard, and you run and run to fill the bucket. If you aren't picking fast the bosses will yell at you. It was terrible when there weren't any bathrooms. Before, when you wanted to go to the bathroom, you weren't able to. When you are working piece rate, you don't have time to stop, you just keep going and going until you can't work anymore. We usually start work at 6 a.m. and pick until 11 a.m. And then wait around for another field and you aren't making any money. We have to work for piecework and don't make any money. Then you get home, and if you have kids there, you have to take care of the kids and cook a meal. I am 19 and have been here for two years. They should pay more money for a bucket because right now people are killing themselves working."

Town Enforcers

We left the center and went to a corner store to get some juice. A young Black man named Terrell was working behind the register and had plenty to say. He told us, "A friend of mine went fishing out near a farm and a guy told him he couldn't get too close. He said there were guards out there and they said you can fish at your own risk cause you could get killed out there. He said there were Mexicans out there working like slaves. They can't leave, there is a big fence around with barbed wire and the rule is they can go to the commissary and get food and take it back, but they can't leave.

"The pickers are working seven days a week. I wouldn't want to do that kind of damn work. They do a lot of protest. They just had a protest on Taco Bell [there is a boycott of Taco Bell, one of the biggest buyers of tomatoes]. They marched from here to Tallahassee. Then the city of Naples wanted to bring their garbage to Immokalee and put it in a dump here. About 200 Mexicans went over to Naples and protested the idea of bringing the garbage here. They stopped it from coming here."

I asked Terrel, "Is there much unity among the different nationalities here?" And he said, "The Blacks, Haitians, and Mexicans don't have much unity during the regular time, and they live in separate communities. But if there's going to be a rally, then they come together."

Then he talked about the police. He said, "The police harass Blacks and Mexicans. Whites can go through here doing 75--police right there, but no problem. A Black or Mexican goes through there with dark tinted windows doing the speed limit and they get pulled over. I have been pulled over here in the projects. A cop pulled a gun on me, eight cops checked my ID and then said they had the wrong guy. Then they wonder why Black people don't ride around here with American flags on their cars. No, we don't fly no American flags."

William, an older Black man, jumped into the conversation. "Yeah, they [Latinos] get it bad. There was one police killing just a month ago. A policewoman was going to a back-up call and this guy run across the road in front of her and she ran over him, killing him. She had a pretty good speed, hard to stop. A Spanish guy, don't know how old he was, they still got him in the morgue, nobody can identify him. They got a picture of him over there. Yeah, Terrell there got a picture of him, to show people, just the head part to show, to see if anyone can identify him. Nobody has identified him. In terms of a case of police brutality, could have been an accident, don't know. But the cop was taken off duty so that says something. This was the third killing by the police recently. They ran down a guy on a bike coming home from work. Another guy got shot and killed when he was drinking beer on a corner."

William then said, "I want to tell you about Blocker. Blocker is a rich motherfucker who owns three furniture stores and he owns many trailers and shacks. I went to a trailer where there were beds all in the living room and 15 people there and paying him $35 to $100 a week a head. He is getting $5,000 a month for a fuckin' trailer. And the trailers are run down and only worth $700. These people, the Blockers, have money so they pay off the inspectors, They gerry rig a repair like an electrical outlet any way they want. I know because my uncle works for him. And the Blocker family, they own like 80% of the property from here to 1st street. And those trailers are run down, and they got no heat. I know a woman who stepped through the floor and she broke her leg. And nothing happened to Blocker."

Terrell said, "It's crazy the way they treat people in this town. I know people around the world get treated even worse than we do in this little town, but we are basically third class citizens here. Every other town probably have eight citizens to every police, here we probably have three citizens to every police. On Wednesday night, every police works, it seems like 100,000 police in this town. It's crazy. It's not bad during the day, they know everybody is at work. But at night -- oh man, like if the workers sit here and drink a beer after work, the cops will come and arrest them and give them a $50 fine, all the money they made that day at work. Sometimes they do a sweep and will go over to a convenience store and get 75 Mexicans and take them all to jail for having a beer open. I have heard of guys sittin' over there with beers and the cop walk up to them and they'll open them and pour it out and still take them to jail. It's crazy."

I talked about how all this injustice and oppression and abuse is caused by the capitalist system, which exists only to make profits off of the labor of the people here and around the world and Terrell responded, "Oppressors want to oppress people no matter what. You could be working for this guy doing the best job you could do and he can still find a reason to treat you like shit. I agree it would be better if we didn't have capitalism but those are the ones calling the shots. You got 50 people out there working against their will and you got one guy with a gun, he controls everything. He controls everything. And he'll shoot one worker probably in the fields to get his point across... I would like to live in peace but I know I won't because I'm Black. They won't ever see one love in this country. It's not designed that way. "

From the Fields to D.C.

After this we headed back to the CIW office and talked with a young worker, Chico, about 20 years old, who is an active member of the Coalition. He was excited to tell us about how he had gone to the September 29th anti-war demonstration in D.C. He has lived his whole life in Immokalee and works in the fields under his cousin, who is a crew leader. This was the first time he had ever gone to a big demonstration like this and he said he now sees the connections between the struggle of the farmworkers and other issues in society, especially the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Chico said, "It was the biggest and most intense demonstration I have been to. I went to the Amnesty march [for immigrant's rights] in D.C. but this was completely different. When we got there, busloads of cops just pulled up. From the very beginning they just surrounded us. All of them in riot gear, used pepper spray out of guns, which was kind of freaky. And basically they didn't let us go anywhere. If we tried to turn down a street, they had us surrounded the whole time. They would block us off. Basically, they controlled everywhere we went. I went to D.C. because there are a lot of innocent people dying that shouldn't be dying. I really feel bad about the people who died in New York But I don't think you justify the killing the thousands of people by killing thousands more innocent people. The U.S. government has a different agenda. The U.S. wants to control Afghanistan in order to control the oil. Also, the U.S. government is just about getting rich and it sucks. I went to the School of the Americas protest at Fort Benning and I heard about how some Coca Cola workers in South America who were organizing were taken out of their houses in the night and killed or disappeared. I think the U.S. government and the corporations are so tied together and this whole war thing that's happening -- they are all about making money. And this war thing is about power."

I talked about how the working class in the U.S. is part of the international proletariat. Whether we work in garment shops in L.A. or in Mexico, whether we cultivate and pick crops in Immokalee or in Bogota, Colombia, we are all one class. I made the point from the Draft Programme: "Acting as individuals, they cannot change this condition of enslavement. But as a class they do have a revolutionary way out." I asked Chico what he thought about this and he said, "I definitely feel a unity with workers around the world. I don't know a lot of people outside of this community and what goes on here. But it's all the same whether it's here or Peru, all the same. Look at how Coca Cola is everywhere, and how our government is trying to get into everywhere they can. And if they have to kill people to get there, they don't care, they are going to do it. Everything that happens everywhere else that's fucked up, the people living in shitty conditions -- in one way or another has something to do with our government trying to be in there or corporations exploiting the workers there."


After we exchanged warm goodbyes to Lucas, Lucia, Chico and others in the center, we walked outside and now, late in the afternoon, there were hundreds and hundreds of workers getting off buses, gathering in front of stores, drinking soda and beer, talking. Many were riding their bikes. Most of the workers had green tomato stains on their shirts and dirt on their pants from running through the fields all day trying to make just enough to put food on the table. As dusk darkened, I stood there thinking about the weight of all those buckets, about the horrible conditions in those crowded trailers, about the cops arresting 75 workers for hanging around drinking beer, about the beaten face of the man run down by the police, laying in the morgue unidentified, and about the women coming back from the fields, so exhausted, yet still having to cook and take care of children. Then suddenly, I smiled, saying to myself, "There will be a day when this shit will end, when exploitation and using people to make capitalists rich will no longer be around and these fields will be places where people will work together, not to make profits for the rich, but to produce food to feed the people."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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