Hunger Strike Draws National Spotlight


Except for the crowded parking lot of the Seminole Indians’ bingo palace, there are few signs of prosperity in this dusty farm town.

This is the heart of the winter vegetable season, and Collier County is among the state’s largest tomato-producing regions. But many packinghouses are closed, many stores dark. And on the streets, dozens of men sit around gripping bottles in brown paper bags. Against this backdrop, three farm workers on Wednesday struggled through the 26th day of a hunger strike designed to call attention to the economic plight of many of this town’s 20,000 residents--most of them natives of Mexico, Guatemala and Haiti.

From the storefront offices of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a nonprofit community group, the men have vowed to drink only water and fruit juice until local growers agree to discuss wages, which workers contend are all but unchanged from 20 years ago. Three others who began the strike Dec. 20 have dropped out, two on Wednesday.


The drama of the action--unprecedented in an area long a magnet for low-wage migrant workers--has attracted national news coverage, as well as the attention of politicians and religious leaders. Roman Catholic Cardinal William H. Keeler of the Baltimore archdiocese visited the protesters last week, and Gov. Lawton Chiles urged growers to “begin a meaningful dialogue” with farm workers.

“My desire is that the hunger strike end as soon as possible, before these men suffer long-term damage to their health,” Chiles wrote to Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Assn.

Stuart, in response, said that pickers could earn $6 to $12 an hour, adding that more than half of the state’s tomato growers have gone out of business in the last five years, due in part to competition from Mexico.

Greg Asbed, a coalition organizer, said that although a picker can make up to $80 on some days, the average annual farm worker’s earnings rarely top $9,000. He also cited figures from the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., that showed that the 40-cent piece rate for a 32-pound bucket of tomatoes has remained fixed since 1980.

In California, tomato pickers covered by United Farm Workers of America contracts make 50 cents for each 25-pound bucket. That rate is to rise to 52 cents this year. For nonunion pickers, the piece rate ranges from 46 cents to 48 cents per 25-pound bucket.

As the hunger strike continues, the health of those taking part declines and tensions in the community rise. One original striker, Domingo Jacinto, 32, dropped out after being hospitalized for two days last week. The two who began to eat Wednesday were told by a doctor that they were dangerously weak. “We are drawing support from the community,” said Abundio Rio, 29, who has lost 15 pounds but perseveres. “But I don’t understand why the growers won’t talk to us.”


Several hundred people have attended rallies in nearby Naples and Fort Myers in support of the strikers, and Collier County Commissioner Pam Mac’Kie this week introduced a resolution urging area growers to talk to the coalition. But the resolution was defeated after a contentious public meeting in which Immokalee banker Stephen Price called the hunger strikers “outside agitators” being paid by the Catholic church.

“The church should at least be fair and honest,” Price said in an interview Wednesday. “The big lie is that farm workers are making the same thing they made 20 years ago. You’ve got to be stupid to believe that.”

With no union and the transient, daily nature of farm work, it is difficult to determine what area farm workers typically earn. But, says former striker Roberto Acevedo, 37, “nobody in this country could live and support a family on these wages.”

According to the Florida Department of Agriculture, both farm workers and growers are in an economic squeeze. During the first week of January, tomatoes that the farmer sold for 32 cents a pound were retailing for $1.16 a pound, a markup of 262%.

Numbers like that have Fred N. Thomas Jr., chief of the county’s housing authority and past president of the local Chamber of Commerce, worried about the future of Immokalee.

In the last 10 years, he says, more than 25 packinghouses and dozens of independent growers have gone out of business here while total acreage planted in crops has dropped by 30%. At the same time, the shortage of affordable housing is severe.


“We probably need 2,500 units of affordable housing just to put out of business the people charging $250 a week for a trailer,” Thomas said.

The coalition is not seeking a labor contract with growers, according to Asbed. “This is a community that’s waking up,” he said.

“This is also a community that is too poor to afford a general strike. We have tried that. So this is an action designed to put pressure on growers to look at the issues. Because another 20 years of falling wages is an impossible situation.”