Posted on Tue, Nov. 18, 2003

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Farmworkers call for more reforms

Herald Staff Writer

With thousands of farmworkers still struggling for basic rights years after CÚsar Chavez's death, a new farmworker leader must emerge to propel needed reforms, said a syndicated columnist who was once a farmworker himself.

"An Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson is needed," Bill Maxwell told 200 people who attended the Sarasota/Manatee Farmworker Supporters CÚsar Chavez Memorial Dinner on Monday at the Golden Apple Dinner Theater.

Chavez, who was born in 1927, grew up in migrant labor camps. He helped create a farmworker union, which became United Farm Workers.

Chavez gained worldwide fame by using a nationwide boycott to help California table grape pickers gain labor contracts in 1968. But since his death in 1993, advances for farmworkers have been slow.

The Sarasota/Manatee Farmworker Supporters have been active for five years, holding forums six times a year to tackle intellectual issues surrounding farmworkers, like legislative change, housing and immigration.

The organization hopes to bring awareness to the plight of farmworkers like those in North Carolina working for the Mount Olive Pickle Company earning roughly 65 cents per 33-pound bucket of cucumbers picked. They pick an average of six buckets an hour, said Leticia Zavala, Florida director for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

"So far, the company has refused to raise the pay," said Zavala, whose organization has led a boycott of the pickles.

The pickers who go to North Carolina come north from Bradenton, Zavala said.

Maxwell, who writes for the St. Petersburg Times, said consumers can still use boycotts effectively to help farmworkers like those in North Carolina get higher wages.

"Let your store know not only that you are boycotting a product, but why," Maxwell said.

Maxwell also called for farmworker groups to use to media more to further their cause.

"How many of you have gone to the editorial board of your local newspaper and asked to tell your story?" Maxwell asked.

He said change must start with school children being shown how workers pick tomatoes.

"Take the kids to the fields in busloads," Maxwell said. "Kids think tomatoes get into the grocery store automatically. They have no idea what kind of job it is to get them there."

Manatee County commissioner Pat Glass, who has led the drive for farmworker housing in Manatee County, praised the Sarasota/Manatee Farmworker Supporters for getting things rolling with their forums. Glass also conducted forums in Manatee County that led to the current drive to build a $3 million farmworker community as soon as a site can be secured.

"These forums open the community mind-set and penetrate the curtain of misunderstanding," Glass said. "We make the invisible visible. You have to take small steps. I can tell you that if you can come back to me in a year we will have created a community within a community."

Glass was given a standing ovation by the gathering, appreciative of her dedication to the job of obtaining farmworker housing.

"Pat Glass is a powerful advocate in a key place," said Charles McKenzie, who was emcee of the dinner.

Among those attending the dinner were Tony Stefan of the Green Party and Democratic Congressional candidates for District 13, attorneys Jan Schneider and C.J. Czaia and Floyd Winters.

Mindy Simmons, a Sarasota singer and political activist, performed "De Colores."

Sarasota, Manatee and Venice democratic parties and the Latin Chamber of Commerce also were represented.