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Farm workers group organizing

A new farm workers' rights group, led by former union organizers, made a major push Sunday into Hillsborough County with a daylong workshop at the Beth-El mission. The Rural Progress Association workshop drew more than 100 farm workers who listened to a panel that included a doctor, a lawyer and several religious leaders.

Speakers told the workers what many already knew _ that they are poorly paid, have little clout in government and face occupational dangers that include exposure to harmful chemicals.

"You do some of the hardest work in the world," said Randy Cecil, director of the Vero Beach-based association and a former organizer for the United Farm Workers union (UFW). "But the people who get the money for your work, most of them don't even live in the state of Florida. If the educated had to do the work you do, they'd starve to death."

Fewer than 1 percent of Florida's farm workers belong to the UFW, said Cecil, who said many of the rest are earning piece wages that have remained unchanged since 1978.

Speakers at the workshop said politicians do not pay much attention to farm workers, and some of their legal rights have eroded. For example, this year's revisions to the state worker's compensation system mean less pay for farm workers injured on the job.

And they face severe occupational hazards, a fact that became widely known when more than 100 workers at Goodson Farms near Balm fell ill last November after returning too soon to a cauliflower field that had been sprayed with a potent pesticide.

The group included six children and four pregnant women, said Dr. Dennis Penzell, who treated many of the workers at the Ruskin Health Center.

"Some of these people remained sick for up to five months, and some had to stay out of work for as long as five months or even longer," Penzell said.

People who are working in the fields are living guinea pigs to the long-term effects of pesticides, he said. "It may be 15 to 20 years before we know the full effect they will have on you."

Rural Progress, less than a year old, is not a union, as it does not engage in collective bargaining, Cecil said.

But the organization does hope to serve many of the functions that unions serve, such as registering voters, helping workers report labor law violations and lobbying politicians on issues that affect farm workers.

At this point, the leaders are primarily interested in boosting their membership. "We have 340 members," Cecil said. "We should have 34,000."