UFW Volunteer / Florida 1972
by Rebecca (Hurst) Acuna
“I was a student at New College when Manuel Chavez asked for research assistance to start organizing farm workers in Florida. During that research effort of course, Nan Freeman died on a picket line near South Bay. Leaving school, I worked for Mac and Dianna Lyons administering the Minute Maid contract in Avon Park and Fort Pierce and then worked with Eliseo Medina organizing in the Homestead area. There, we were confronted by a typhoid epidemic in a public housing development for farmworkers as well as a slave labor camp… both of which were explored in Congressional Hearings held in large part due to the efforts of the UFW. Soon thereafter, Florida organizers not administering the citrus contracts were sent to Ohio with Eliseo to work on the renewed grape boycott after the California contracts were lost. I worked in Dayton until leaving for California, where I worked a short period of time for the legal department in Calexico and the farmworker clinic in Salinas.” – Rebecca (Hurst) Acuna)
JANUARY 25, 1972
I felt paralyzed that night and the day that followed. Numb to light, sound, reason. The memories available to me now appear like a flickering newsreel. The images follow no sequential timeline.
I am standing in the emergency waiting room in front of swinging doors marked NO ENTRY. I had been dropped off and told to watch the clock, taking note of anything important. I’m nineteen, a white suburban kid. It is late night and I stare at people come, go and wait for hours. I have no visual memory of them wheeling Nan in from the ambulance, but of course they did.
Our team of New College students had arrived at the picket line in the late afternoon. We had been doing agribusiness research for the Union in county courthouses in south Florida. Five of us traveling in an old Dodge dart. We stopped to lend our support, talk with the farm workers on the line and reconnect with the reason we were spending so many boring hours scouring indexes and plat books.
The Talisman Sugar Corporation plant was barely visible from the parallel dirt driveways (entrance and exit) where the picketers were stationed. Talisman was a subsidiary of Gulf & Western (Paramount Pictures). Like other sugar companies farming the rich muck soils surrounding southern Lake Okeechobee, it enjoyed subsidies from USDA and had its cane cutters imported from the Caribbean by the US Department of Labor. Exhausting work, the piece rate paid to cut tons of cane daily amounted to decent money in the islands.
It was the Talisman truck drivers who had requested help from the UFW to unionize. In-season, they drove tractor-trailers around the clock: huge, open trailers laden with tons of cut cane on the way into the plant and jouncing ominously as they exited empty. Some drivers slowed down to take a leaflet or talk with the picketers—others accelerated and drove by. The height, speed, odors and noise from those trucks were unnerving to people standing nearby.
As I recall, “The Ramon’s” were running the picket line that night—two Florida farm workers who had volunteered to organize with the Union, both named Ramon. (No relation to each other.) One had brought his younger brother; Nan and Pam took leaflets and headed off to the picket line. The rest of us talked with Union attorney Judy Petersen about helping research Talisman property lines and then went to sleep early in a small travel trailer parked down the road. I think it was Jose Luna who woke us up and in Spanglish tried to get through our groggy brains that Pam had been hurt on the picket line. We met Judy as we walked toward the picket line; she funneled us into her car and dropped us at the Glades Hospital on the way to her office to make phone calls.
I do remember being shunned several times by Emergency Room nurses after asking about Nan’s condition. Then, standing at my sentry spot, I heard two female voices whispering behind the swinging doors.
“Look what I got. It’s beautiful.”
“From the girl? What if they find out?”
“They’ll never know… that little girl is dead.”
That’s when, and how, I learned Nan had died. I suppressed that exchange until many years later when I heard Nan’s parents mention they had never received the ring Nan had always worn. And then, I was too ashamed to say anything.
Nan and her friend Pam were gigglers, back seat gigglers. They managed to make a good time for all of us. Sweet girls with a captivating look of happiness and goodwill, who both seemed younger than their 18 years. Nan was brilliant. I heard she got a perfect or near perfect score on her SAT/ACT tests. But I think she lacked kinesthetic perception and wasn’t always aware of where she was in relation to her immediate surroundings.
Some say a scab truck driver hit Nan. My understanding is that one of the truck drivers who wanted to unionize had stopped mid-turn to speak to picketers on his way out of the plant. Nan, standing well past the cab (mid-trailer), did not realize the trailer would swing toward her when the truck resumed course. The trailer struck her chest– forcefully. At least, that is what I remember being told.
I started New College the year before. I had selected it for its progressive educational ideas and structure that allowed students to create their own curriculum. I began working with “Project REAL,” an economics class established by Dr. Marshall Barry that emphasized learning economic principles by working with community groups fighting poverty. Suzy and Richard Gagan who taught at USF contacted Marshall after Manuel Chavez came to Florida to organize farm workers in the state.
The Union had its eye on Minute Maid (MM), a division of Coca-Cola and an easy boycott target. Knowledge of the Florida citrus industry became a Project REAL priority. We approached companies as the economic students we were, studying agribusiness. The men running those companies graciously explained their operations to us, from production (their field labor and camps) to marketing (their labels). Who, where, why, how much—we came away with a good picture for the UFW to use to strategize its Florida citrus campaign.
I need to acknowledge Marshall Barry here. He poured himself into Project REAL—or more properly its goals and its students. It’s easy to look back on your life and identify critical moments, decisions and directions. But I knew then that Marshall had started me on a journey that would in large part determine the person I would become. A child of the sixties, I had been heavily influenced by the energy, rebelliousness, and idealism of the times; by example, Marshall showed me that it was all fatuous emptiness if not backed up by fortitude and damn hard work. He was the first, and he introduced me to a whole new world populated by courageous people.
Soon after Nan’s death, I decided to leave school and work for the Union full-time. I began working for Mack and Diana Lyons, veteran organizers from California who had recently arrived to oversee administration of the MM contract. They were wonderful people—fun, knowledgeable, tough, perceptive and very patient with all us recruits who would open four contract administration offices in Central Florida. After a brief period of training with Mack and Dianna in Haines City, I ended up opening the office in Avon Park.
Formerly a funeral home, I helped clean out the undertaker gurney and implements, we re-situated our desk under the pink light at the front of the hall. I worked there with James Logan and Mary Albritton—both Florida natives who had spent a brief time at New College but who came from opposite sides of the track. Mary’s family had been farming citrus and cattle for several generations; James was a young black man who had been involved in the civil rights movement in Sarasota. We all lived in the office as well; Mary and I showered at the bathhouse in a nearby MM labor camp—which the little girls there found quite amusing.
The beginning of contract enforcement was tough on everybody. One meeting stands out in my mind when Union and staff members met with management in the MM Auburndale office. The company was not happy with how frequently crews were using the new grievance procedure to set piece rates—or with the resulting higher rates. (A fair piece rate had to be negotiated each time a crew started picking in a new grove; tree height, the size and amount of fruit, etc. influenced how quickly workers could pick.) Plus, foremen were angry at union reps; for instance, James had told one foreman’s supervisor, “You better put this cat on a leash.” I saw Diana chuckle, and then she pointed out our age differences. All the Union staff was a cool under thirty while the company folk were middle-aged plus, and not used to being “talked back to” by anybody. Especially farm workers.
Though the field office assignment was the most stressful for me personally, it was by far the most rewarding. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the MM workers—a mixture of African- and Mexican-American, and white men and women. In addition to familiarizing everyone with the terms and benefits of the contract and the Union medical plan, a top priority was to elect stewards in every crew. The steward and alternate were the backbone of Union activity, providing leadership and enabling communication. The secret ballot elections, held separately in each crew, were particularly empowering to me. There was a lot of leadership talent and expertise in every crew; I really liked and enjoyed so many of the people I came to know.
Once the steward system was in place, the Union started cataloging problems the workers brought forward. One was common to everyone—the tubs. Farm workers harvesting citrus carried heavy wooden ladders to reach the high fruit, placing it in canvas bags hung from their shoulders that could weigh over 100 pounds when full. Originally, orange pickers emptied their sacks into wooden fruit boxes, and were therefore paid by the box. With the advent of mechanization, however, the industry started using large round tubs which held 10 boxes of fruit and were picked up by machines, called goats, and emptied into open trailers.
However, if filled to the top or rounded above it, the tubs held more than 10 boxes of fruit and goat drivers would not pick up tubs if not filled as instructed by the company. This of course meant that workers were not getting paid for all of the fruit they had picked. The Union saw this as a prime issue to tackle—for this was an industry standard. If MM workers used the UFW grievance process to win payment for the amount of fruit actually picked, it would be an excellent organizing tool to reach workers of other Florida citrus companies.
Indeed, this is what actually happened. MM crews throughout the state filed a grievance that went through each step with no resolution until the last: binding arbitration. The arbitrator watched as several sizes of oranges, lemons and grapefruit were first placed in a fruit box and then poured into a tub. Thenceforth, MM workers were paid for around 10 and a half boxes per tub (I am horrible at remembering numbers), and the level to which tubs were to be filled was understood by both company and workers. This was groundbreaking and makes all the more tragic the UFW’s demise in Florida.
CANE CUTTER CAMPAIGN
I had already been moved to the Belle Glade area when the MM arbitration took place. Eliseo Medina and Dorothy Johnson had been sent from California to create a statewide organizing campaign in Florida. With Mack and Dianna Lyons taking care of business with Minute Maid, JP Hood (the Union’s second citrus contract), and the citrus industry as a whole, Dorothy and Eliseo opened an office in Belle Glade—the center of vegetable and sugar cane farming in the Lake Okeechobee area.
Belle Glade is the city Edward R. Murrow chose to open his landmark 1960 documentary “Harvest of Shame.” The scene: African-American workers mill about an open square surrounded by trucks and buses; several jump into the back of a slat-sided flatbed, already crowded past capacity with men standing shoulder to shoulder. The narrative: “This is not the Congo… This is Belle Glade, Florida… This is a shape-up for migrant workers. The hawkers chant the going piece rate at various fields. This is the way the humans who harvest the food for the best-fed people in the world get hired. One farmer looked at this and said, ‘We used to own our slaves, now we just rent them.'”
Twelve years later, the scene didn’t look much different to us, except perhaps more Hispanic workers. For a rural town, Belle Glade had a remarkably urban character (and I’ll bet it still does). Several blocks of 2-story buildings added to the crowded, oppressive feeling, as if there just wasn’t enough room no matter how many or how few people were actually there at one time. “Rough” is what the farm workers called it—saying it like they really meant it. Walking through the streets with Paul Pumphrey, a tall, young African-American UFW organizer, I was spit upon several times. Usually, the only white women seen in black neighborhoods were prostitutes or social workers—neither much respected by most residents.
California decided the Union had to confront the H2 labor program which yearly imported more than 1,000 men, primarily Jamaicans, to cut sugar cane during a 5 month harvest season. (It likewise fought the Bracero Program, the west coast version that imported Mexican workers.) Having secured the volunteer support of labor lawyers from Miami, the Union filed a legal challenge, arguing that no real effort was ever made to recruit American workers– who would not be willing to cut 200 yards of cane per hour (or 8 tons daily), especially at the piece rate and working conditions provided. The UFW’s strategy was that Union members from ‘out west’ would join supporters in Florida to apply for cane cutter jobs. That, however, never materialized: a relatively small group of people filled out applications, some like me who were totally unsuitable for the job. (Mark Pitt, a Florida UFW organizer did spend several weeks cutting cane and documenting conditions; check out his essay.)
The focus did require that organizers visit the camps where H2 workers lived in barrack-style bunkhouses, kept in varying states of disrepair, depending on the company. These camps were tucked away in remote areas where the men had little or no access to town or vice versa. Talking to workers in one such place, I was accosted by the camp keeper trying to throw me out of the camp. Eager at the opportunity, I argued (for the benefit of the workers gathering around us) that the company could not hold these men like prisoners or slaves, etc. When the man laid hands on me, pushing me in anger, the cane cutters quickly came to my defense; it was the camp keeper who fled the scene.
Either he, or the company, called the police. A warrant was put out for my arrest, and for Hughey Tague and Roger Mitchell as well. The issue of access to the cane cutters—actually all farm workers living in labor camps owned by a company or crew leader, was obviously of critical importance to the UFW. A suit had been filed earlier that year (Petersen v Talisman, 1972) after the arrest of Judy Petersen, UFW volunteer attorney and two farm worker ministry people at a Talisman camp for cane cutters. Ultimately, our trespass charges were dropped and the right-of-entry to labor camps was firmly upheld.
It was during this time that I started “dating” my future husband. (A date meant something like making breakfast before our day started—a tender memory because I learned how to warm tortillas on an open gas flame.) Roberto Acuna, fondly aggravated by being called Bobby Acorn, joined the UFW in Salinas during the first lettuce strikes. He volunteered to work on the boycott and was sent to Chicago, where, he said, he lived on pigeons he caught in the park. There he met Studs Terkel, who included Roberto’s oral history in the book, “Working.”
We were sent to Homestead to organize farm workers in Dade County. Right. As luck or fate would have it, we walked into a minefield and had little time for anything but running from one explosive situation to the next. At the time, the Union was working to defeat HB74, an anti-union bill in the Florida House that would have prohibited hiring halls—thereby reinforcing the crew leader system that shielded agribusiness from responsibility for bad wages and conditions. We were using that campaign to meet individual workers and migrant organizations in the area. Then, in late February, kids from the South Dade Labor Camp started getting sick.
South Dade was labeled a “model labor camp,” mostly because it contained actual apartments with indoor plumbing. It had been built in the early1940’s for military housing and re-modeled in 1969; it held in 1973, about 300 families (more than 1,500 people). E-coli counts in the camp’s water system in December, 1972 were unacceptably high; a month later, camp residents started complaining about the taste of the water; by the end of February, the first typhoid cases were identified by the community health clinic. A subsequent investigation found that the entire supply of the camp’s well was contaminated and that an interruption in the chlorinator allowed people to drink the unthinkable.
Ultimately, 210 cases of typhoid fever were identified, 172 people required hospitalization—which made this typhoid epidemic the largest in the US to date. While waiting for a fix to the water system, authorities raised the chlorination levels to the point that residents had to boil the water to make it palatable. A “voluntary” quarantine was imposed: children couldn’t attend school or adults go to work without a form showing they had been cleared by the Health Department. And the UFW helped about 80 families sue the Dade County Housing Authority. (The joke was that the City of Homestead was going to change its name to “Sue City.”)
MODERN DAY PEONAGE
At the same time, a Dade County crew leader named Joe Brown was arrested for holding 28 farm workers against their will and working them without pay. Headlines called it slavery, but it actually was peonage: Brown charged “his” workers more for transportation, housing, food and drink than he allowed them to earn, thus keeping them in perpetual debt. He sequestered them at the most remote camp in the area, alternately known as “Far South” or “Nine Mile” camp, which consisted of long cinderblock buildings divided into small rooms that felt like prison cells (without indoor plumbing). One worker said that a friend of his who tried to escape was caught and beaten until “he just cried like a baby.”
I had visited Far South and talked with the workers there under the guise of having them sign letters against HB74—Joe had no problem with some little white girl talking “politics” to “his” people. They ranged in age from 22 to 65; there was only one woman worker; some had been with Brown for four years; and most had some kind of weakness that left them vulnerable to being exploited: sickness, age, developmental disability, alcoholism. Health exams found workers suffering from bloody abscesses, malnutrition, pneumonia, heart and liver problems; all were tested for TB. In the meantime, Joe Brown had $43,735 in small bills on him when he was arrested.
The UFW used these two issues to secure Congressional hearings in South Dade County to further expose the problems facing Florida farm workers. The House Sub-Committee on Agricultural Labor heard testimony for several days and there’s an official record of it. I remember feeling we had accomplished something important with those hearings, and perhaps we helped build local leadership and establish some accountability. But there are many volumes of such records “exposing” farm worker issues that gather yet another layer of dust as years go by.
More exciting was our participation in the 1972 National Democratic Convention held in Miami. UFW organizers met with State delegations and many of them declared support of the Lettuce Boycott while announcing the tally of delegates for the candidates of their choice. My assignment was to make a huge banner reading “Boycott Lettuce!” which was unfurled and shown on national television. That made me happy and proud. Most of the time, it was such little things that kept us going… and meeting good people. During this time, I had the chance to work a lot with Robbie Jaffe, who led the boycott office in Miami. She was a hoot—a helluva great person, organizer, and support system.
HB74 DEFEATED BY HOMESTEAD
Yup. That anti-union bill imploded. Some 20,000 letters were mailed (yes, snail-mailed!) to the Florida House opposing it. (The Homestead area sent in the most; yay to the Trevino family.) A columnist wrote that HB74 died of typhoid fever in a slave labor camp. HB74 was voted down in committee, 15 to 5 and its Senate counterpart never made it to the floor either.
Okay, perhaps the many farm workers who went to Tallahassee to lobby the Florida Legislature and testify before its relevant committees might have helped some. And perhaps thousands of Florida supporters helped too: creating an outcry of righteous indignation throughout the state. Of course, we all kicked butt and took names. Which to me was the greatest strength of the UFW: the many people of many backgrounds who came together for one common thing– that farm workers be treated fairly. The Movement part of the UFW was highly successful; the Union part of it, in my experience, not so much.
All of the organizers working with Eliseo and Dorothy were soon thereafter sent to Ohio to work on the Boycott (after the Teamsters’ sweetheart deals to kill the UFW and crack its members heads). Mack, Dianna and the field office organizers were left to administer the Minute Maid and Hood contracts and run a statewide organizing campaign in their spare time. This was the beginning of the end for the UFW in Florida. Roberto and I worked the boycott in Dayton for about a year, and then he wanted to go home to Salinas. I got to work in the legal department in California for a while. In both capacities, I continued to learn a lot from the Union.
But I will always wonder if things could have been different if the UFW had been allowed to really grow in Florida and gain ground far away and different from what was happening in California. The UFW in Florida was its own, unique experience—as it could only be. Florida workers, leadership, staff and supporters thought independently—outside California’s perspective and direct control. Actually, I should specify outside the “inner circle” centered around Cesar. Rightly or wrongly, I came to believe that too many decisions came from the top, which ultimately chased out those who disagreed. Kinda like a benevolent autocracy run by people who pushed their agenda rather than foster an agenda from the rank and file.
I hate to say it, but “Whatever.” I’m afraid that in the long run, those of us who worked with and for the Union gained more from it than the farm workers. And so I thank from the bottom of my heart all the people who taught me so much, the people I enjoyed so much: Mack and Dianna Lyons, Eliseo Medina and Dorothy Johnson, Roberto, Robbie, Cathy and Marc, Mary, Hughey, the Ramon’s, Mary Lee, Rev. Salary, Joe Salters, Marshall, Pernell Parker, Paul, the Dorsey and Barajas families, Nancy, Rafael Arce, Sisters Pearl and Alicia, and especially Catalina.
I went on to use the knowledge and skills gained from my Union experience in many other movements for peace and social justice, as so many others did. So it certainly can be said that the UFW has had a long-lasting effect on American culture. But it is horrific that so very little has changed for people working in the fields, “sweatshops in the sun,” Murrow called them. And the pain of that affects me on a personal level: I know I was ineffective much of the time I worked for the UFW in Florida. I hope that, as Dianna had pointed out, youth had lots to do with it. So to all the people I thanked above, I also apologize. From the bottom of my heart, I sure wish it had turned out differently for the people who matter most.