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A Bottom Up View of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers

Lettuce Picking and Left-Wing Organizing

by STEVE EARLY

In recent years, two college-educated writers, Gabriel Thompson and Tracie McMillan, have followed in the footsteps of Barbara Ehrenreich, producing their own versions of Nickel and Dimed.  Both went undercover to blow the whistle on worker abuse in low-wage jobs. Unlike Ehrenreich, the much younger authors of Working in The Shadows and The American Way of Eating each tried their hand at farm labor.

It was an arduous experience that left them battered, bruised, and exhausted, but also deeply appreciative of the help and support they received from more experienced co-workers. Among the latter were undocumented workers, many of whom may still be toiling in non-union agricultural jobs.  After checking out vegetable picking, Thompson and McMillan quickly moved on to other employment  further up the food chain.

In contrast, Bruce Neuburger spent much of the 1970s as a picker of lettuce and other California agricultural products, during the heyday of the United Farm Workers (UFW). As recounted in Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in The Fields of California (Monthly Review Press), Neuberger’s experience was very different than Thompson and McMIllan’s—and not just because the union has virtually disappeared from the scene during the intervening decades.

One tip-off about their dissimilar missions can be found in Neuburger’s acknowledgements. He includes a fulsome tribute rarely seen outside the pages of Revolution, the official organ of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). The author reports that he owes “a great deal” to the “vision and steadfastness” of Robert Avakian, a fellow Bay Area radical in the 1960s, who has been running his own personal Maoist sect for the last forty years. According to Neuburger, Chairman Bob has always “audaciously upheld revolution and dared to advance revolutionary theory, maintaining confidence in our battered and maligned humankind to build a new and transformed future. “

Lessons For Salts Today?

In spite of his lingering (and very last century) affection for the Great Helmsman of the RCP, the author of Lettuce Wars has produced a most compelling work. It will be of particular interest to other former  “colonizers” who got active in the labor movement in the 1970s as members of various left-wing groups, including  the RCP.  Lettuce Wars should be also be read by their younger, union-backed counterparts, who are now “salting” non-union hotels, warehouses, and fast food joints in the pursuit of goals more modest than world revolution.

The best sections of Neuburger’s book describe the interplay between his youthful political ideas and aspirations and the often very different world-view of the farm workers he befriended, lived among, and struggled with as fellow members of the United Farm Workers (UFW). The author’s detailed account of the labor process in agriculture, as he experienced it, builds on the insightful observations and recollections contained in Frank Bardacke’s sweeping UFW history, Trampling Out The Vintage. Both Bardecke and now Neuburger provide a timely counter-point to the Hollywood version of UFW history–a hagiographic movie about the union’s founder, Cesar Chavez—scheduled to open this month.

Like Bardacke, Neuburger found his way into the fields after being radicalized by the Vietnam War and campus politics. He became involved in the Revolutionary Union, a Bay Area precursor to the RCP. In 1969, he moved to Seaside, California to assist a GI coffee house project at Ford Ord and found himself not far from the Salinas Valley, a major farming area.  The 1970 UFW strike establishing union organization and a hiring hall in local vegetable fields made it possible for “a couple of young gringos”—Neuburger and a fellow anti-war movement veteran—to get their first jobs.  Lettuce Wars describes their fortunate political timing:

“The strike of 1970 had turned whispered resentment into shouts of defiance….Our own defiant attitudes, nurtured in other struggles, flourished in this new post-strike atmosphere where the bewildered foreman could do little but keep his resentment of us to himself, and where our gestures of disrespect for authority were popular on the crew. Our background…. in the larger rebellious landscape of the day gave us a context for the struggle in the fields. The rebellious spirit we found there heightened our sense of the righteousness of our convictions.”

Soon, Neuburger was reading to his fellow union members from a Spanish edition of the Little Red Book of quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. “The workers listened politely….When I began wearing a Mao button to work, some on the crew asked for buttons of their own.”  It took the author a little while longer to shed his “nagging habit of speaking too much and listening too little.”  Eventually, he discovered there was more to “the masses” than might have originally met his eye. “There were workers whose fathers and grandfathers were peasant union members or leaders in Mexico, or who had socialist or communist influences in their lives and who saw things in class terms.”  While such co-workers “could no more side with the company than boycott breathing,” there were “others who identified their interests with the company” and “felt alienated from the union or lacked confidence it.”

Rank-and-File Relationships

Over time, Neuburger formed close relationships with the rank-and-file workers whose individual portraits greatly strengthen his book. The ethnic diversity of farmworkers in the 1970s seems greater than today and the intense union struggles of the era forced them, repeatedly, to decide which side they were on. Among the Steinbeckian characters we meet is Clarence, an African-American veteran of longshore work in San Francisco, who spoke little Spanish but “sympathized with the Mexicanos and felt a commonality with them based on having suffered at the hands of the same forces—that of a white ‘power structure.’”

Vincente, an older Filipino worker, with experience dating back to the 1930s, was his crew’s unofficial hoe sharpener. He also dispensed sharp anti-imperialist critiques of Dole, United Fruit, and other big agribusiness firms dominant here and in his homeland. “I never saw a union get this far before, “ he said, admiringly, of the UFW’s early successes in California. “The growers were able to beat us down when we organized.”  Louie, a Mexican-American, saw real differences between the two major parties so often denounced by Neuburger and his comrades in El Obrero, a Salinas-based newspaper seeking “to help forge unity among working people in the area.”

On matters of discrimination and injustice, Louie “was more willing to give Democrats the benefit of the doubt.” But he was also a careful reader and Spanish speaker of great precision. Offended by the mangled syntax and mistranslations of the radicals’ rag, he volunteered to translate articles for it, becoming a taskmaster more demanding than any InterHarvest crew chief.  “How can I translate clearly into Spanish if you don’t write clearly in English?” he asked Nueburger.

We also meet Richard, one of the few non-braceros on his lettuce crew, an alcoholic, downwardly mobile former aerospace worker from Southern California, who ended up living with “an Okie woman from Salinas referred to as ‘La Loca” (the crazy one).”  As Nueburger recalls, “Richard had developed a fatalistic view of his own life and projected it on society. Both were unsalvageable. To Richard, people were basically selfish and out for themselves….He fought for the union in 1970 but didn’t see any great salvation in it.”

Among the indigenous militants who embraced “la causa” with greater fervor, there were often political tensions and disagreements about UFW  functioning.  The author describes many of the same UFW internal problems that Bardacke documents and analyzes at greater length in Trampling Out The Vintage. Among them are controversies over wildcat strikes, censorship of the UFW’s official newspaper, and president Cesar Chavez’s counter-productive hostility toward undocumented workers.

A Shop-Floor Perspective

Neuburger’s volunteer assignments as an inside organizer in UFW recruitment campaigns, combined with his “shop floor” experience with many different employers, gave him a perspective on the union that’s rare for a gringo. Where he could, he played a very different role than the many college-educated activists who acquired UFW “membership” by virtue of their boycott activity the country or appointed staff positions at union headquarters in La Paz. (In Chavez, even the formidable contributions of these non-farm worker organizers and advisers are much slighted, in favor of an inspiring, but simplistic, “Great Man” view of UFW history.)

After he left farm work, Neuberger drove a cab in San Francisco. For the last twenty-five years, he has worked in adult education programs and community college teaching. Before finishing his memoir, he took a break from his current life to return the scenes of his old one in the fields. The sad final chapter of Lettuce Wars, entitled, “The Fields Today,” surveys contemporary conditions in California agriculture and the local scene in Salinas. With only 5,000 members remaining, the UFW is not much of a force anymore. As Neuberger observes:

“In the 1970s, farmworkers faced immigration and police repression, housing discrimination, social segregation, poor schools, and other indignities. But, in the new millennium, by many measures, their situation is worse.”

Early in his current term as governor, the UFW’s one-time 1970s friend in Sacramento, Jerry Brown, vetoed card check legislation that would have made it easier for the UFW to rebuild its membership in California. In October, 2012, Brown delivered another slap to the UFW–and the overwhelming majority of California farm workers who lack the greater health and safety protection provided by a union contract. The governor vetoed a bill called the Farmworker Safety Act.  Passed by Democratic “super-majorities” in the state senate and assembly, this legislation would have strengthened the ability of farm laborers to sue growers who repeatedly violate state rules limiting worker exposure to extreme heat.

As Neuburger notes, during the same week as Brown’s veto, a lettuce worker in the Salinas Valley collapsed and died while harvesting lettuce in temperatures nearing 100 degrees.

Steve Early worked for 27 years as an organizer for the Communications Workers of America. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress, a Monthly Review Press book that includes interviews with young labor activists engaged in workplace organizing for various unions.

An earlier version of this review appeared in New Labor Forum, January-February, 2014. For subscription information, see: http://nlf.sagepub.com/ Early can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com)