WHEN A wildfire filled the sky with smoke and ash over coastal Ventura County in Southern California on May 2, 2013, strawberry pickers at nearby Crisalida Farms began to feel the effects of smoke inhalation.
While smoke inhalation is never healthy, the smoke from this wildfire was particularly dangerous: fire officials had been warning about noxious fumes from a store of highly toxic pesticides that had caught fire at a local agricultural property. One of the farmworkers explained to NBC that “it was hard to breathe, (but) they told us if we leave, there would be no job to return to.” Fifteen workers who chose to seek shelter from the suffocating smoke were indeed fired for their flight from the field.
This episode exemplifies the brutal labor relations that underlie the prodigiously profitable fruit, nut, vegetable, and horticultural industries in California today. And the profits are prodigious—gross income was over $26 billion in 2011.
About 700,000 of the estimated three million year-round and seasonal farmworkers in the United States toil in the fertile valleys of California. The vast majority are Latino immigrants, most from Mexico, who have been deprived of legal documentation. Their second-class status relegates them to one of the most oppressed positions among workers in the United States, and it holds back the entire labor movement. However, the history of farmworkers in California and elsewhere is not simply one of silent suffering and endurance; it is also a history of heroic struggle for human dignity and social justice.
Bruce Neuburger’s new book, Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California, is an important contribution to literature on farmworkers. Part memoir that recounts a decade of implantation among farmworkers during the 1970s, part history of the dramatic rise and fall of the United Farmworkers (UFW) union, the tale Neuburger tells is a gripping one. The “shopfloor” character of Neuburger’s perspective on the farmworker movement sets his book apart from many in the large library on the topic, as does Neuburger’s eminently readable combination of descriptions of the environment, the work, the people who do the work and the communities they live in, as well as his philosophical ruminations on communism and revolution.
Neuburger was a young radical with experience organizing antiwar soldiers and veterans around the San Francisco Bay Area when he first took a job as a Salinas Valley lettuce worker—or lechuguero—in the spring of 1971.
Among vegetable crops, lettuce in particular was and is big business. As a report prepared for the United Farmworkers Organizing Committee put it in May 1972, “Lettuce is to the vegetable industry what Chevrolet is to GM—the volume product, the financial backbone, the meat and potatoes, the cash crop, the action.” The Salinas Valley in Monterey County, about 100 miles south of San Francisco on the Central Coast, is promoted by boosters as “America’s Salad Bowl.” The farms of the valley, where temperatures are relatively mild year-round, produce the immense majority of leaf lettuce consumed in North America. And the lechugueros of the Salinas Valley formed the rank-and-file backbone of the UFW.
This idyllic setting, once described as “vast acreages of lettuce growing on raised rows like ribbons of green and gold fading into the horizon,” does little to ameliorate the hellish conditions endured by the lechugueros today. Indeed, Salinas Valley lechugueros are extraordinarily exploited because of the extraordinary profitability of industrial lettuce production in the valley. The average agricultural output per employee in Monterey County was $183,331 in 2010, while the mean annual wage of a Salinas agricultural worker was $19,180 in 2012.
The Salinas lettuce fields, however, were a different place in the Spring of 1971. A big strike—or huelga—led by the UFW in the summer of 1970, had secured the first labor contracts in the history of the California vegetable industry. Wages were still low and working conditions still arduous, but the lechugueros had begun to feel their own power and this affected how they conducted themselves and how they thought about their position in society. On his first day, Neuburger stood out as an odd-looking farmworker, with his lighter complexion and Anglo mannerisms, but the union shop steward said “don’t worry, the company has to give you time to learn.” This was a small example of how the union struggle had given farmworkers confidence to speak of how things should and shouldn’t be in the fields.
One of the more fascinating anecdotes from the book is Neuburger’s description of the use of a short-handled hoe called the “West Coast shorty” by English-speaking farmworkers and el cortito by everyone else. The UFW declared elimination of el cortito to be one of its primary goals, while the growers defended it. Neuberger writes:
El cortito can only be used bent over and with one hand, and as such it leaves one hand free to pull weeds or any ‘doubles,’ extra lettuce plants, that the scrape of the hoe leaves behind . . . Conveniently, any foreman could instantly survey his crew of agachados—people bent over—and see who was working and who was not. The labor contractor or company supervisor, with many crews working at once, could, by one glance from the road, be assured of labor efficiency, measured in bent bodies . . . an efficient instrument of production, an effective means of control and subjugation. It was to capitalist farm labor what the whip was to slavery, an instrument, and a symbol as well.
The UFW finally succeeded in banishing el cortito from the fields in 1975.
Like many radicals during the 1970s, Neuburger was inspired by what he thought were the emancipatory achievements of the so-called Chinese Cultural Revolution led by Mao Zedong. When he began wearing a Mao button to work, some of his fellow crew members asked for buttons of their own. Neuburger writes that the field “became a classroom. There were Spanish lessons intermingled with discussions ranging from the strike and field conditions to the war in Vietnam, student and GI movements, women’s liberation, the Black Panthers, Cuba, China, and revolution. . . . Occasionally we’d stop and talk in the field, our cortitos resting on our shoulders in defiance of the foreman, and launch into some discussion or continue one that had begun in our break.” Neuburger and some of his cothinkers even began to publish and distribute a radical bilingual newspaper called El Obrero del Valle de Salinas/The Worker of the Salinas Valley that became popular with many farmworkers.
Lettuce Wars recounts many of the conflicts and debates that took place within the farmworker movement. These conflicts revolved around questions of rank-and-file democracy and membership control, the rights of migrant workers, the relative importance of strikes and other workplace organizing and action, the Democratic Party, and American imperialism, among others. Tragically, however, these conflicts contributed to a violent campaign led by César Chávez and the UFW leadership to drive Neuburger and other radicals and dissidents out of the union.
Students of the labor movement, radical California history, food politics and the contemporary casualization of labor will find the lessons and stories in this excellent book to be very compelling.