What happens when farm workers try to form labor unions? Bruce Neuburger of San Francisco, in Lettuce Wars: Ten years of work and struggle in the fields of California (Monthly Review Press, 2013), has answers in a memoir of sympathy, solidarity, and wry humor.
Upon losing a cook job in 1971, the author migrates to the Salinas Valley, a vast agribusiness area in the Golden State, to thin lettuce. To call this arduous labor is correct, but only part of the story.
Why is that? The employer maltreatment of farm laborers, a tale of long, precarious hours for low pay, does not stop when the working day ends.
Their national and racial oppression in the US is around-the-clock. Sub-par housing is a case in point, which Neuberger details, sharing the lives, on and off the job, of co-workers whose toil enriches capitalist farmers.
Poignantly, he introduces readers to the women and men who make the state’s agriculture a profitable industry, where income flows away from labor to capital. He gives them names, and fleshes out their working-class histories here and abroad, stories of people who cross borders, and borders that cross people.
Neuburger highlights the militancy of women farm workers in boycotts, and general and wildcat strikes. These women don’t back down from males co-workers, labor contractors, police and growers.
As he narrates in an Introduction, 10 chapters, and Epilogue, oppressive social ideas and relations of producing food define the capitalist system. Satisfying the most basic of human needs: harvesting food such as asparagus, broccoli, celery, cucumbers, grapes, lemons and tomatoes, becomes invisible.
How does this occur? Food becomes its sale price in the marketplace, with the people responsible for its appearance vanishing.
How can this be? Hidden labor defines the commodity under capitalism, according to Marx. In the case of food, invisibility of those employed for bare subsistence pay in California agriculture masks them and their work. The state’s growers adore workers without documents, and who do not speak English, to better squeeze profits from them.
At the book’s opening, the author toils on a crew using a tool called (“el cortito”) to harvest lettuce. Its short length requires constant stooping.
Author Harry Braverman in Labor and Monopoly Capital analyzes how employers’ choice of tools for workers is an integral element of bosses’ control over the workplace. A lack of democracy at work is what makes this system of capital exploiting labor tick. Neuburger humanizes the farm workers battling to win higher pay and improved working conditions. From this approach, we gain a clearer sense of the risks that these brave souls take, from attacks to arrests and layoffs.
Further, Neuburger casts a critical eye on the United Farm Workers and the Teamsters. There is a lot of grey here, not all black and white, as unionization clashes in and out of the fields rage hot and cold.
Crucially, as Neuburger earns his pay harvesting crops, he also co-produces an independent paper, critical of both unions. He and fellow dissident journalists take a stance to the left of UFW leadership, strongly shaped by the tumultuous tenor of the times stateside and overseas. For Neuburger, the UFW’s embrace of the Democratic Party is a fatal flaw. In his analysis, Democrats are the wing of the political system that expands capital and its empire, branded “democracy.”
The author writes that this so-called “American Dream” obscures the “American Nightmare.” That is capitalist imperialism, the looting of foreign land, labor services, and resources to benefit ruling elites.
The rise and demise of the UFW under César Chávez is an outcome of a political compromise, in part over strikebreakers without documents, Neuburger writes. Partially as a result, the working and living conditions of California’s farm laborers is worse now, as some interviewees say on the author’s recent visits to former workplaces.
We read how growers fought, successfully, to remain union-free, and to roll back workers’ organizing gains when they did win collective bargaining agreements.
The arc of the UFW occurs as part of a totality in class relations, as powerful interests smash the Black Power movements of the 1960s, and the postwar economic model ends with increased global competition. This paves the way for a US employer class to neuter private-sector labor unions.
A postwar trend of shared prosperity from economic growth slows. Real wages stagnate. Social welfare policies dip. The Democratic Party of FDR’s New Deal is no longer a friend of organized labor.
In his first book, Neuburger does a public service in his eyewitness recounting of the strengths and weaknesses of farm laborers fighting for better lives in California. Lettuce Wars packs a punch.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2013
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