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The 1979 lettuce strike and the virtual end of the UFW in the fields of Salinas and Watsonville -- an excerpt from Lettuce Wars in Social Policy Magazine, Summer, 2013:
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(Slightly edited from a presentation to the Marxist School, Sacramento, Ca. April 18, 2013)
I'm frequently asked, "Why did you work in the fields, and why so long!" The question speaks volumes about our oppressive system of food production. Should I have darker skin and a different native language, such a question would never be asked.
Introduction: Slavery and Modern Agriculture
“Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery, credits, etc. Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that has given the colonies their value; it is the colonies that have created world trade, and it is world trade that is the pre-condition of large-scale industry. Thus slavery is an economic category of the greatest importance.” Karl Marx, 1840.
“There would be no United States as we now know it today without slavery.” Bob Avakian, 2011
While both these communist theoreticians and activists were speaking of Chattel slavery in the U.S. South, there is much here that’s relevant to the history and current reality of agriculture in California and other areas.
When the U.S. seized Mexico’s northern territories in 1848 there was growing contention between Southern slave system and the rising industrial capitalism of the north.
An entrepreneurial spirit emerged strong from California’s goldfields, enough to fight off the slavers who’d come with their expansionist ambitions, and in some cases, with their slaves. Advocates of “free”, ie. capitalist labor prevailed, but the contending sides found consensus in one respect -- California was to be a territory for the white race.
The grab for gold foreshadowed the grab for land. In both cases, the sign in the window said, non-whites need not apply. Mexican land grants “guaranteed” to their Mexican owners under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo were swept aside as pitilessly as the native peoples had been ethnically cleansed. California became a state dominated economically and politically by Europeans and their descendants.
As I wrote in Lettuce Wars, “California was envisioned as a white man’s paradise. But it wasn’t clear how such a society would eat.” How would land with its potential be turned into wealth? Who would do the work?
Much has been written over the years about Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, how it began, the struggles of the early union movement, the positive advances and more recently, about the internal repression in the latter part of the 1970’s and early 1980’s that choked off democratic life and processes.* Little has been written about the working conditions in the vegetable fields in those years (where the union movement had its base), and about the struggles that took place on the ground, in the crews – what they looked and felt like – those struggles that, for a time, changed conditions, aroused a broader public and put the growers and the apartheid-like system in California agriculture on the defensive. Nor has much been written about the radical movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s (including in Mexico) and how it both manifested itself among California farm workers and became a source of tension and struggle in the union.
A Memoir: Vietnam, GI Coffeehouses, COINTELPRO, Braceros, Strikes, Apartheid and Political Suppression within the Union
At the end of the 1960’s, at the height of the anti-war movement era, I was part of a core of radical student activists and Viet Nam vets that ran a GI coffeehouse in Seaside next to Fort Ord. When that project came to an end, a result of COINTELPRO type repression and changes in military policy, I stayed on working in Seaside. Then, from the Spring of 1971 until the winter of 1979, I worked in the fields of nearby Salinas Valley and other parts of California and Arizona. What began as a venture driven by curiosity and the need for a job turned into a decade of hard work, camaraderie, and political struggle.
I thinned and harvested broccoli, cauliflower, and lettuce. I became a “lechuguero” working on a ground crew by piece rate. For some of those years I followed the ‘corrida’, the seasonal movement of crops up and down California between Salinas and the borderlands of the Imperial Valley and Yuma. I lived in the labor camps built in the bracero days and in Mexicali border hotels that housed workers during the winter crop. I was a participant of the “Division del Norte” down from Salinas that sparked the strike in Coachella in 1973 to take on the anti-union onslaught in the grapes; I was a UFW “submarine” in Gallo’s vineyard near Livingston in 1973, and in Watsonville’s apple orchards in 1974. I was in strikes, wildcats, walkouts and slowdowns waged to force growers to respect farm workers’ rights that the growers and contractors never ceased trying to undermine. I was immersed in the world of the farm workers. I was inspired their passion for justice, their hatred of oppression, and their humanity.