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.