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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?
The answer began to emerge in the 1860s when it was found that desperately poor Chinese laborers from southern China could be induced or tricked into coming to California and then employed as cheap labor necessary to complete a rail link that opened up eastern markets. Thus opened, markets increased the price of land, created new opportunities, and the need for more labor.
In the 1880’s Adolf Spreckles, with a sugar cane fortune reaped from another stolen land, Hawaii, built a massive sugar factory in Salinas. Supplying sufficient sugar beets required farm production on a scale that historian Cary McWilliams would later call “factories in the fields.” This was possible because of skilled Chinese laborers, driven from the goldmines or released from the railroad gangs, yet hemmed in by structures of social control familiar to us today – lynch mobs, repressive laws, police, courts, jails and the like.
The caste-like system that has dominated the fields of California ever since has proven as resistant to fundamental change, as has the oppression of black people, now 160 years removed from slavery. So foundational to California agriculture is this caste system that it’s taken to be as natural as Salinas winter rains.
Over the years the U.S. has gone from expansionist power to worldwide empire, and the world trade, that Marx noted in the 1840s, has developed into a world wide system – a “world wide web” of capitalist relations – not just a network of connections but a web of oppressive production and social relations, holding hundreds of millions and ultimately billions of people in the grip of misery, wreaking havoc in every corner of the planet.
Producers of food and other farm products are trapped in this web of misery. We can find them in every spot on the globe, from Ugandan coffee growers and Indian cotton farmers to Chilean grape workers and Dominican cane cutters – hundreds of millions trapped in horrendous conditions; hundreds of millions more driven into our “planet of slums”. The net of relations ruined Haitian rice farmers and pushed coffee farmers from Puebla to a Salinas parking lot where I interviewed them before they nervously drifted off as a labor contractor bus pulled into view.
In Huron, in the west San Joaquin Valley, Oaxacan workers spoke to me of 12 and 14-hour days in the withering heat, driven by a need to secure their families’ survival. Trapped as well were the Veracruz coffee growers who died so tragically in Luis Alberto Urrea’s Devil’s Highway. Hundreds of thousands of California farmworkers – estimates range as high as 85% of them, deprived of documents, are caught in this web of exploitative relations, which is dominated, in our day, by the tarantulas of big capital; the produce giants like Chiquita and Taylor, the retail vendors like Walmart, Safeway, and Target; the food processors and distributors; and the agricultural seed and chemical giants like Archer Daniels Midland, Monsanto, Cargill, and so on.
Bending the Web of Oppression
So where does Lettuce Wars fit in to this picture? The book covers the years of the late 60’s to the early 80’s – years of immense struggle in the fields that emerged at a time, not coincidentally, of great radical movements and social upheaval -- the Civil Rights movement, the Black liberation struggle, the anti-war movement, the women’s liberation movement and so on.
Years of struggle in the fields beginning with Delano in 1965 saw boycotts, waves of strikes and wildcat actions, marches and protests, meetings and picket lines and tireless efforts of all kinds. However, when all was said and done, all of this succeeded in stretching or bending one small segment of that web to slightly improve wages and working conditions, gain a few benefits, acquire some sense of empowerment, for a very brief, moment in time.
And here, in this, there is a tension, here a conflict -- between a monstrous system of oppression and an historic movement against it – and within that movement a struggle between what that moment promised, what possibilities it inspired people to strive for and dream of, and what ultimately, it accomplished. Lettuce Wars, then, if I had to point to a central theme, revolves around that conflict.
Six years ago, as I was contemplating this book, I went to Watsonville to visit Frank Bardacke the author of Trampling Out the Vintage -- a masterful account of the United Farm Workers. We were in need of jobs back 1971 and a hitchhiker told Frank you could get work in the fields, which is how it all began.
By the time I visited Frank, I’d settled on some matters. I wanted to write about what the work was like, what it felt like, smelled like; I wanted to give a sense of the struggles on the ground, in the crews, where, after 1970 in Salinas, workers were fighting for new conditions. I wanted to give readers a sense of how farmworkers were impacted by the big social movements of those times -- the struggle around wages and benefits, yes, but also against national and racial oppression. And I wanted to bring out a theme that occurred to me this way: The 1960s, with all its shortcomings and weaknesses were pointing humanity in the right direction; while the politics centered around this iconic figure of Cesar Chavez, for all its successes, fame and glory, were pointing us in the wrong direction.
Now this may seem contradictory. After all, the farmworker union movement emerged in the 60s, but as I will discuss here, what the 60s represented in its most advanced expression was opposition to this system that has its foundation in slavery. Chavez, and those closely allied with him in the UFW, ultimately became conscious defenders of that system, even while they sought to reform some aspects of it.
Getting into the Fields
Lettuce Wars is a personal story. It begins with a foray into the lettuce fields in the first harvest season after the monumental strike of 1970. I had no ambitions other than to find work. But my outlook was shaped by the broader landscape of radical thinking at the time.
1 (94) As I wrote: “I was in my early twenties when someone first placed a book by Karl Marx in my hands and urged me to read it. At the time my disillusionment with the world around me was growing exponentially. It was fed by the daily horror of the Vietnam War; by poverty and discrimination in places that once had been invisible to me; by the shameless lying of those in government; and by powerful events that shredded my naïve and sheltered view of the world.”
I became immersed in the struggles that swept a good part of a generation into activism; the anti-war movement, opposition to racism, and so on, in an atmosphere marked by continuous political discussion and debate. To quote again:
2 (94 -95) “An evolution of thought was unfolding among many people drawn into impassioned opposition to the government. Among many of the young people there was a great debate over the nature of the enemy we were facing in opposing the war and racism and so on. Many young people were moving from what they saw as the need to rescue democracy (as in American Democracy) from its corruptors and defilers, to the realization that it might well be democracy itself, or the bourgeois version of it, that was the source of the corruption.
The word ‘system’ began to take hold in our vocabulary, embracing a concept that went beyond government to describe something even more basic to the way society operated... It was Karl Marx who’d brought to light the ‘dirty secret’ at the heart of capitalist society, revealing how exploited human labor was the source of capitalism’s existence and growth.”
3 (95) “The Black Panther Party, coming out of Oakland in the late 1960s, clarified the issue. They called out the oppression of black people as victims of centuries of cruel exploitation and brutal repression, and linked their oppression to international colonial and imperial systems in a way that struck a chord among many people in oppressed communities, especially in the large cities. The impassioned response of many black youths from the inner cities to Black Panther politics put revolution into the mouths of millions more.”
The fact that there existed a socialist alternative, however young and still fragile, was of immense importance.
4 (96) Again, to quote: “When people became aware of the Cultural Revolution going on in China, with its aim to bring forward a new kind of society free of the kind of social inequalities that wracked the one we were struggling against, rebellion took on a different meaning. Not only did we now feel justified in opposing the oppression of society, as we knew it, but suddenly that opposition could be seen in a larger context; there was a coherent, historic effort under way to create a society on a different foundation. This prospect of a different kind of world where people did not war or prey on one another or exploit others for the sake of advancing private interests but rather sought to build society on a cooperative basis was a really powerful vision.”
For me, what followed this awakening were several things; a connection with one of the newly emerging radical groups, the Revolutionary Union; expulsion from the military for anti-war organizing; recruited to begin an anti-war GI coffeehouse project near the Ft. Ord army base, close contact with a movement of revolutionary-minded soldiers, whose organization spread rapidly within the most fundamental instrument of class rule, the armed forces, clearly an expression of the vulnerability of a system that had previously seemed impervious to serious challenge.
While venturing into the fields was not the result of any specific plan, it was in keeping with the atmosphere of those times: Think of the 16 million urban Chinese youths going to the countryside; or the newly awakened radical activists here leaving campuses for factories, mines or poor communities.
The first chapter of Lettuce Wars provides a glimpse of that experience -- our first day on the job on a union “thinning” crew working with a short handled hoe, “el cortito.”
5 (21) “Our backs began to hurt after the first few minutes. By the time we’d worked half an hour, the morning had barely established itself, the air was still cool and damp, and we were sweating and struggling, watching the rest of the crew glide silently off in the distance. We staggered ahead, awkwardly flaying at the earth, pushed forward by a stubborn determination not to give up.
Around ten o’clock we heard cries from several directions, “Quebrada! Quebrada!” followed by laughter. We stood up to see the crew lying or sitting in the rows, some in small circles, a few laughing at the sight of us working after break had begun, and then, in free fall to the dirt on realizing it was break time.
We lay motionless next to the row of lettuce shoots. Who would have thought lying in the dirt could feel so good? After a few moments I pulled myself up on my knees. “Fuck, this is hard!” FJ said. “What the hell did we get ourselves into here?” “That’s the last time I’m listening to suggestions from a hitchhiker,” I answered back. “How do you think that guy did out here?” I asked. “Why do you think he was leaving town?” FJ replied. We both laughed so hard we almost choked. Puerto Rico came over to see how we were doing. “This is great, I’m enjoying every minute of it,” I said. “When does the real work begin?” FJ asked. Puerto Rico laughed. “They always give us the easy fields in the morning,” he said. “Great,” I said, laughing, “but when does it stop hurting?” “When you stop working,” he said, as he turned and walked toward his row.”
To explain a little about the background of the workers on the crew:
6 (25) “Up until 1964 much of the work in the lettuce fields was done by contracted workers, braceros. Bracero wages, working, and living conditions were set by mutual agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments. The bracero was little more than an indentured servant, barred from actions such as strikes or protests to influence their conditions, under threat of immediate deportation.”
The Bracero Program ended in 1964. Many bracero lechugueros were converted to green card workers in a legalization effort between growers and the immigration authorities.
7 (28) But “Abuses to which farmworkers had long been exposed continued in the new post-bracero conditions. Callous disregard for the workers was the order of the day as contractors, supervisors, and foremen tried to squeeze out the product with a minimum cost. Workers who couldn’t keep up with the fast pace of work, because of sickness, pregnancy, or age, were pushed out. Those working were run like beasts of burden under the threat of being told not to report the next day. Survival often depended on keeping in the good graces of foremen and contractors. And good graces came at a price. While favors took various forms, it was from the women workers on our crew that I would occasionally hear references to pressures for sexual favors in exchange for ‘job security.’
The strike of 1970 . . . turned whispered resentment into shouts of defiance. And though workers, after years of intimidation, had just begun to break out of their timidity, in the wake of the strike it was, by and large, the growers and their foremen who now began to find themselves on the defensive.”
The Open-Air Classroom
These times had awakened in farmworkers, as it had with us, the sense of new possibilities. Once again from Chapter 1: 8 27 “The thinning crew 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. The fact that the political terms we were familiar with in English were similar in Spanish, made political discussion in Spanish possible within a far shorter time than would have been the case with another language. 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. These conversations were usually carried on in Spanish, and my understanding of what people were saying was often shaky.”
9 (123) What I observed was this: To many campesinos these early years of the 1970s brought a newfound strength and optimism. It seemed only a matter of time before the storm that swept the valley the summer of 1970 would reshape the landscape. The other valley growers would fall one day to the union. The balance of power was shifting, all this in the context of other changes going on in society and the world. It was possible for farmworkers to sense their struggle was part of something larger, contributing to bigger changes taking place. Not to oversimplify the matter, individual outlooks varied greatly. Many farmworkers were, after all, displaced peasants, that is, small owners who maintained entrepreneurial ambitions . . . Visions and aspirations thus varied greatly. This does not contradict the notion that the struggle had opened up the field to new potential and new aspirations, including radical ones, as farmworkers sought to struggle against exploitation and the oppression.”
Today we have websites, blogs and Facebook. Back then we had newspapers. Putting out newspapers was a mass phenomenon among those dissident and rebellious forces that sprung to life in those days. At Ft. Ord GIs had put out two different papers. Many military bases in the U.S. and beyond had anti-war or anti-military papers of some kind. So it was not surprising that the idea of a paper that could connect struggles in the fields with other national and world issues would come to life.
I was living in a small cottage near Salinas’ Central Park. I became friendly with Alfonso and Dolores, neighbors, who worked on Bud Antle lettuce machines. Together we began a newspaper. A staff person from the farmworkers union suggested the name, El Obrero. A GI neighbor crafted the masthead. It was called, El Obrero del Valle de Salinas, and since it was, somewhat shakily, especially at first, bilingual, The Worker of the Salinas Valley.
The paper eventually attracted other people, some former students, some farmworkers, some established local residents, some among the traveling activists, so abundant in those days. The paper strove, unevenly it must be said, to engage with people on a broader range of issues than those strictly dealing with working conditions and the like. It brought us to neighborhoods and to the labor camps which dotted the valley. It put us in touch with workers with more developed political views. Eventually, it put us in conflict with the union leadership.
Trade Union Struggle and the Class Struggle
In 1973 the union movement stood on the pinnacle of its success. By 1970, it had succeeded, by way of the boycott, in winning contracts with a large part of the grape industry. The Salinas lettuce strike of 1970 brought a number of large vegetable growers under contract and a militant union movement put the growers on the defensive. These victories caused reverberations across the southwest and across the country. As I wrote;
“The growers feared their old autocratic control over workers would never be the same. ‘Farm unions may be inevitable’, one grower conceded after the strike. Although this reflected the direction things were going at the time, it did not signal any general resignation. Whereas growers gave ground in wages and working conditions, this was only a tactical retreat. They remained hostile to unionism but even more so to the dangerous elements they saw lurking in the shadows of the picket lines.”
The growers’ press was full of warnings of a “social movement” which they argued had no place in their society and which harbored these dangerous elements I alluded to.
These “dangerous elements” had emerged in 1965 when, amid the symbolism of the Mexican struggle for independence and the 1910 revolution, Mexican farmworkers voted to join striking Filipino grape workers. In the past, agricultural strikes had often been surrounded, isolated and defeated. They are notoriously difficult to sustain. This time, the leaders of the National Farm Workers Association (later to be called the UFW) boldly organized a march out of Delano to Sacramento, which catalyzed the moment. The excited crowds that came to greet the march as it passed valley farm towns heralded the emergence of a new social climate.
Volunteers poured into Delano -- Civil Rights veterans, newborn campus radicals, and newly politicized Chicano youths. At one point the union had 600 volunteers. Young people learned from farmworkers of the lives and qualities of proletarians, workers were emboldened by the new alliance with middle-class allies – a potent, and potentially dangerous brew bubbling up at a moment when U.S. imperialism was being challenged from various quarters, internally and internationally.
As the grape contracts that were won in 1970 expired in 1973 growers made a bold move. They refused to re-sign contracts with the United Farm Workers and instead signed with the Teamsters. They sought to exploit the union’s serious weaknesses in the vineyards and crush this budding movement.
In the spring of 1973, a contingent of lettuce workers from Salinas dubbed the “Division del Norte” by Marshall Ganz, arrived in Coachella to help initiate a strike that would challenge the growers’ strategy there. Here I describe the morning after our arrival:
“By daybreak we stood on the margins of a grape field, part of the huge holdings of Tenneco Inc., which ran into the millions of acres. We were the initiating force of the strike to come. Officially we were at the field to picket and encourage the workers to leave. But we all knew that we were going in . . . One worker in a wide-brimmed straw hat marched up and down the line, speaking to the several hundred of us who stood stretched out along the field’s edge. ‘Compañeros, compañeras, camaradas; the people in this field are not our enemies, they are part of us. They are our brothers and sisters. Our enemies are the growers and the big bankers and the corporations and the Rockefellers who have forever exploited our country and enriched themselves off us. Remember that these are our people, we must explain to them why we are here, and why we must strike, to defend what we have won in our struggles.’
Hundreds of us were arrested when we invaded a field to help initiate the strike. It was at this time that the militant role of the women, so often missing from the accounts of these times, stood out sharply to me – in jail. After being herded into a holding cell:
“New sounds merged with the “huelgas,” the “abajos,” the “vivas.” It was derisive laughter, sarcasm so hardened and honed that it should have been declared a lethal weapon. But how could they confiscate it? And it came in its most withering, deadly, fashion from the mouths of the women strikers. If words could kill! The sheriffs pounded the bars with their clubs trying to smash a finger not fast enough to get out of the way. The shaking of the bars, the smacking of clubs on metal, the shouting—jailhouse rock! The men were separated from the women and placed together in a large cell. Still, the shouting and singing continued. As the hours crept by, the men began to tire. And then the shouting and cursing, like a flame burning down to ashes, weakened. Only smoldering embers. That was in the men’s area. Not so the women. Their shouts and chanting and singing could be heard throughout the jail, well into the night.”
The growers relied on sheriffs and hefty Teamster goons to protect strike- breakers. Labor unions sent help to the UFW. Democratic politicians came to regale the workers with their rhetoric. What I saw in this struck me. As I describe:
“At the start of the strike any striker who wished was free to pick up a bullhorn or mobile loudspeaker and appeal to the workers in the fields. This agitation was interesting and often moving because the strikers poured out their feelings and understandings in very passionate and creative ways. They spoke about the ranchers and the years of exploitation under the Bracero Program, racism, and abuse suffered as farmworkers. There were references to the United States’ theft of land from the Indians and from Mexico, and to the enslavement of blacks. Mentioned too was the historic aggression against Mexico—the invasions, the pitiless murder of Mexicans by the invaders, the plunder of Mexico’s resources, prestanombres used by American interests to hide their control of Mexican land, production, and resources. Politically minded workers connected the growers’ exploitation of farmworkers with a worldwide system that was guilty of crimes in Vietnam and other parts of the world. They appealed to the rebellious sentiments of the workers in the fields to join the struggle para la justicia!
But the freedom to express such views over the loudspeakers did not last long. As picket captains chosen from among farmworkers and AFL-CIO officials took charge of the loudspeakers, the political message came under tighter control, and agitation was reduced in scope, often to a repetition of a few slogans like “Abajo los Teamsters,” “Que viva la union de Chavez!” or “Chavez si, Teamsters no.” The overall atmosphere within the strike began to take on a more controlled and even repressive tone.
Sometimes comments from professional unionists were quite overt: ‘The UFW has got to start acting like a real union not a social movement’ which echoed criticism appearing in the grower press. I felt this was really aimed at the more socially conscious and radical sentiments of the farmworkers.
I left Coachella with a feeling that the effort to crush the farmworker movement was not only coming from the growers and the Teamsters. Some of their allies—liberal politicians and some major union leaders - were just as determined to suppress unruly and potentially radicalizing influences of the movement in the fields. The difference is they were willing to see a union, shorn of any rebellious edge, continue to exist. They were willing to see the body of a farmworkers’ union survive so long as any radical heart and spirit had been wrenched from it.”
The Upsurge of 1974 and the Campaign Against Undocumented Immigrants
After Coachella, strikes followed the grape harvest as it moved north. Thousands of workers were arrested. Police forces and jails were stretched to the limit. Women, in particular, played a militant role. To quote from one article from the Fresno Bee: “On July 19, 1,000 picketers massed at Fresno County farms, and 350 were arrested for violating a court injunction. . . Deputies said they tried to avoid arresting any women or children, although many were among the pickets at the ranch. It eased the arresting process and one deputy added, ‘Let’s face it. Those women are vicious. The men are no problem.’”
The grape strike of 1973 that began in Coachella was called off on the eve of the Delano harvest.
The 1974 harvest season saw strikes in crops up and down the state along with renewed boycott activity. The strike movement of those two years was quite possibly the biggest upsurge of farm workers in the history of California – one of the great strike movements in the history of this country.
While more farmworkers engaged in more resistance to the growers than ever before, in grape vineyards, melons fields, lemon orchards, tomato fields, lettuce fields, and other areas, the union was preparing its main campaign of that year, against, in its own words, “illegal” strike breakers – a campaign aimed at goading the migra to deport them. Union volunteers went door to door in some neighborhoods urging people to turn in the names of those they suspected of being undocumented. The union leadership openly called for immigration raids in fields, and in neighborhoods. During a lemon strike near San Luis Rio Colorado on the Arizona – Mexico border, the union set up a so-called wet line of union organized operatives under the leadership of Manuel Chavez, to intercept immigrants crossing the border. Under his leadership, these operatives – one is tempted to call them thugs -- outdid the Migra in their brutality.
And what was the larger significance of that?
As I see it, and explained in Lettuce Wars:
“This is a system that lives off the plunder of other countries like Mexico and then uses and abuses the people forced by that plunder to emigrate to survive. The immigration police are the enforcers of that system. Calling on the INS to “do their job” meant endorsing that role, blunting the reality they represented while inducing people into collaboration with the system. It was a policy that trained people to think of the migra and the government as allies or at least as a neutral authority that could, with enough pressure from below, act in the interest of the people. And here, I suppose, was the practical side of the policy for the UFW leadership. Whether it was consciously conceived this way or not, it put the union in closer alliance with the political system by increasing people’s faith in that system. It therefore yielded positive results, not by pushing the INS to help against strikebreakers, which seldom happened in any event, but in strengthening an alliance with the Democrats and other liberal representatives of the system. A dynamic was in motion. The illegals policy alienated the radical and progressive forces—not only outside but also inside the union—at the same time as it brought the union closer to a policy favorable to a U.S. ruling class still struggling against the radicalism and revolutionary sentiments unleashed by the upheavals of the 1960s.”
To appreciate this, think of what would have happened had the union called for the end of deportations, had denounced the migra and the whole system for its plunder of Mexico and the forced migration of millions of people. The unity and fighting spirit of the people would have been strengthened and there’d have been a different legacy.
The quid pro quo of 1975
Carrying out the anti-illegal campaign did not just mean widening divisions among people, it meant carrying out a campaign against the National Lawyers Guild, pro-immigrant groups, Chicano student groups and others who, to their credit, opposed the policy. The Worker newspaper came under intense criticism and banishment by the UFW leadership for, among other things, denouncing this anti-illegals campaign.
Chavez’ break with progressive forces marked a closer alliance with Democratic Party and imperialism. In 1975 Chavez issued a statement upholding Israel, specifically aimed at influencing the Latino population and carried out at the behest of George Meany.
In 1975 the union reached a quid pro quo, calling off the strikes and boycotts in exchange for a law, the Agriculture Labor Relations Act that gave farmworkers the right to vote for a union of their choice. The law had many positive aspects, and of itself, represented a victory in their struggle. But it also took the initiative out of the hands of the workers and put it in the realm of the legal system. This, coupled with the closer alliance with the Democratic Party, the turn against more progressive thought within the union, the persecution of people, including workers with more radical or revolutionary inclinations, weakened the union and lead, increasingly to demoralization, alienation and division.
In the union election campaigns that followed the 1975 law the UFW won a significant number of elections and new contracts – mostly in non-grape growing areas. But many of these, including in large, important companies, were stalled for years in a legal labyrinth.
In 1977 Chavez issued a letter calling on a re-projecting of the union, along a more business model. It called for an open discussion of this new direction. But soon there began an ugly purge of the union staff.
By decisively splitting with progressive forces, the union leadership turned against the very conditions that had lead to its rise. True, this was a period of ebb in the social movements and adjustments would have had to be made in any case. But with progressive sentiments purged from the ranks a new glue to bind the organization emerged -- loyalty or fealty to Chavez himself, a kind of unquestioned loyalty that could only be maintained through coercion. There was an attempt to force loyalty through synanon games.
Alienation spread within the circle of the union staff. And it was spreading in the fields as well. I describe one incident in the book to illustrate this: One afternoon after work I was in the barracks at Sun Harvest’s Toro lechuguero camp. A few of us were engaged in conversation with Carlos, a worker who had a stash of Marxist literature.
295 “Carlos also spoke of the United States in imagery popular at the time—as an octopus, its tentacles extending across the planet, sucking up resources and wealth. In this imagery national liberation and independence movements would sever the tentacles, bloodying and weakening the beast and creating the internal conditions for change. In this way the U.S. empire would be taken to task. Such were some of the views that had currency as radicals like Carlos looked beyond their immediate situations and struggled over how the world might change.
Other people in the barracks drifted in and out of the conversation.
And then, rather quickly, talk shifted when a worker on one of the nearby
bunks sat up and said, “Estan hablando de sueños compa” (You’re talking
of dreams, brother). “Y aquí vivimos con pesadillas” (And here we’re
living with nightmares). He began talking about problems in the company,
on the crews, and of an irksome feeling that things were not going
well. The union was not backing the workers in their problems with the
company. The real money being taken home in wages was diminishing
with rising prices. One worker, who had just come from the shower room,
a damp towel draped over his shoulder, stopped to relate, in a tone of
frustration, his effort to get compensated for family medical bills. Where’s
the money for the medical plan going, he said with some exasperation. “A
los politiquillos de Sacramento, primo” (to the political hacks in Sacramento, cousin), said someone else nearby, echoing a growing sentiment that their concerns were being pushed to the side for other interests the union was pursuing, interests that had more to do with becoming part of the political establishment. What particularly angered the worker who raised the medical plan problem was the dismissive tone of staff at the union hall when he sought help.
This was in 1978. A series of changes were feeding disaffection. There was disappointment with the contract, inflation overtaking wage increases, frustrations with the medical plan -- all those were factors. But in the past these would have been put in perspective in a movement struggling for a vision of something better. By 1978 that spirit had been suppressed. The democratic space workers had once enjoyed, was closed. All contributed to a growing anger within. There were stories of union office staff being literally chased out of the fields by their own union members.
These internal divisions were one of the key factors, in my opinion, for the lettuce strike that began in the Imperial Valley in January, 1979 as the leadership searched for ways to reassert its moral authority among the ranks. The 1979 lettuce strike was at once one of the most bitterly fought strikes, and one of the greatest victories achieved by the union, and, ironically, lead directly to its destruction.
But before going to the strike let me speak about another event, never mentioned in connection with farmworkers, nor social movements, but I believe is relevant here. To quote from Lettuce Wars:
The great revolutionary Mao Tse-tung died on September 23, 1976. In the
wake of his death, tremendous struggles took place in China, as a new
group of leaders tried to reverse course away from socialism and restore
capitalism. Mao recognized that the revolution that brought socialism
was only a small first step in a transitional period in which the old class
society is radically transformed, and that throughout this period, there is
struggle between the old society and those who gained from it, and the
new communal society trying to be born. Nothing guaranteed that the
old order wouldn’t be restored; the inequalities, habits, traditional ideas,
and cultural forms that have existed over thousands of years of class society won’t melt away overnight. Constant struggle to eliminate the old and give birth to the new would be necessary, and this was the motivation for the Cultural Revolution and just about everything else Mao did in the last years of his life. Unfortunately, his views and the actions of his supporters did not prevail after his death, and a process of state-directed dismantling of collective farms, state enterprises, and social welfare measures began, a process that continues today and has converted China from one of the most egalitarian nations in the world to one of the least. Advances in creating a new, revolutionary culture were turned back, and a culture of commercialism, sexism, and glorification of private wealth flooded in to replace it. Workers and peasants, struggling to become the masters of society in the Mao years, were reduced to marketable assets to be sold off at bargain prices to multinational corporations in the post-Mao society.3
My point here is not that there was widespread recognition of this among farmworkers. But the changes taking place in China with the defeat of the revolutionary forces there, could not but create conditions more favorable to reaction everywhere.
The strike in 1979 took place in this context. But there were still militant forces within the union with aspirations to fight and sacrifice for an organization to defend their well being. These aspirations clashed with a union leadership whose vision did not accord with theirs.
The battle of 1979: Turning a trade union into a trade mark.
As union contracts with lettuce growers were set to expire the UFW laid out demands that included a 40% wage increase to make up for years of inflation. The growers refused and offered only 7%. The strike began January 19 and gradually expanded to more companies. On February 10 Rufino Contreras was murdered he and other strikers entered a struck field. A one day general strike followed. Strike leader Marshall Ganz was replaced by, Frank Ortiz, an official in tune to Chavez’ autocratic leadership. The strike, indecisive in the Imperial Valley, resumed in Salinas in the spring of 1979. Ganz returns to leadership of the strike to restore eroded morale. Throughout the summer there are protests, one-day strikes, picketing, sporadic field invasions, and so on. As the last big harvest in August approached frustration among the workers anxious to expand the strike, was palpable. A split began to occur. Chavez wanted to end the strike and go on the boycott. The rank and file leaders in the fields wanted to expand the strike. They rejected the boycott. In late August a union convention took place at Hartnell college in Salinas. A deal, brokered between the union leadership around Chavez and the rank and file strike leaders, to propose a bigger strike and a boycott was broken, when a resolution, submitted by the union leadership omitted the strike. In anger a new resolution was written by rank and file strike leaders. What follows is a description from Lettuce Wars:
Then a key moment arrived at the convention. Resolution 10, written
by the UFW top leadership to rally the convention to the boycott, was to
be read on the floor. Mario Bustamante rose and walked to the microphone.
When the section of the resolution on expanding the strike was
read, the convention erupted. What had been a quiet, almost nonchalant
meeting up to that point, broke into shouts, foot stomping, and raised
fists, a loud and emotional approval of the resolution. Chavez, chairing
the meeting, quietly declared the resolution’s unanimous approval . . .
When Cesar Chavez heard the shouts of “Huelga!” from assembled
delegates and looked out across the crowd, their fists pumping the air, he
did not celebrate with them this burst of rank-and-file initiative and leadershipfrom the fields, but instead felt the internal heat of defeat, of walls closing in, of air being suddenly sucked from the room. Nor was the joy of the delegates to the call to break through the deadlock of the strike his joy. Rather their cheers were insults, sharp and painful.
The following day Chavez cut off strike funds in retaliation. Yet a walkout in a company in Watsonville lead to the company agreeing to all the strikers’ demands, and in rapid succession other growers agreed to these terms.
But the bitter division only deepened. At the 1981 union convention Salinas rank and file leaders tried to place several workers on to Executive Board of the union. The effort met with dishonest tactics, suppression and threats. The Salinas delegation walked out of the convention. Later, many of the most dedicated and seasoned rank and file leaders were driven out of the union.
The Destruction of the Union and the situation today
What followed was the destruction of the union as growers used legal maneuvers to declare themselves out of business only to re-emerge with new names and without union contracts. Workers were set adrift. And the growers set about to reshape their labor situation in a way to prevent a repeat of what had happened in the 1970s. To read from the Epilogue:
The 1970s was a bad decade for growers, with control over their key commodity disrupted. I’m not referring to their vegetables, but the labor power of their workers. By 1979, some workers were hearing growers talk aggressively of vengeance to come. By the mid-1980s, with the farmworker movement defeated and union organization shattered, growers moved to recapture lost ground. With the farmworker movement and the larger social upsurge a thing of the past, the market was “free” to move the cost of workers’ labor power to the level dictated by supply and demand, with the growers pushing hard on the supply side. The bad days were over; “peace” was restored to the fields.
Labor contractors became the fortress standing guard over the newly
reconquered terrain. By using contractors the growers created a downward
pressure on wages and conditions through competition among the contractors; distanced themselves from blame for worsening working conditions; and made collective action by farmworkers to defend themselves extremely difficult. The results were evident: wages dropped dramatically and then stagnated; benefits deteriorated or disappeared; working conditions declined. Around the mid-1980s, growers began to dismantle the labor camps, reaping the benefits of rising real estate prices while dispersing the workers even more and ratcheting up the debilitating struggle for survival.
Had this division not occurred in the union, would things be different today? Such things are difficult to predict. Certainly it seems likely the union would not have been defeated as quickly and completely. It would not have left so much bitterness. But the essential apartheid like conditions of farm work would not have changed as they are an essential feature to capitalist agriculture in the U.S. In fact, one could even argue, they are more essential today as the pace of work and exploitation increases, influenced by sharpening farm competition from lower wage countries like Mexico, Chile, and even China
When I returned to the fields a few years ago to find about conditions I ran into Israel, a fellow lechuguero I’d worked with at Norton company. He was now a labor contractor foreman. Israel assured me that conditions were better than in the old days. The government is available to deal with any abuses, he said. I can only say I found this to be a fantasy few in the fields shared.
Conditions in the fields today are a raging injustice. The speed of production in hourly work is commiserate with a contract pace in the old days; wages have stagnated for decades and fallen seriously behind rising costs of living; cheating is such that overtime pay, which comes only after 60 hours work a week, was referred to by one veteran as “an unsubstantiated rumor”. A recent study in California found that 80% of farmworker women have endured some kind of sexual harassment or abuse related to work. So, I went to the labor commission one day to see for myself what, in fact, protections they offered. While I was there a couple of young workers came in. One had been fired, he claimed, unjustly. He was looking for some recourse. Here I will quote from that part of Lettuce Wars:
The commissioner was sympathetic, and took time to hear the young man’s explanation. Finally she said, “You know, the fact is, the company can fire you without any cause whatever. They don’t even have to have an excuse, so there is really no way you can fight this.” Then, perhaps to soften the blow, she added, “But you know, you can quit too, without any excuse or explanation at all.” At that, I had to stop myself from laughing. The Labor Commission woman had just summarized about as succinctly as one can the logic of justice that lies at the heart of this “democracy”: “We can take away your livelihood without cause or recourse. But you can quit, take away your own livelihood, also without cause.” Here is the logic of a system based on the exploitation of labor, and engaged in constant warfare to protect or expand that exploitation: “We reserve the right to kill you, but you can also commit suicide.”
Human (though I prefer to call it inhuman) exploitation demands the suffering of some as the prerequisite for the sustenance of others, and for the ceaseless drive to accumulate capital. It is the injustice at the base of all injustice, the foundation of the whole capitalist edifice and the monstrous roadblock to human progress. No matter how wired (or wireless) we become, how advanced our forms of transportation or communication, how fine our instruments of discovery, how vast our ability to produce, so long as we humans live off the suffering of one another, so long as our social system rests on such relations of exploitation, we will remain stunted, primitive and barbaric, violent, destructive, and unjust. So foundational to this system are these relations of exploitation that they are usually equated with human nature itself. We may continue, almost oblivious to their historically limited role in our suffering, until that time when we no longer can . . .
This past week Beyond Chron blogger Marc Norton, commented, after reading the intro to Lettuce Wars, and then skipping to the back of the book, “It doesn’t have a happy ending”. Indeed. It’s more of a question than an answer.
I spent time interviewing farmworkers at different of pick up spots around the state and came across many examples of resistance and other potential. There were workers who protested lack of pay for down time; young workers who contemplated collective work stoppages to protest lack of overtime pay, a woman in Calexico who lead a protest against the lack of proper drinking water, a Oaxacan worker in Huron discussing the vast network that connects his indigenous Mexican compatriots, women on a lettuce machine who laughingly recounted the “respectable” nicknames the crew had given their labor contractor and supervisor – “Señor matagente”, mister killer of people, and Señor “Quita cueros”, Mr. Skin you alive.
One morning I had a conversation with some workers who’d never heard of Karl Marx but clearly and succinctly summed up one of his key observations of this capitalist system – its dirty little secret, and spoke about how tired they were of being treated like “burros”. This is only the tiniest tip of that iceberg, of what Marx referred to as the potential gravediggers of capitalism. For the chain of oppression that now covers our planet, this web of oppressive relations that binds us together as never before, has created a class of proletarians, working men and women, and those who by other means manage to scrape together a living, and those enslaved, sometimes literally, in this absurdly distorted and obsolete system – those who feed us and provide the foundation upon which everything else exists. For a moment in time in the 1960s and 70’s conditions emerged that allowed for a collective recognition of another kind of world. Should another historical moment arise, when cracks in the system allow the light of new possibilities to be seen, will we be able to grab hold of that potential to bring about the end of this madness? Will we be able to take a decisive step into that more liberated world that Marx wrote of? The potential is there.
I’ll leave you with another quote from Bob Avakian which I think speaks to that: “Those who this system has cast off, those it has treated as less than human, can be the backbone and driving force of a fight not only to end their own oppression, but to finally end all oppression, and emancipate all of humanity”.
Thank you very much.