An account by a participant of Californian agricultural workers’ struggles raises important questions about exploitation, immigration and the limitations of the great United Farmworkers union

Bruce Neuburger, Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California. (Monthly Review Press 2013), 414pp.

This political memoir of workers’ struggles in the fields of California raises the key question of whether the ‘American Way of Life was, and is, only possible because the intense, cruel exploitation of some sustains the privileged lives of others’ (p.121).

Neuburger’s book is part political memoir and part political analysis of the struggle for rights in the 1970s in the vegetable and fruit fields of California, and is a valuable contribution to the history of American political and economic radicalism. It feels like an update on East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, set in Salinas, California. Or perhaps more importantly it is a memoir that reflects the story of workers’ courage and resistance that Steinbeck creates in his much underrated novel, In Dubious Battle. This book will certainly nestle comfortably on my book shelves between these two novels and The Bending Cross, A Biography of Eugene V Debs, by Ray Ginger, which illustrates the same political radicalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It illustrates a history of the United States which is ‘more arrogant invader than beacon of freedom, more oppressor and aggressor than champion of human rights’ (p.266).

The book is based around Neuburger’s actual experiences in the fields in the 1970s. Through the vivid descriptions and humorous prose, you almost come to feel the intense pain of the work in your fingers, your back and the sweat that was part of his ‘salty anointment’ into contract work (p.55). At the same time, the real pain is felt through the ‘workers who were dehumanised and demoralised by extreme forms of exploitation’ (p.102). It really exposes the plight of the farm worker and the exploitation of the casual worker in the 1970s, which seem to act almost as a template for the neoliberal theory of employment across most sectors in 2013. As such, the story has real resonance for the battles being faced by workers across industries and across the globe.

One of the highlights of the book is the vast array of bit part characters. The author has a fantastic way of introducing us to and helping us to expand our understanding of the workers in the fields. Many of course in this story are workers who have come across from Mexico. It really personalises the book as we get to understand their characters, motivations for seeking work in the USA, their culture and view of the world, and brings to life the poverty in which they live. The characters of Pablo and Maria really stand out as does, in particular, their view of the political system which is ‘puro convenencia’ or pure self-interest. In this way, the book is also the story of his exploration of an unfamiliar culture, its food and language.

The book reads as a memoir and story, but at the same time it tries to draw out some key messages and ideas from the struggle to form an overall political and social statement. In particular, it focuses on the work of the United Farmworkers union led by Cesar Chavez. It highlights the immense bravery and commitment of many of the workers and the successes of the union in using strikes to force the vegetable growers to the negotiating table in order to improve conditions. At the same time, the author highlights one of the key issues that occurs as the union begins to dominate the social movement. The union ‘in exchange for a place at the master’s table’ would have to guarantee work and peace in the fields and so would no longer be in a position to ‘challenge the exploitation … and endless abuses’ (p.251). Cesar Chavez and his leadership team became increasingly authoritarian, stamping out the spirit of rebellion from the very workers they represented.

The union also embarked on a policy of singling out ‘los ilegales’ (undocumented workers) as strike-breakers and encouraging and supporting the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to deport them. This massively undermined the spirit of resistance as it promotes the ‘corrosive logic of supporting the oppression as long as I get my cut’ (p.169). The spirit of the working classes being turned inwardly to fight amongst themselves for scraps from the master’s table is exactly what we are seeing here in the UK today with the rise of the right-wing debates around immigration and scroungers. Chillingly, the result of the union’s limiting of strike action and its desire not really to challenge control over the means of the production becomes clear in the final two chapters. The author shows how the vegetable growers disband and reform their businesses to escape their union contracts. The result is the loss of the victories won by the union and the return of exploitation and human degradation on a massive scale. Perhaps the lesson to be learnt is that for a progressive social movement to challenge the existing relations of production, it cannot rest upon the aims and structure of the union movement in isolation.

Neuburger draws conclusions from individual stories and events about the wider system, even though the book is in no way an exercise in Marxist theory. In doing so the author is hoping that we, like him, can ‘glimpse beyond the inevitable to consider the possible’ (p.268). In particular the anger that emanates from him and the key characters is there to show us that: ‘Decisions … in capitalist democracy are not based on the “will of the people” but on the will of the people who control the levers of wealth and power’ (p.131). But there is real hope here, and that hope lies with the farm worker and, by extension, the working class across the world. That hope is best summed up in his view that ‘ironically, connections between production, labor, and wealth, so obvious to a farmworker, are often an obscure mystery to people in the upper classes’ (p.115). And so long as workers can make these connections, there is a chance to build resistance to the current system and to remind us that ‘dreams are great as long as they are not built on other people’s nightmares’ (p.296).

Neuburger leaves the reader with one final thought and that is about the relationship between us and food. The position of the supermarket has placed a huge distance between us and our food. In addition, it means that ‘many people have little more than the slightest notion of those who plant, cultivate and harvest the food we buy there and depend on’ (p.357). Perhaps this intriguing book will go some way to closing that gap and make us think about the question of whether there is something seriously wrong with a society that treats the people who produce our food as inferior.