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Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the fields of California



This is a highly readable book about the author's life from 1971 to 1979 as a young Californian farmworker and member of the United Farm Workers union (UFW). And even though the story is more than three decades old it's worth reading as it has parallels with today's era of global capitalism when more than ever workers are all `casual labour.'
Californian agriculture is an example of factories in the fields and for generations workers toiled without the basic protection of a trade union with growers able to ruthlessly exploit a large immigrant workforce composed mainly of Mexicans.
Things started to change when under the leadership of Cesar Chavez a grape strike was initiated in 1965 and the union then brought into the dispute thousands more lettuce and vegetable workers. On 29 July 1970 a three year recognition agreement was signed between the union and growers, who immediately began to try and undercut pay and conditions by developing relationships with the Teamster trade union such that workers were no longer employed direct but by contractors.
UFW members were sent into fields to organise walk outs and strikes and were met with brutality from employers, Teamster hired thugs and the police. There were mass arrests, and even some killings, of strikers as the fight continued for proper union recognition and was boosted by support from other unions as well as progressive and revolutionary forces. Wherever elections were held amongst workers they demonstrated their support for the UFW's militancy by voting in large numbers to be represented by the union rather than the Teamsters.
Neuburger was a keen UFW participant during this exciting time. This helps him really bring alive the farmworker's personalities, their lives and motivations during a period in the USA when the high-points of anti-colonial struggle and political rebellion had passed.
In its wake Chavez began to turn away from revolt to reform. So whilst the passing of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 gave farmworkers potential legal remedies over things such as unfair dismissals it also took the struggles away from the workplace. Neuberger's criticism led to him being harassed and eventually attacked by union goons who drove him out of farming in 1979, two years after Chavez had invited to the UFW convention a representative of the Philippines President Marcos regime that regularly murdered trade unionists.
The right-wing moves meant that even though the UFW rank and file were able to win a famous wages victory in 1979 by organising widespread strike action without the backing of Chavez it wasn't long before the growers fought back.
In 1983, after having carefully weeded out union activists, growers cancelled union contracts and then shut down their own companies. When they re-opened days later under new names the same employees found themselves employed by contractors paying rates less than half they had earned before. There was no union response. Today the annual wage of a Californian agricultural worker is around $19,000 (£17,000) and few are union members.

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On Crossing the Border to the lettuce fields every day:

We talked to people in line – workers going to the lettuce machines; others working in the “sprinkles” irrigation; lettuce cutters working by hour at minimum wage; citrus workers working by piece rate.  Though each had their  own take on the morning lines, they all agreed that this morning was unusual and that it was not unusual to have to wait 2, 3 hours or more to cross the border.  One worker said, “Nothing’s going to be done until someone dies, and it’ll happen because the situation here is out of control”.  He went on to describe the anger that flares at times when the frustration of waiting overtakes people, or the resentment that sparks off when an organized group pushes their way to the front, which sometimes happens.  
Children who go to school in Calexico have to wait in these lines as well, though it’s not clear if they get preferential treatment.  In Yuma I spoke with a teacher from the  Gadsden school district who told me that children in her elementary school class have to get up at 4 in the morning to cross over from San Luis Rio Colorado to school that begins at 8 AM.
While in the passageway we noticed that piñatas hanging from one of the stands were swaying.  It was a cold wind that cut through the passageway – it was uncomfortably cold and breezy.  I asked about where someone might find a bathroom and was directed to several doors at the start of the passageway on the Mexicali end.  These were iron doors with no markings and they were both closed.  While I was taking photos in the passageway a guard of sorts approached me and asked what I was doing.  I explained why I was there and he seemed satisfied.  I was able to talk to him for a while.  His name was Alejandro and he’d worked the area at night for 3 years.  He made less than $100 a week, but said his job gave him a small break on his rent in the Infonavit housing.  He told me that the bathrooms were closed ever since the person who used to take care of them had died.  Anyone needing a bathroom would have to leave the passageway and go out on the street to and find relief in a store or restaurant in Mexicali.  When I asked him how that could be when people had to routinely wait 2 or 3 hours to cross, he just shrugged.  Alejandro’s job is to watch for taggers and thieves.
At about 4:30 we decided to cross over.  Freulan got into the Ready Line with his visa and went through rather quickly.  I got in the regular line at the bottom of the stairway at the Calexico end of the passageway.  At 4:45 I got a text from my goddaughter who’d come down with me from S.F.  She and her sister were staying with relatives in Mexicali and we’d arranged to meet at the border that morning.  I found her in line at the beginning of the stairway.  The 3 of us went up the line together.  After making our way up the stairs we came to the level of the immigration office where we had to go through a revolving door.  As I saw the people ahead of me go through it, they reminded me of prisoners with leg shackles trying to walk, as people were crammed very close together in the revolving door.  My god daughter said later that watching people go through the door reminded her of cattle being herded. When my turn came I felt like a prisoner as well, packed in with close bodies, shuffling forward with small steps.
While the line was far shorter than normal, we didn’t get into the immigration office area until about 5:50.  In the office I saw that there were just 3 counters open.  Each person seeking to cross had to put their ID card in a machine before approaching the counter.  I had my passport which I shoved into the machine.  When I reached the counter I was asked a number of stock, inane questions – “Where are you going?”  “Where are you coming from?”  “Why were you in Mexicali?”, etc.  My god-daughter was also asked how she planned to return to S.F.  There were just 3 counters with agents to allow people to pass through and it seems that no matter how large the crowds are waiting to cross, the immigration maintains a tiny staff to handle this job.  Despite the massive buildup of the border patrol to hunt down immigrants, only a tiny crew can be spared to help facilitate people getting to work.  It’s as though the S.F. Bay Bridge had only 4 lanes open in the morning rush hour.  I can imagine the hell that would break loose if people had to wait 2, 3, 4 hours every morning to cross the bridge.  And here farmworkers not only have to wait, but wait in the cold chill of morning.  This is totally unnecessary, even punitive.  I’d call it criminal negligence on the part of both the U.S. and Mexican governments. 
One aspect of this process of crossing the border which a number of people I spoke with were upset about, is the effect it has on women.  Especially when there are large crowds and people are packed into the passageway, women suffer the indignities of being groped and even sexually abused.  My god daughter told me that when she was in the revolving door a man behind her pushed himself up against her from behind in an act that she felt was deliberate. 
There is no one from either the Mexican side or the U.S. side to watch over the situation even though it is hazardous to women and potential dangerous to everyone.  The only person even assigned to watch over things, Alejandro, is hired to do so to protect property, not people. 
While waiting in a line that turned out to be a little more than an hour long, and even while I knew I was leaving and wouldn’t have to be in such a line again, I felt frustrated and irritated.  I can’t imagine having to wait in even longer lines every day just to get to work. 
These long waits at the border rob people of their rest and must be damaging to peoples’ health, especially so with women, with the double burden they often share as workers and mainstay of families.  When I was interviewing people a few years ago for the book Lettuce Wars a woman farmworker told me she crossed the border at midnight to avoid the long waits and had to sleep in her van.  She slept poorly as she was always on edge, fearful of oversleeping and missing her bus to work.  She said she had young children at home she had no choice but to leave alone while she went to work. 
After crossing over to Calexico we went and had coffee at a nearby fast food place.  I noticed that the sun came up around 7 AM, 5 hours after the workers we saw earlier had crossed over.  One of the workers I spoke with at the borderline said he normally left his home at 2:30 and didn’t get back until 6 PM,  15 ½ hours later.  This is clearly not untypical. 
On the street in Calexico and at the passageway leading to the border crossing it was not difficult to talk to people.  Many seemed anxious to talk and there was anger and resentment barely below the surface.  I hope something can be done to expose this grotesque abuse.  Such an exposure might be the spark for some positive action . 

Wow, that's pretty crazy.  I used to live in SoCal and saw how rough the migrant worker life could be, pretty unfortunate.  On a tangent, I read a book a couple years ago called "Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World" (long before I got into 30Bad) that has some parallels - strikes, assassinations, cruddy working conditions, etc.  Pretty good read if you ever get a chance, and they do have it on Kindle: (read in your browser)




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