Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Bruce Neuburger - Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California

While in part biography, Bruce Neuburger's Lettuce Wars is really a history of life and work for agricultural labourers in California in the early 1970s. At its heart is the day to day struggle to make ends meet for tens of thousands of workers, mostly immigrant labour. But this is also a celebration of the struggle of those workers to get organised, and their victories against the bosses. Sometimes, this is in spite of their trade union leaders, and often it was because of a few individuals like Neuburger, prepared to stand up and be counted.

So here are the stories of the forgotten men and women, often working illegally who struggled to give others a voice and to improve their lot. Despite the remoteness of the fields and the language barriers, these struggles were not in isolation. People like Neuburger were heavily influenced by wider radical ideas - the struggle against the war in Vietnam, the women's liberation movements, and revolutionary socialist ideas. Some of the fascinating parts of the book are Neuburger's accounts of his involvement with the "coffee shops", setup to relate to soldiers heading to Vietnam.

But these radical ideas were not just those of the socialist left that Neuburger was part of. They had currency amongst much wider sections of the agricultural workers and their organisations. Neuburger mentions wearing a Chairman Mao badge and being asked by all his "crew" in the fields if they could have one too. A even clearer understanding of the world is demonstrated by a stunning photo of evicted families living in tents in 1972, one of which has posted a sign, "La Posada - My Lai. Same enemy - US bosses and guns".

Neuburger explains how the bosses in the fields knew exactly how to turn people against each other, using faster workers to encourage slower ones, or encouraging harder work by offering bonuses if certain amounts of vegetables were cut or boxed in an hour. They also used racial divisions to divide people - on a couple of occasions, Neuburger is offered promotion because of his white skin.

Neuburger's experience in the fields and working with these labourers transformed his wider understanding of the world, and developing his Marxism in a way that just reading books alone can never do:
Rather than seeing farmworkers as isolated from mainstream middle class life, I began to regard the urban middle class as isolated in the big cities, cut off from the reality of those who supplied their food. And because the conditions in which the farmworkers labored and lived had more in common with billions of oppressed people in communities around the world,, I felt the situation in the fields more closely reflected the broad reality of the world than the privileged world I'd come from. I also began to feel in a very personal way how different social realities affect our consciousness, giving form to Marx's observation that 'social being determines social consciousness'.
The "conditions" that the author refers to are horrific. Overcrowded, dirty dormitories, rundown housing with no hot water to clean off the mud from the fields, no toilets in the fields, lack of holiday pay or overtime. It is these conditions that the workers organise against and the struggle which Neuburger involves himself in.

There was a long history of union organising by workers in the fields. But the union was not perfect. Inspired by wider struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s and led by the charismatic and confident Cesar Chavez the union made important and rapid gains. But as time went forward the union itself became less confident to challenge the farm bosses. Its bureaucracy began to look both to the Democrats as a potential ally, and to the benefits accrued from deals made with the bosses themselves. As this happened strikes began to be more of a threat than a central part of the workers tactics. Rank and file activists, particularly those who were communist or socialist like Bruce Neuburger were targeted and forced out.

To those of us in the European union movement, the level of violence in US class struggles is always shocking. But so is the violence deployed against the left during the 1970s, as Chavez sought to strengthen his hold on the union. "Chavez", Neuburger writes, "used anti-communism as an internal bond. It also served to cement ties with the Democrats and the establishment in general. I think this, in part, explains his fanatical, out of proportion preoccupation with leftists in the union." A not unfamiliar situation for those of us in certain British unions today.

Even more shocking was the racism that the union used against immigrants, arguing that attacking migrants and illegal immigrants would protect its members' jobs; despite them coming from similar backgrounds. Neuburger relates that:
the union set up tents along the border to stop workers coming across the border, to prevent them from breaking the strike. There were rumours about union actions on the border, not very pretty ones.
To Neuburger's credit he and other left-wingers argue against this capitulation to divide and rule, but are themselves further isolated and eventually defeated by the union bureaucracy. Sadly, Neuburger understood even then that what was needed more was the militancy of the left to fight the bosses, rather than the support of the Democratic Party.

For those of us today organising to strengthen radical trade unionism and socialist organisation, there is a certain inspiration in Neuburger's descriptions of his early attempts to produce radical newspapers and literature. His satisfaction at seeing the paper passed from hand to hand, or read aloud. As well has his early naivety when the paper upsets the union bureaucracy. For those organising today, in the fields, or in call centres there is still much to learn here.

In his epilogue, Bruce Neuburger returns to the fields. He finds there are more than two million year-round and seasonal workers in the US, including 100,000 children. One in ten of them is a US citizen. Today, US capital relies very much on the cheap labour it can get from Mexico and Latin America. Neuburger points out though that the difference is that it is not just agriculture, but other industries too. Conditions are better in some ways - portable toilets seem more common - but overcrowded homes and the threat of the immigration police remain. Interestingly pay seems far worse than in the 1980s.

So today the struggles for justice by some of the poorest and most exploited workers in America continue. But Neuburger's book demonstrates beyond doubt that when those workers do organise they can make real gains, holding immense power in an industry which makes enormous profits from their labour. While some socialist readers may consider Neuburger's Maoist politics incorrect it is hardly a distraction from one other lesson - that a network of socialists, arguing socialist ideas can make a crucial difference to workers' struggles. As such, this book is recommended to everyone trying to organise to change the world today.

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