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.