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

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

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

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


In 1971, Bruce Neuburger- young, out of work, and radicalized by the 60s counterculture in Berkeley- took a job as a farmworker on a whim. He could have hardly anticipated that he would spend the next decade laboring up and down the agricultural valleys of California, alongside the anonymous and largely immigrant workforce that feeds the nation. This account of his journey begins at a remarkable moment, after the birth of the United Farm Workers union and the ensuing uptick in worker militancy. As a participant in organizing efforts, strikes, and boycotts, Neuburger saw first-hand the struggles of farmworkers for better wages and working conditions, and the lengths the growers would go to suppress worker unity.

Part memoir, part informed commentary on farm labor, the U.S. labor movement, and the political economy of agriculture, Lettuce Wars is a lively account written from the perspective of the fields. Neuburger portrays the people he encountered- immigrant workers, fellow radicals, company bosses, cops and goons- vividly and indelibly, lending a human aspect to the conflict between capital and labor as it played out in the fields of California.


It was early evening, a few hours before my shifts end. in the cab line at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco it was the regular crapshoot. Sit in line and take your chances or cruise the streets for fares in hope of being bounced around the city like a pinball. You got in line because, like the people who work slot machines, there’s always the chance of a jackpot. Here you invest your minutes, not your money, but the anticipation is similar. It was airport action that represented the most likely bonanza. Better odds here than cruising or taking your chances on radio calls—of a rigged radio at that—though at the St. Francis you could easily end up waiting fifteen or twenty minutes for a $5 ride to the Wharf.

This is one of the pains and attractions of cab driving—the dice are always rolling. in an hourly job there’s the security of knowing what you’ll take home at the end of the day. a cabby never knows. No matter how bad your day or even your week, the chance of scoring the big ride lurks behind every call and every “flag.”

San Francisco cab companies put the allure of the gamble squarely in the drivers’ job description when, in 1978, they backed a ballot proposition that won voter favor. It set up a lease arrangement. Cab company employees were suddenly “independent contractors.” Independence! One of those alluring terms that hides less alluring realities: the end of company health benefits, retirement benefits—any benefits. Independence, ya right, you’re on your own, good luck!

As the line at the St. Francis crept forward and my cab inched toward the front of the pack, I kept a close eye on the guests leaving the front door. This one with baggage, airport; that one, in casual clothes, probably . . .

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