The United Farm Workers was once a mighty force on the California landscape, with 50,000 members at the end of the 1970s; today the membership is around 6,000. What happened? And to what extent was the UFW responsible for its own demise? Frank Bardacke has been thinking about that for a long time—he was active in the student and anti-war movements in Berkeley in the 1960s. He moved to California’s Central Coast in 1970, worked for six seasons in the Salinas Valley fields and then taught English as a Second Language at the Watsonville Adult School for twenty-five years. Verso has just published his book Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers—it’s a masterpiece of sorts, on the order of Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch. I spoke with Frank Bardacke recently on KPFK 90.7FM in Los Angeles.
You worked in the fields in Salinas, picking celery. What was that like?
It’s done by collective piecework, with a crew of thirty to thirty-five people, paid for each box of celery. They share that pay equally. The crews are all men. They have a high degree of solidarity. They try to make the jobs equal. The men typically come from the same small towns in Mexico, often they are brothers and cousins and fathers and sons. You can’t get on a crew unless the members want you and are willing to carry you while you learn the work. The core of the crew will stay together over many seasons. The result is that they have a tremendous amount of power and leverage at harvest time, because they can’t be replaced except by other crews with similar skills. They never split up if it comes to a strike—they either strike together, or they don’t strike. These people, along with the lettuce workers, were the heart of UFW strength in the fields.
How much did piece-rate vegetable workers earn in the mid-1970s, at the height of UFW power?
When I worked on a celery harvest crew in the mid-seventies, we made about $14 an hour. The guys who cut the lettuce made about $20 an hour. That’s the equivalent of about $50 an hour today. They were among the highest paid people in the US working class. This resulted from their own power in the fields, coupled with the UFW’s institutional power and ability to mobilize support in the rest of society. That was in the 1970s.
When you went to work in the fields, were you doing research for a Berkeley PhD thesis? Or was it political organizing, because you believed the working class could overthrow capitalism?
Neither! I left Berkeley during the Vietnam War and went to work in an anti-war GI coffeehouse near Fort Ord, not far from Salinas. That didn’t pay much money, so I was also a PE teacher at a local high school. But I was fired because my police record from Berkeley arrived. So I needed a job.
One day I picked up a hitchhiker who told me he had just finished working for a couple of weeks in the fields with the UFW. He told us how to do it, so a friend and I got jobs, working hourly, with short-handled hoes. The work was extremely difficult. I worked in the fields for six years, and by the end I was just barely an average worker. But eventually I made my way onto a piecework crew, and made a decent living. I only had to work for six months of the year, and then I qualified for unemployment for the next six months.
The politics were extremely interesting. The farmworkers the year before had won a really big strike. In 1971 the crews we were on often refused to get off the bus, for instance if they smelled pesticide in the air, or if they didn’t like the foreman. There was a level of daily struggle that was much greater than all the politics I’d done in the anti-war movement as a student. It was thrilling.