09/18/2012 02:14 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2012

Clashes in California's Fields

Before I was a teacher I worked for 12 years in a restaurant kitchen as a cook/chef. I always found it odd to read newspaper accounts of restaurants that were all about the romance, the aesthetic, the unrestrained consumerism of the public eating. No one had a sense of the grinding labor, the pain and tragedy, the humor and resilience that characterized the workers --often Mexican, often undocumented -- in the back kitchens of virtually all restaurants.

I worked there and learned my Spanish, learned about the basics of capitalism, and learned the beautiful and heartbreaking culture of the cocina. From routine phrases repeated every day, "mucho trabajo, compadre, poco dinero," to the funny mash-ups of English and Spanish, "Watchale!" to the throbbing of the radio and the teasing repartee with the front cooks and floor staff, the day wound on. I also got to see the apartments in Oakland where 10 young men would share a one-bedroom, rotating sleeping with work shifts; the banda bars where homesick young men and women, sporting signs of their states on cowboy hats or banners hanging from back pockets (Nayarit! Guerrero! Michoacan!), danced long nights after long days at work.

The first thing that struck me on opening Frank Bardacke's stupendous account of farm labor battles in California, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, is how thoroughly he captures the reality, the life on the ground of farm labor. Being a typical California coast dweller, I have scant sense of the inland, where huge parts of the population and economy of California reside. Bardacke brings this world to life. For many people the story of the United Farm Workers (UFW) is repeated as the saintly Cesar Chavez and the invisible masses of farm-workers stooped over their mindless work. Yes, Bardacke does recount the incredible story of Cesar Chavez but in a deeper and far more honest context. Reminding me of the reality of restaurant labor, Bardacke explores the complexity, the power, the deep knowledge that goes into farm labor.

He spends a chapter describing how celery-harvesting crews do their work and approaches the lyricism found when Melville describes the labor of men on whaling ships. The work is not at all mindless but our predisposition to value intellectual labor (as Aristotle said, suitable for free men) and manual labor (suitable for women and slaves) is deeply engrained in our thinking. Bardacke's observations are original and striking, such as this:

"Farmworkers evoke comparisons to athletes -- football players and middle-infielders, long-distance runners, bicycle racers, boxers -- because the centuries-long destruction of craft work is almost complete and the only context in which people still believe in the skill of physical activity is sports. ... The cunning of the hand, what farmworkers call maña, remains the basis of California farm work as surely as it is the basis of a major league pitcher's job or a skilled craftsman's. Many farmworker jobs are not only hard to do but hard to learn, often requiring years to master, and skills typically are passed from one generation to the next. Farmworkers use hand tools: knives, hoes, clippers, pruners. They do not tend machines or have to keep up with an assembly line."

The power of these workers, seen in their militancy and initiative, is key to the UFW story. Bardacke brings to bear materialist analysis at its most scintillating, beautiful precision.

I continued to marvel as I read this book, wondering how impoverished our understanding of this crucial history would be if Bardacke had not undertaken this project. Trampling out the Vintage has few equals in the world of historiography -- it fills a huge hole and explains so much that has gone unexplained. I think of examples such as William Hinton's Fanshen which brought to life the reality of Chinese village upheaval during the revolution. But there are few others that are this stunning.

Frank Bardacke was once a Berkeley student activist, a member of the Oakland Seven charged with conspiracy to incite riot for resistance actions at the military recruitment center. He achieved new left fame for a short piece titled "Who Owns the Park?" during the People's Park confrontations in 1969 in Berkeley. Leaping between communities and histories, he was able to put this struggle in the context of U.S. property rights which wiped out indigenous peoples. He brings the same deft and far-ranging curiosity and knowledge to the task of understanding the farmworkers and their fights. Frank disappeared from student activism after People's Park and relocated to Watsonville in the Salinas Valley. He worked for six years in the fields and lived through the long twists and turns of the California agricultural wars, eventually working as a teacher in adult education. The book is the result of over a decade of deep work -- from reading everything public and archived on the struggle to over 50 interviews he conducted himself and 300 interviews he acquired from other researchers.

This thorough volume leads the reader through every nook and cranny, every possible influence, in giving a rich and complex picture of the working of history. Besides the reality of farm work, he takes us on a smart journey into geography, an examination of the language and culture of Mexicali, and insight into the Reagan governorship. But he goes deeper than that. He explores Pope Leo XIII's 1891 encyclical that called for the faithful to be involved in social struggles; he explains the complexity of Saul Alinsky and the community organizing model from Chicago; he uncovers the importance of the civil rights activists in the South, particularly the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in helping to spread the grape boycott; he analyzes the ascent and decline of the Cold War liberals like Allard Lowenstein and Walter Reuther; he appreciates the powerful role of Filipino farmworkers and their organizations before and during the UFW; he introduces us to a delightful cast of characters from the irrepressible Luis Valdez who created the Teatro Campesino on the picket lines to incredible organizers like Eliazar Risco; he even takes us into the life of the local Delano bar, People's, where pool games, beer, and political debate suffused the atmosphere for years.

Some of the large themes uncovered in the book may come as a surprise. For example, it was the farmworkers movement in the 1960s (and before) which most vehemently agitated for the closing of the borders and for keeping out undocumented workers. After all, a steady influx of desperate workers from Mexico, through the bracero program or through illegal crossing, made organizing a contract almost impossible. It was the rich, the Republicans, the right, who continued to work for illegal immigration. What a strange twist that has taken. And the UFW lost some of its credibility, some of its critical connection to communities, with this stance.

The long farmworker strikes were indeed successful and for a period in the 1970s some of these workers were well compensated -- around $12 per hour, at the level of skilled laborers in other parts of the country. But as a result of a combination of factors, including Reagan's stacking of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board with people hostile to the union and the decline of the social movements across the U.S., workers have been driven back to a life of marginal existence. Bardacke does not flinch from examining the contribution of internal strife within the UFW. Some of this had to do with the power of the boycott and the middle class non-worker base that this created, undermining democratic structures within the fields. Some had to do with the institutionalization involved in becoming part of the AFL-CIO. And some reflected the harsh and even strange ideas embraced by Cesar Chavez, which contributed to the waning of UFW power.

Pick this book up to gain a deep and profound encounter with issues of social justice, of the economic crisis of today, of immigration and diversity, and of the age-old question activists must always ask, "What is to be done?"