Demonstrations took time, energy and endless meetings. Decisions had to be made, locations identified, fliers printed and distributed. phone calls placed, posters and picket signs produced, transportations arranged. At every demonstration and meeting I took part in during the late Fifties and
early Sixties, the first people to set up and the last to leave after making sure everything was taken care of, were communists and ex-communists. We didn’t talk about it, but they had a discipline and commitment that few others matched. The California Communist party, against all odds, under the leadership of Dorothy Healy, was attracting new members.
We supported the Cuban Revolution and went to lectures by Americans who had visited the revolutionary country. Paul Baran, an economics professor at Stanford University, was a favorite. Baran
was famous for saying, when challenged about socialist failures in the Soviet Union, “socialism in a backward and underdeveloped countries has a powerful tendency to become a backward and underdeveloped socialism.” Cuba, we hoped, would be different.
Baran argued that the United States’ aggressive foreign policy was an inevitable, or at least likely, consequence of modern capitalism, which produces more things than consumers can buy. The easiest way to absorb the surplus is in military spending, post-war reconstruction and opening new markets for consumption. Baran believed the surplus wasted on military expenditures should go to social benefits like health care, education, a modern infrastructure and other improvements to the nation’s commons. The subsequent decent living standards for working people would benefit all of us in a society less prone to violence and despair.
If I had any illusions about earning a living on the left, it would be as a labor organizer. Clint and Virginia suggested I spend time in California’s Central Valley, working with migrant workers. Cezar
Chavez and Dolores Huerta had co-founded the National Farm Workers Association three years earlier. They were just beginning to get noticed. It would be five years before their famous grape boycott. Clint was helping organize agricultural workers in the North, where the unionizing movement was just getting started.
We moved into a share cropper’s shack and started to meet our neighbors. I spent a few days in the fields trying to prove myself. With no experience, I worked for the lowest pay, stoop labor. I don’t know how people did it on a regular basis. It was sometimes 110 in the sun and the black, red soil seemed to release waves of heat. Fields could be a 40 minute drive from the camps where farmers picked up their workers, and you didn’t get paid for travel. Workers got up at 5:00 and got home by 7:00 or 8:00. Crooked scales and unfair competition from cheap Mexican labor cheated them at every turn. A good farm worker could make only $6 or $7 a day. Whole families picked, with kids as young as four in the strawberry fields.
People accuse progressives of romanticising the poor, making them somehow morally superior. They are not morally superior. Poor folks have their share of wife beaters, drug addicts, alcoholics, bullies, and psychopaths. But if you ever really need help, if you’re broke and hungry, head for the poor part of town. Everywhere else, they’ll call the cops. Poor people have compassion and rarely trust the cops. If you’re a journalist, this is where you’ll find your best sources. The bus boys, waiters, drivers, hookers, sergeants in the army might tell you the truth. The powerful and those who work for them consistently fudge the truth. That’s why it was such a loss when working class kids, who traditionally used journalism to get a leg up, were replaced in newsrooms by Ivy League graduates of journalism schools who have no such ties with the poor.
Immersing myself in the world of agricultural workers was exciting, frustrating, exhausting and a terrible hardship. I gave up and went back to work for my father.