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Introduction to Lettuce Wars: A Cab Ride for a Lawyer

A Cab Ride for a Lawyer

Bruce Neuburger is a former farmworker, GI organizer, movement newspaper writer and editor, and cab driver. A longtime radical political activist, for the past twenty-five years he has been an adult school and community college teacher.
This an excerpt from the forthcoming Lettuce Wars: Ten Years of Work and Struggle in the Fields of California (Monthly Review Press, 2012).

It was early evening, a few hours before my shift’s end. The cab line at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco was a 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 a radio call—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. Independent means 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 heading for the Wharf; just behind them a well-dressed woman with a big Macy’s bag, maybe heading home to the Marina or Russian Hill.

When a man in his forties, wearing a business suit with a suit bag and small suitcase, left the door, my anticipation rose. And when I pulled forward and heard the doorman’s flat-handed whack on the trunk of my blue and white Desoto Cab, I felt grateful—an airport! My annoyance at the doorman’s outstretched and grasping hand (done surreptitiously for the sake of the clientele), as he tossed the luggage in the trunk, was mollified by the security of a $30 trip. I immediately began to calculate my best odds: playing the airport roulette or deadheading back to town.

As my passenger settled into the back, we headed down Powell to Ellis and then down to Stockton, across Market to the 4th Street entrance to the freeway. I looked in the rearview at my benefactor. “What airline?” “United.” He had the fleshy face of someone who was no stranger to a dinner table. His brown hair was short, but long enough to comb to the side. No facial hair. A businessman or a lawyer, I guessed. This was no tourist—too deliberate and matter-of-fact for that.

I was still in my early years of cab driving, which meant I still relished conversations with the anticipation of gleaning some noteworthy exchange or story to pass on to cabby friends at the cab lot, where we waited to turn in our waybills, gates, and dispatcher bribes (tips) for the shift. The appreciation, the enthusiasm for this, which characterized the first few years on the job, and perhaps for some retains its attraction longer, was gradually wearing away, like the tread on cab tires, from the relentless bounding of traffic, the tyranny of repetition.

Perhaps it’s true that every person who steps into a cab is a potential story, but like any kind of mining it takes energy and effort to retrieve the nugget from among the slag of normal chatter. My energy had spiked a bit then, juiced by the good fortune of an airport ride.

I found my passenger was returning to Chicago, or perhaps it was New York, after several days of meetings. “I enjoy your city,” he said, as many visitors do, “but I didn’t see much this time—too many long meetings.” What kind of meetings were those? “Lawyer business, man, legal strategies and all that.” A lawyer, as I’d guessed, but the “man” in there spoke of something less straight than his appearance conveyed. I was searching for another handle for the conversation when he offered, “I was meeting with some of your local growers’ people. Well, maybe not exactly local—Salinas, that’s not that far from here, am I right?” “Not too far,” I said. “What kind of growers?” “Lettuce, vegetable growers,” he said, “looking to get out from under their union contracts.” “And you’re part of that?” I asked. “Legal advice, strategies, that sort of thing. Those contracts are legally binding agreements. You can’t just drop them. There are issues that need to be considered.” He paused and patted his breast pocket as though he was making sure of something, an airline ticket maybe?

“And if the companies go out of business, then return to operation under a different name, they’re no longer bound by the legal commitments of the previous company?” I asked. In the rearview I saw the passenger look up. “Sounds like you have a legal mind. You might be in the wrong business.” He laughed. “Well, I’ve heard about that kind of thing happening in Salinas,” I said. “Read about it?” he asked. “Ya, I guess so. Don’t remember where.”

Actually I knew a fair amount about Salinas, unions, and lettuce growers. I’d spent most of the previous decade working in the lettuce fields, and I knew people working in the fields there. And I knew things were going in a bad direction for them. But I didn’t feel like explaining that. I wanted to hear what my rider had to say.

The lawyer was frank. He discussed dumping unions as another of his profession might explain the writing of a will or the drawing up of a contract. He was interested in technical, legal questions, like an architect consumed by the design and engineering details of a building, not how it will affect the neighborhood in which it is built. Or like the technocrat designing a bomb, oblivious, numbed, or just removed from the deadly consequences of its architecture. But there was also a hint of the cynical there, as though he understood there was something foul in this business.

The conversation had taken an unexpected turn, and I found the trip, which I’d sought to make as quickly as possible, too short to fill my curiosity. I eased my foot slightly off the pedal as the names Hanson, Sun Harvest, Cal Coastal, Salinas Lettuce Farmers Co-op, and others rolled out in my passenger’s description. He saw bored lawyers scratching notes on legal pads and well-dressed growers’ representatives discussing legal strategies; I saw farm labor buses, their sides freshly repainted, and lettuce workers with knives sticking out their back pockets standing in the chill of a morning street trying to catch a job, with the trepidations of soldiers defeated in battle, hoping for lenient treatment from their captors.

When we hit the curb at United, I popped the trunk and set his bags by the curb. Then I said what I felt I had to say, if only to relieve the pressure that was building during the conversation. “You know, when the growers drop their union contracts the workers lose their seniority, their health benefits, even their jobs. This causes real suffering to them, their families, their children—everyone is affected. And these contracts were won through long, tough struggle.” The lawyer looked up from his bags. He handed me two twenties. “No one said life was fair.” And, I thought, glibness is a lot easier when it’s not your ass being ground into the dirt. The lawyer gave a hint of a shrug as he looked at me. It seemed he was about to stop and say something more, but he picked up his bags and all that came out was, “Keep the change, bud.” He headed off to his flight.