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Steinbeck portrays Al Anderson as a comfortable, middle-class business owner with a cautiously rebellious streak. Al represents a social middle ground in the novel: he has his own thriving business, but he can't turn a blind eye to the plight of the workers in the fields on the outskirts of town.
His father owns a small, independent orchard that is getting squeezed by the Big Ag greed of the Growers' Association. So Al has a lot to lose when Mac and Jim show up on his doorstep.
And he knows it. But unlike Dakin, who is a few steps lower on the social ladder, Al acknowledges the need to reach outside his comfort zone to change the way things are—even if he isn't ready to take the leap himself. He explains this to Mac and Jim:
"Well, I'd be out with you guys if I didn't have a business to keep up. A man sees the way conditions is, and injustice, and things—and if he's got any brains he comes to it." (82)
Al admits that things are bad. Just not bad enough for him to put his livelihood on the line. Yet.
Though Al is skittish about openly supporting the Party, Mac knows his new friend's pressure points: his sympathy for the workers, his desire to get the business of the workers, and his understanding that the Growers' Association really is hurting his pop's bottom line. Mac's able to convince this armchair activist to get in the game and help him secure land for the strikers' camp.
Up to this point, Al has lived a pretty comfortable life. His flirtation with Party activity isn't really rooted in a first-hand experience with systemic injustice. That is, until Al has an experience with the local "law enforcement" that forces his eyes wide open:
"I been thinkin'," he said. "Ever since they beat me up I been thinkin'. I can't get those guys outa my head—my little wagon all burned up, an' them jumpin' on me with their feet; and two cops down on the corner watchin', and not doin' a thing! I can't get that outa my head." (155)
It's at this point that Al feels anger, perhaps for the first time, and wants to fight back. But in the end, the Growers' Association has a death grip on the Anderson family that cannot be broken. Mac lets him back out of his commitment to the Party and the strike, telling Al that he really is helping things if he just keeps his sympathy for the worker in his heart.
It's a letdown for Al, but his situation points out an important issue related to advocacy: sometimes the people who need to stand up for themselves just can't. Maybe this puts the single-minded dedication of those who have nothing to lose—like Mac, Jim, and Sam—into clearer perspective.