Dick Meister: Honor a legendary organizer

Pub date February 19, 2013
WriterDick Meister
SectionBruce Blog

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, is co-author of A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America’s Farm Workers (Macmillan)

There’s still time, if you hurry, to join a nationwide campaign  to posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to legendary organizer Fred Ross. For more than a half-century he was among the most influential, skilled, dedicated and successful of the community organizers who have done so much for the underdogs of American society.

Most people have never heard of Fred Ross, which is exactly how he wanted it. He saw his job as training others to assume leadership and the public recognition that accompanies it.  And train them he did, hundreds of them, including farm worker leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who were previously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Chavez and Huerta were typical Ross trainees ­­ poor, inexperienced members of an oppressed minority who were inspired to mobilize others like them to stand up to their oppressors.

“Fred did such a good job of explaining how poor people could build power I could taste it,” Chavez recalled.

Chavez was among the Mexican Americans living in California’s barrios in the 1950s that Ross, then with Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, was helping form political blocs to demand improvements in the woefully inadequate community services provided them.

Ross’ approach was, as always, to get people to organize themselves, and he sensed correctly that young Chavez was “potentially the best-grass-roots leader I’d ever run into.”

Within just a few years, the small organizations formed by the residents of the particular barrios joined into a potent statewide group, the Community Services Organization, headed by Chavez.

A few years later, Chavez and Huerta founded what became the United Farm Workers Union. It was the country’s first effective organization of farm workers precisely because it was built in accord with Ross’ principles ­­ from the ground up by farm workers relying heavily on such non-violent tactics as the boycott.

Ross had started out to be a classroom teacher after working is way through the University of Southern California in 1936. But he could find no teaching jobs in that dark year of the Great Depression. He took other public work, eventually managing the federal migratory labor camp near Bakersfield, California, that novelist John Steinbeck used as a model for the camp that had a central role in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Fiction though it was, Steinbeck’s account was accurate. Conditions in the camp were deplorable. So were the conditions imposed on the migrants by the local growers for whom they worked.

But the migrants organized themselves to win better living and working conditions, thanks to young Fred Ross. He went from cabin to cabin and tent to tent every morning after daybreak, encouraging camp residents to form the organizations that helped improve their conditions,

Ross had found his life’s work. He would become a full-time organizer, a task he described as being “a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.” Never was Ross paid more than a marginal salary, sometimes no more than room, board and expenses, but never would he falter.

His goal was “to help people do away with fear­­ fear to speak up and demand their rights ­ ­ to push people to get out in front so they could prove to themselves they could do it.”

Ross left the migrant group to work with the Japanese Americans on the West Coast who were herded into internment camps during World War II. Ross, then with the American Friends Service Committee, helped internees win release by finding them jobs in the manpower-short steel plants and other factories in the Midwest that produced vital war materials.

After the war, he returned to southern California, to help African Americans and Mexican Americans fight against housing and school segregation.  They fought effectively, too, against police brutality and helped elect Los Angeles’ first Hispanic city councilman.

Ross also worked in Arizona, helping Yaqui Indians get sewers, paved streets, medical facilities and other basic needs that had been denied their communities.

Ross’ most ambitious and probably most satisfying work came during his 15 years of training hundreds of organizers and negotiators for the United Farm Workers from the UFW’s inexperienced and long-oppressed rank-and-file members.

Ross kept at it for virtually the rest of his life, joining his son, Fred Jr., a highly regarded organizer himself, in grass-roots campaigns for liberal politicians and progressive causes. He actively supported a wide variety of international as well as domestic issues, much of the time working with anti-nuclear and peace groups.

It was not until four years before his death in 1992, when Alzheimer’s Disease struck, that he finally stopped.

Fred Ross was an organizer’s organizer, a trailblazer, a pioneer. He was ­­and he remains ­­ a vitally important model for those seeking to empower the powerless and to truly reform, if not perfect, this imperfect society.

“Fred fought more fights  and trained more organizers and planted more seeds of righteous indignation against social injustice than anyone we’re ever likely to see again,” noted Jerry Cohen, formerly the UFW’s general counsel.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi noted  that Ross “left a legacy of good works that have given many the courage of their convictions, the powers of their ideals, and the strength to do heroic deeds on behalf of the common person.”

Honoring Ross, said his son, would be recognizing “the foot soldiers in all struggles that do the day to day work but rarely get acknowledged for their labors. It’s about honoring the farm workers, low- wage urban workers, and all those fighting for social justice against what many see as insurmountable odds.”

To add your voice to those urging President Obama to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Fred Ross, send an email before Feb. 28 to presidential aide Julie Chavez Rodriquez at Julie_C_Rodriguez@who.eop.gov. Please send a blind copy to Fred Ross Jr. at fredross47@gmail.com. You might also ask your House and Senate representatives to join others in Congress who have signed a letter urging the President to act.

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, is co-author of A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America’s Farm Workers (Macmillan)