Remembering Fred Ross Jr., One of Nation’s Leading Labor and Social Movement Organizers
Fred Ross, one of the nation’s leading labor organizers who began his work at an early age in the lettuce fields of California alongside Cesar Chavez, but whose work had an impact far beyond labor organizing on both a national and international level, has died.
He played a pivotal role in successful efforts to propel Congressional action to change policies propping up oppressive governments in Central America, advocating to accelerate the naturalization of legal immigrants in the US, and in getting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi elected to Congress for the first time.
He died of cancer at his home in Berkeley, California, just weeks after celebrating his 75th birthday and receiving tributes from hundreds of friends and colleagues.
One tribute came from former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich. “You have comforted the afflicted, and afflicted the comfortable,” he told Ross. “Your boldness and vision have been a source of inspiration to me and huge number of other people, working for social justice, labor unions, and the hopes and dreams so many people have for a better life.”
Ross’ brilliance was to take what he learned from Chavez as well as his father, Fred Ross Sr., himself a legendary organizer, combine those lessons with a savvy use of the media and field campaigns of local volunteers, to put pressure on state governments and Congress to advance a variety of causes – and when necessary, help elect candidates sympathetic to those causes.
One of those candidates was Pelosi, then a leader in the Democratic National Committee. Using some of the techniques learned in his work with the United Farm Workers, he organized the Get Out the Vote campaign for her first successful run for Congress in 1987 in San Francisco. Ten years later he joined forces again with Pelosi as her district director in her Congressional office in San Francisco.
“I personally benefited from Fred’s organizational mastery: translating his policy goals into effective political action. Without his early support and brilliant leadership organizing the ground operation of my first campaign, I would have never become a member of Congress.” Pelosi said in a statement.
Organizing “in my DNA”
Born in 1947, Ross began work as a full-time organizer with the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1970, the year of the historic general strike in the lettuce fields of Santa Maria and Salinas in California’s Central Coast,
Throughout his career, Ross employed the house meeting, a hallmark grass roots tactic developed by his father while working with the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group Ross Sr. co-founded in 1948 related to Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. It involved setting up meetings with small groups of people in their homes to make change happen in their communities or in later years to organize unions.
Years later, Ross reprinted many of his father’s sayings and tactics in a booklet called “Axioms for Organizers”which was widely distributed in English and Spanish throughout the United States and can be found in union halls and community meetings throughout the Country.
His mother Frances Ross, an original “Rosie the Riveter,” was a shop steward in a World War II plant in Cleveland, Ohio. She fought to help Jewish doctors immigrate from Nazi Germany. She was a pioneer in the mental health field and was the first women hired to be a lobbyist in Sacramento, state capital of California.
“So, fighting and organizing for racial and economic justice is in my DNA,” Ross said on many occasions. He acknowledged that he had gotten into a fair amount of trouble doing his organizing work — “good trouble, as John Lewis used to say.”
He recalled being knocked unconscious by a grape grower during a farm worker election and being shot at by a security guard at a supermarket. “Luckily he was a bad shot,” he quipped.
By his own count, he had been arrested 39 times, “mostly for good causes.”
Organizing with UFW
In early 1975 Fred conceived of, and organized a 110-mile march against Gallo wines that began in Union Square in San Francisco and ended with at least 10,000 farm workers and supporters at the company’s headquarters in Modesto in the Central Valley of California. At the time, it was estimated that Gallo Wines sold 1 in 3 bottles of wine in the United States. The UFW had by then been dismissed by some in the media as a “romantic cause” because it was confronting the powerful alliance with the Teamsters union that growers forged to suppress farm workers’ support for the UFW.
“That infuriated me, because I knew it wasn’t the case,” Ross said in an interview in October.
One of the other motives for the Gallo march was to put pressure on then-Gov. Jerry Brown to negotiate and push through the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which was enacted in June 1975. It was the first law of its kind in the nation establishing the right of farm workers to organize, vote in union elections, and bargain with their employers.
Changing U.S. Policies on Central America
In the 1980s, Ross led Neighbor to Neighbor, a grassroots organization initially focused on dealing with the plight of refugees from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. It grew into a much larger effort to address U.S. policies in those countries that contributed to the refugee problem in the first place. “No one had developed a successful political strategy to challenge these policies in Congress, “ Ross recalled.
Neighbor to Neighbor sent organizers to swing congressional districts around the country to elect representatives critical of the Reagan administration policies in Central America, and to put pressures on incumbents to change their positions. These efforts played a part in ending aid to the Contras, the U.S. backed rebel forces in Nicaragua, and helped elect three women to Congress backing those changes. Rep Louise Slaughter, D-NY, served in Congress from 1987 until her death in 2018. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, also elected in 1987, is still in Congress.
Helps Elect Pelosi to Congress
The third woman was Nancy Pelosi, who asked Ross and Neighbor to Neighbor to run her get out the vote campaign. She was familiar with Ross’ work around Central America, as well as his leadership role in then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s successful defeat of a recall campaign against her in 1983.
Again, using tactics honed during his farm worker organizing days, Ross helped organize 118 house meetings, and enlisted over a thousand volunteers. As Ross recounted it, Pelosi’s father Thomas D’Alesandro, a former mayor of Baltimore who knew the value of neighborhood-based precinct organizers, sent Pelosi’s brother Thomas, generally called Tommy, to San Francisco “to make sure that Ross and this crew knew what they were doing.”
On one Sunday, Tommy, who also had served a term as mayor of Baltimore, tagged along with candidate Pelosi to 17 house meetings held over a 12-hour period. Ross also brought out a chart indicating that the campaign needed to identify 5,000 more voters and get 3,500 of them to vote.
At the end of the day Tommy called his father back in Baltimore to report that “Dad, they’re doing it better than we did. Nothing to worry about.”
Pelosi won her race by a narrow margin, embarking on a decades-long career that led her to historic terms as House Speaker. “You will always have my deepest gratitude as one of my earliest and most significant supporters,” Pelosi told Ross on his 75th birthday.
After the defeat of Contra aid, Neighbor to Neighbor shifted its focus to El Salvador, to pressure the government there to withdraw its support of death squads. To that end, Ross led a drive to boycott Salvadoran coffee, one of the country’s most lucrative exports, which he argued helped underwrite the military regime there.
A key turning point was when the International Longshoreman’s and Warehousemen’s Union under its president, Jimmy Herman, endorsed the boycott. Longshoremen refused to cross picket lines set up by Neighbor to Neighbor up and down the West Coast, including at its last stop in Long Beach. As a result, the Ciudad de Buenaventura ship was unable to off-load its cargo of 34 tons of Salvadoran coffee and was forced to sail back to El Salvador with the coffee still in its hold. That effectively sealed off the West Coast to Salvadoran coffee imports for the next two years.
The threat of further economic damage played a part in forcing the Salvadoran government to the negotiating table, and in 1992 the counterinsurgency war against the FMLN, a leftist guerilla organization, came to an end.
Helping Legal Residents Become Citizens and Voters
In the 1990s, Ross embarked on a campaign to shorten to six months the time it took legal immigrants to become citizens after they applied, and then to register them to vote. In the aftermath of Prop. 187, the anti-immigrant initiative backed by then Gov. Pete Wilson, he helped launch the Active Citizenship Campaign which, with the intervention of then Vice President Al Gore, successfully put pressure on the Immigration and Naturalization Service to speed up the naturalization process.
“We not only played a tangible role in putting pressure on the INS to help thousands become citizens in time to vote in that next election, but more importantly, to become a lot more engaged in the whole political process,” recalled Ross. “That was the beginning of a real breakthrough in continuing to build Latino voting power in California in the aftermath of Prop 187.”
Training “Organizing Stewards”
In 1998, Ross returned to his labor roots by organizing health care workers for the Service Employees International Union, working closely with Eileen Purcell, whom he described as “my organizing partner of a lifetime.” For 13 years with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, he developed a nationally recognized program to train union members to go beyond being stewards that handled union affairs, but to be organizers while keeping their regular jobs at Pacific Gas and Electric. These “organizer stewards,” as Ross called them, would volunteer on non-work time to fight anti-union right-to-work legislation or work in electoral races in their own states or elsewhere. If necessary, they would take a leave from their regular jobs while being paid by the union to do so, but always return to their regular jobs with PG&E. Among the races these organizers participated were the Senate campaigns of Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia two years ago. Their election returned control of the Senate to Democrats after a half dozen years with a GOP majority.
Most recently, Ross was working on producing a documentary film on his father that underscored the critical role of organizing, with an emphasis on one-on-one relationships that could be forged to build collective power. Even after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, he worked tirelessly to raise funds for the film, which is being directed by Ray Telles.
As the United Farm Workers said in a tribute, “His father Fred Ross Sr. had remarkable accomplishments. But perhaps his best legacy was Fred Jr. Colleagues over many decades said Fred Jr.’s organizing talents matched anyone’s, including Cesar and Fred Sr.”
“As with his father, Fred Jr.’s labors were never about himself,” the UFW tribute stated. “He was always about empowering others to believe they were responsible for the progress they won. Fred Jr.’s nature was ceaselessly positive; he always thought things could be done.”
Throughout his life, Ross exemplified the principles of organizing he wrote about in an introduction to Jacques Levy’s Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa. “I learned from Cesar Chavez and my father that the organizer works behind the scenes, patiently asking questions, listening respectfully, agitating, teaching new leaders, pushing them to take action, and creating hope con ánimo, with great enthusiasm. The organizer finds people one at a time, teaches them to develop their own powerful voices, turns their anger about injustice into hope by encouraging them to take action, raises hell, stirs up trouble and has fun doing it.”
Ross, a longtime Berkeley resident, is survived by his wife, Margo Feinberg, a prominent labor attorney, counsel to many significant labor organizing campaigns and author of innovative local legislation geared to enhance the rights of workers; their two children, Charley and Helen Ross; brother Robert Ross and sister Julia Ross; and a legion of friends and family members and generations of organizers.
In lieu of flowers, the Ross family asks that contributions go to the Fred Ross Project. Written condolences to the family may be sent to FredrossMemories@gmail.com
Louis Freedberg is a veteran journalist. He first met Ross in 1987 when, finding common ground, Ross gave him space in the Neighbor to Neighbor offices in San Francisco to run the U.S.-South Africa Sister Community Project.