Sunday Jan 29

Winter 2022

IN MEMORIAM - Fred Ross, Jr.

Fred Ross, Jr’s Remarkable 50-Year Organizing Legacy

Fred Ross, Jr., who began organizing for the farmworkers movement and spent over fifty years organizing for workers, immigrant rights, and for peace in Central America, died on November 20. Ross and his father are likely the greatest father-son organizing team in the nation’s history; Fred Ross Sr. trained Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in organizing along with generations of others.

What made Fred Ross, Jr. so special? Let’s start with a quick overview of Ross’ history. I include more on his organizing campaigns in my book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (UC Press).

Ross Jr.’s Organizing History

Ross began organizing with the UFW in 1970. In 1986 he co-founded Neighbor to Neighbor, a national grassroots group that targeted swing congress members to stop U.S. military aid to anti-democratic forces in Central America. Neighbor to Neighbor was arguably the most politically effective anti-interventionist grassroots group in U.S. history. The group’s boycott of El Salvadoran coffee was a remarkable success; it led to a permanent ceasefire in 1992 and the pioneering of “fair trade” coffee in the United States.

Ross then worked for Nancy Pelosi, who he had helped elect to Congress in 1987. Pelosi’s 1987 special election campaign featured house meetings as a key strategy.  Ross and other UFW alums on the campaign brought that strategy from the farmworkers’ movement, which learned it from Fred Ross Sr. (who famously recruited Cesar Chavez at a house meeting).

Pelosi long maintained a close relationship with Ross. She issued a powerful statement on Ross, Jr.’s passing, describing him as “a relentless leader in the fight to secure justice, collective strength and a voice on the job for working people, both in our country and abroad under the Neighbor to Neighbor initiative.”

In 1995 Ross began a key role in building the nation’s immigrants’ rights movement. Heading the Los Angeles-based Valley Organized in Community Efforts (VOICE), Ross helped launch the Active Citizenship Campaign (ACC). The ACC targeted the federal backlog in granting citizenship applications. The Campaign’s incredible success—it more than doubled INS approvals from the preceding year—was translated in 1996 into huge Latino voter turnouts in Los Angeles.

The ACC helped lay the groundwork for the explosive growth of the nation’s immigrants’ rights movement. But I had not heard of the campaign until I interviewed Ross and wrote about it for my book—he never cared about promoting his successes.

Ross then led a statewide hospital organizing campaign first with SEIU and then with NUHW. He then spent twelve years reinventing the organizing department at IBEW 1245 before retiring last February.

Lessons for Organizers and Activists

Here are some of the key lessons that Ross’s legacy provides.

  1. Prioritize Recruitment

From his early years doing organizing and campus recruitment for the UFW lettuce boycott, Ross excelled at recruiting young people to a cause. He recruited in a way that kept many involved in organizing well beyond the immediate campaign.

Ross’ recruitment method went beyond signing people up at a rally. For example, while in Berkeley he was tabling on or near the campus hour after hour, day after day. When people expressed interest in learning more about the farmworkers struggle Ross took the time to connect with them. Following a tactic promoted by his father, Ross quickly gave potential new organizers an assignment after making the initial connection. Once that assignment got them energized, they were hooked. A whole new life path often followed.

My friend Gary Guthman became a lifetime union organizer after connecting with a UFW table at Berkeley. He is one of many who connected to the movement around a campus or supermarket, where daily tabling also occurred.

Texts, emails, and social media add a lot to the organizer’s toolbox. But Ross’s reliance on in-person recruitment and personal meetings showed that these methods still work best.

  1. Maintain Connections

Fred Ross, Jr. may have had the largest rolodex in American organizing history. Once you worked on a campaign with him—even if it were forty years ago—you are forever in his contact list. He never forgot those that once helped. I met Fred when I clerked at the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office in fall 1981 (in addition to organizing Fred also became an attorney). From that point on I would regularly get a call from him about a political campaign or cause, I needed to support. I was not alone in this.

How many activists keep track of people they have worked on campaigns with for virtually their entire lives? I wish I had. Most of us go on to work with a new group of people in a different struggle. We don’t think how onetime allies could help another campaign years down the line.

Ross regularly reached out to his vast network to engage in activist campaigns. That’s why UFW and Neighbor to Neighbor veterans worked with Fred to elect Democrats in swing states. Many wanted to get involved but needed someone like Fred to give them a specific task. And Fred then reconnected all these former allies to each other, adding the social component so critical to getting people to work as volunteers.

Fred maintained most of these connections before email or computers! These tools make it much easier for organizers to stay connected to fellow activists.

  1. Labor-Religious-Activist Coalitions

Fred’s UFW experience showed him the power of combining young activists with labor unions and religious leaders. These groups became the centerpiece for Fred’s national grassroots campaign to stop the United States from sending arms to anti-democratic forces in Central America.

Forming these broad coalitions is more difficult today. The U.S. Catholic Church no longer strongly supports progressive clergy. But Fred still found religious leaders to join as allies, a strategy young organizer should pursue.

Fred always enlisted labor unions in social justice struggles. The ILWU’s support was key to the coffee boycott’s success; Ross gained that support through his longtime connection to ILWU leader Jimmy Herman. Fred was such a strong supporter of UNITE HERE that he was given a standing ovation at the union’s 2009 national convention---despite Fred never being employed at the union or serving as a member.

  1. Empowering Members to Boost Union Organizing

Fred also created a model for unions trying to boost member organizing. After joining IBEW 1245 upon invitation from his longtime UFW colleague Tom Dalzell, then head of the union, Fred went about transforming the local into an “activist” union. With Tom’s support, Fred and Eileen Purcell, his organizing partner for over 20 years, turned 1245 into an incubator for energizing its members. They helped members obtain the skills and experience for organizing for the Local and its political allies.

With Fred’s guidance, IBEW 1245’s organizing steward program became a nationally recognized, multiracial, intergenerational, hands-on, leadership development initiative.  This approach of training member organizers helped protect 1245 retirees in Nevada and assisted IBEW and other union organizing campaigns as well. The program in 2020 also played an active role in national election struggles in 26 states including, California, Arizona, Nevada, Iowa and Georgia.

  1. “It’s Got to be Fun”

People often think of organizing as a grind. And it can be. But Fred Ross believed that “it’s important for organizers to know how to make the work fun.” Fred loved “making mischief and stirring up good trouble” and his joy invariably passed on to his fellow organizers.

All the great organizers I have known enjoy their work. If you don’t, you are not going to last as an organizer. Fred attracted activists by making organizing fun; many recall their time working with Fred as among the best experiences of their lives.

  1. Organizers Must Remain Optimistic

Fred Ross always brought optimism to his organizing campaigns. It may be the most important lesson he offers for young organizers.

Whether working for farmworkers battling the nation’s largest growers or taking on the Reagan Administration, Fred always conveyed a sense to his fellow organizers and members that their side could win. He never guaranteed victory. Nor did he claim a campaign was winnable when facts said otherwise.

Fred’s optimism was contagious. He carefully outlined what must be done to achieve success and was great at convincing skeptics. He also had a great skill in eliciting key strategic points by asking questions to his allies. That method enabled fellow activists to reach their own assessment that Fred’s confidence was not misplaced.

In these difficult and challenging times, organizers who don’t believe their campaigns can succeed cannot inspire others to push for success. Fred Ross inspired people for success for over fifty years—and did so until the day he died.

Fred retired from paid organizing last February. He immediately embarked on a new project---organizing funding for a film about his father. The film is less about Fred Ross Sr. per se than it is a vehicle for inspiring effective organizing. Ross Jr. wanted to make sure that the organizing methods that have brought success to so many campaigns were delivered to future generations.

Here’s where you can learn more about the Fred Ross Project. Fred Jr. did not live to see the final film but there is a huge group of supporters who are working to ensure 1. The film gets completed and 2. The film gets shown in union halls, community organizations, and wherever people are mobilizing for social justice.

Fred’s many friends and allies are saddened by his passing. But we all know that he would share the words of Joe Hill prior to his execution: “Don’t mourn—organize.”

Fred Ross Jr.’s legacy will always live on.

Fred Ross at a rally on the steps of San Francisco City Hall.

Randy Shaw is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century and Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is also the editor of BeyondChron.org. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.