Fred B. Glass
A review essay of Gabriel Thompson, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century. Oakland: University of California Press 2016.
“An organizer is a leader who does not lead; he gets behind the people and pushes.” —Fred Ross
I doubt Fred Ross would have been the subject of a book length biography had he not recruited United Farm Workers founder and civil rights leader Cesar Chavez to the organizer’s trade. Yet the reasons why a full portrait of Ross’s life is both timely and useful extend far beyond his star pupil.
Gabriel Thompson’s America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century reveals a driven, singularly focused man, who sacrificed family and personal comfort to devote himself to organizing poor people for collective action on their own behalf. Thompson documents the deep positive impact Ross had on working class communities, and on the practices of two generations of organizers. These pages also unveil, often painfully, the personal damage to his loved ones that his priorities inflicted on them.
Ross shunned the limelight, believing an organizer’s role was to find leaders, help them to develop, and get out of their way. He found a lot of them, including Chavez, but others too—bighearted, ambitious, or both—who went on to important roles in the labor movement and electoral politics. Ross developed garden-variety activists as well, training thousands over the course of a forty-year career. But he was also ruthless in assessing and discarding individuals he deemed insufficiently dedicated to the difficult, tedious, mundane, and time-consuming chores—the checklists, the follow-up phone calls, the endless meetings—involved in creating social change.
I share this with Cesar Chavez: both of us were recruited to organizing work by Fred Ross. My initiation occurred during a warm spring afternoon in 1974, underneath a tree next to Campbell Hall at UCLA. My leftist English professor had asked a few politically interested students if they would like to hear about the United Farm Workers from one of the union’s organizers.
I was a senior, contemplating without too much urgency my post-graduation prospects. Ross sat with us on the grass in a circle. He was old (by which I mean exactly the same age I am now) but animated with a quiet assurance about the importance of the work he described. I don’t remember his words but they were effective. After an hour or so my friend Wayne Baron had decided to become a full-time organizer for the UFW boycott effort. I had other priorities—eventually, graduate school—but with the war in Vietnam winding down, I was casting about for another volunteer political activity, and knew I had found it. For the next year and a half I sat behind a table on Bruin Walk piled with UFW literature, buttons, and bumper stickers and accepted donations for the cause. I organized house meetings and film screenings. I stood outside supermarkets and asked shoppers to not buy grapes and lettuce. I caravanned to Delano in the Central Valley to join demonstrations.
Eventually I moved to San Francisco for graduate school. Wayne had gone there before me, and now ran the city’s boycott effort out of a former church dormitory. He was extremely proud of the article written about his work by an undercover John Birch Society reporter that began, “Where nuns once prayed and slept, now filthy mattresses lie four abreast, supporting communist subversion.” He pinned it to the bulletin board next to his office and showed it to everyone who visited.
I continued to volunteer a few hours a week for la causa after starting school, plugging into Wayne’s impressive boycott operation. Few stores carried non-union grapes or lettuce, and the ones that did faced lively picket lines each weekend. On the other hand, many storefront windows sported the black and red UFW eagle, pledging fealty to the boycott. And wherever I walked with Wayne, we could not go more than a few hundred feet without being stopped by someone—store owners, union members, community activists, students—who knew him through his indefatigable UFW boycott organizing.
Multiply this situation in San Francisco by scores around the country in major urban centers—there were four hundred full-time organizers on staff, receiving $5 a week plus room and board—and you have an idea of the reach and effectiveness of the boycott in the mid-70s. Polls showed that 10–12% of the American population had stopped eating grapes and lettuce in sympathy with the struggle of California farm workers for a better life.
I didn’t connect the dots at the time, but much of this was ultimately traceable back to Fred Ross, through a combination of the serendipity of his meeting and resulting relationship with Chavez, and the unbelievably hard work Ross devoted to organizing on the way to that meeting, creating the conditions for it to occur, and afterward, nurturing conditions for the movement to flourish.
Thompson’s book begins, fittingly, with the well-known story of Ross visiting Chavez’s house in the barrio of East San Jose, Sal Si Puedes, in late spring 1952. Although a full treatment of Ross’s life had to wait for Thompson’s book, the UFW itself is the most well documented labor movement in United States history; within that literature the meeting at Chavez’s house with Ross remains the stuff of legend. Outside that moment, though, many of the now aging cohort of activists who came up through the farmworker movement knew relatively little of Ross’s pre-Chavez life. In extending our knowledge about the master organizer, Thompson’s book holds his subject beneath an unblinking wide angled lens, and what we learn, not entirely pretty, explains a lot about both men.
Fred Ross was born in Los Angeles in 1910, product of the unhappy marriage of Frederick Ross and Daisy Crowell. Ross’s later political development was not nurtured in his early home environment. Frederick Ross worked in newspaper advertising and later for the National Association of Manufacturers—a trajectory his employer at the Los Angeles Times, the virulently anti-union Harrison Gray Otis, would have found commendable. Thompson notes that young Fred’s parents shared racist attitudes, and referred to poor people as “trash.” Daisy was incensed when the school district boundaries near their Echo Park neighborhood home changed and she found her son going to school with black children. She raised such a stink he was allowed to transfer back to his former school.
Ross the senior probably cheated on Daisy, according to Thompson, precipitating their divorce when Fred was ten and his brother six. Her job as a secretary barely paid the bills, even with child support payments. Eventually Daisy couldn’t handle Fred’s continuous bad behavior. Her parents, who owned a modest hotel in San Pedro, took Fred in on the weekends and gave him the attention Daisy could not. They also provided him with a structured religious upbringing, schooling him in the Bible so deeply he was anointed junior pastor in their Methodist church.
Ross did less well in actual school, disinterested in academic achievement or classroom decorum. His wild antics (example: setting off fireworks at his elementary graduation rehearsal) led Daisy, at considerable expense, to send him to a military school in San Diego, but after getting sick he returned home and finished high school with a C average.
After a few years enduring low paying jobs and taking some classes at Los Angeles Junior College, Ross enrolled at University of Southern California, subsidized by Daisy’s lover, a judge. Here things began to change. His friendship with fellow student Eugene Wolman, a Jewish Communist from New York, opened Ross’s eyes to the Great Depression and its impact on the working class. He became active in student political organizing, took a class from a socialist professor that made a deep impression on his intellectual development, and allowed himself to be recruited to lead the campus chapter of the Communist Party-inspired National Student League.
After graduation Ross remained at USC for another semester to get a teaching credential, while Wolman went to work in a nearby factory, hoping to organize a CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) union. He invited Ross to come to the first organizing meeting, at which but one worker showed up. Thompson notes, “For Ross, it wasn’t the most inspiring introduction to organizing. But it did offer a useful lesson: to organize, you needed energy and passion, which Wolman had in abundance, but you also need a solid plan.”
Wolman went on to fight and die in the Spanish Civil War. This, too, had a big impact on Ross, according to Thompson, “an example of how, no matter what sacrifices he might make as an organizer—the long hours, the low pay, the constant travel—others had sacrificed much more.”
Despite his recently acquired teaching credential, history teachers were more plentiful than jobs in 1937, and when Ross was offered a position as a social worker he took it. California had set up the State Relief Agency (SRA) a couple years before, ostensibly to help the unemployed get through hard times. Ross found that in the agricultural counties surrounding Los Angeles its other purpose was to supply cheap labor for growers. It enforced this function by removing its destitute clients from the relief rolls if they refused to go to work at any price.
Here Ross began to develop the work habits he maintained throughout his life, including long hours, careful note taking, and leaving behind his young wife for days—or weeks, or months—at a time. Ross gained some real world details to fill out the incomplete picture his college radicalism had painted of the working class. At first outraged to discover that some of his clients had lied and were actually working in the fields while drawing unemployment compensation—because, as they told him, the piece rates they were being paid could not sustain them, let alone their families, and they needed the extra income—he determined to prove that they must not be working hard enough.
But his meritocratic ideology taught him something different than what he had expected. Going to work one day in disguise tying carrots, where growers needed workers so badly they were always hiring, he labored twelve hours and emerged bone tired with eighty-four cents. After he was disfraciplined by his supervisor when he described what he had done, Ross quit the SRA and got hired by the federal Farm Security Administration (FSA). Renowned today for the photographs by Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn and others that burned the faces of the Dust Bowl refugees Ross worked with into the nation’s conscience, the agency hired Ross for a job in a warehouse distributing dry goods in the Coachella Valley.
As Thompson records, Ross discovered that “The poor were complicatedly human, as three-dimensional as anyone else; they just happened to have more roadblocks thrown up in their way.” One Okie migrant in particular, a sixty-two year old man who lost his farm, became Ross’s friend. As a result of his storytelling—what one transplanted southwestern woman called their “migracious stories”—he and people like him were no longer “political abstractions, neither the right’s lazy creatures prone to ‘chronic dependency’ nor the left’s flawless victims.”
Early in 1939 Ross accepted more responsibility and stepped into what ultimately became one of the few other well-known—if not entirely accurate—elements of the Ross legend. The FSA had set up nineteen model farm labor camps around California’s central valley. As Thompson points out, these were meant to provide an alternative to the filthy and oppressive conditions found in most camps set up by growers for their low paid labor force: these were clean, relatively well-run, featured laundry facilities, and contained showers in their bathrooms. They also demonstrated that with some encouragement, the campers—mostly migrant Okies—might find some dignity beyond personal hygiene in cultural activities (for example, camp newsletters, dances and concerts, film screenings, theatrical productions, etc.) and participation in camp governance.
Ross served a four month apprenticeship in the Visalia camp, and then became manager of his own, outside the feudal town of Arvin, where Joseph Di Giorgio, pacesetter capitalist in the newly-named “agribusiness” flourishing despite the Great Depression, held sway.
The way I had heard the story from Wayne and other UFW activists, Fred Ross was the inspiration for the kindly government camp director in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which appeared later that year in 1939. I always thought the timing wasn’t right, and Thompson sets the record straight: it was an earlier director of the same camp, Tom Collins, who had modeled that role for Steinbeck. In any case, Ross didn’t waste the opportunity he had been handed.
In addition to the Okie workers and their families, the Arvin camp served as temporary quarters for left wing troubadour Woody Guthrie, who played and sang for the migrants on numerous occasions, as well as two hard-bitten state organizers for the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packinghouse and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA-CIO). These men, Luke Hinman and Wyman Hicks, took the opening willingly provided by Ross to utilize Arvin Camp as a base for organizing field workers residing there and in the surrounding area.
This was a tough row to hoe, but one in which Ross would make a large contribution himself in later years. At this point he simply watched, learned, and bent the FSA rules to accommodate his guests as they built the will among his campers to go on strike in October, 1939. He also became acquainted at this time with Carey McWilliams.
McWilliams had been appointed by Culbert Olsen, the first Democrat elected California governor in the twentieth century, to oversee agricultural labor as the state commissioner of immigration and housing. His book Factories in the Field, a well-researched non-fiction flip side to The Grapes of Wrath, came out the same year, strengthening the growing public understanding that something was very wrong in the sprawling farm districts of California. Unlike his predecessors at the top of California government agencies dealing with farm labor, McWilliams did what he could to help migrant farmworker families. Ross, as Thompson reports, was still assigning Factories in the Field to his organizer trainees decades later.
In camp Ross did not hide his sympathies. Thompson notes, “His partisanship was so overt that one resident would pen a letter to Ross’s supervisor complaining that the camp was “practically run” by the union, that Ross was a “strong member” of the CIO, and that the camp was no longer a place for “us honest and non-communists to live in.”
The strike, however exhilarating at the start, lasted two weeks before being efficiently and violently crushed by the growers; their weapon, the Associated Farmers, had been described without hyperbole by McWilliams as a fascist organization. The job action, involving thousands of workers in dozens of farms, turned out to be the last hurrah in the fields for the UCAPAWA, heir to communist-led organizing for the previous decade. Rethinking its strategies after the defeat, it retreated to canneries and packing sheds, where its leaders planned to rebuild a structure in the agricultural supply chain that would eventually allow them to return to field organizing.
That never occurred, as McCarthyism ultimately destroyed UCAPAWA along with a dozen or so other left wing CIO unions by the early 1950s. Ross, moved by his experience during the strike and conversations with Hinman and Hicks, eventually played a major role in a different farmworker organization’s attempt to organize field workers. But first another formative moment awaited him during World War II, when he left the FSA to work for the War Relocation Authority (WRA), with Japanese-Americans interned in concentration camps.
While in some respects the WRA represented continuity for Ross—working with a stigmatized social group in rural America—it also demonstrated conclusively to him the limits of a model of social action emphasizing service to victims. Although he didn’t understand it at the time, it set him inexorably on the path to his calling as an organizer.
Initially believing the government’s justification for relocation—that the Japanese Americans threatened national security—working closely with them changed his mind. Stationed in Minidoka, Idaho, Ross learned that nothing he attempted to do on behalf of the nearly ten thousand detainees would be approved by his superiors. His experience provided him with insight into the deep wellspring of racism in American politics and culture, which suffused the WRA bureaucracy, nearby towns, and, after Ross got transferred to Cleveland to work on relocation efforts, the attitudes of white workers within war industries desperate to hire any workers—except “dirty Japs.”
Ross found that getting Japanese-American workers employed within the still fierce “them and us” hothouse atmosphere of war necessitated building and using a big toolbox of tactics. Besides eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with anger, prejudice and fear, Ross had to establish functional relationships among government agencies, community groups, employers, and unions—including persuading racist southern white workers who had come north for well-paying defense jobs that winning the war on the home front required setting aside ingrained beliefs about others.
Ross gained another perspective on the same set of issues at home. Ross’s second wife Frances (his first wife having divorced him early in the war) got a job in a Cleveland factory, where her efforts helping to integrate African Americans into the plant’s workforce eventually led to a job with Roosevelt’s Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPA), the federal agency responsible for enforcing a modest standard of racial justice in hiring and promotion in war industries. The FEPA was understaffed and limited in its ability to fulfill its mission. Occasionally other authorities stepped up to fill the vacuum.
For instance, after returning to San Francisco at the end of the war, Ross accompanied International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union president Harry Bridges on an expedition to a Petaluma warehouse north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where the radical labor leader, who later married a Nisei, told his members refusing to work alongside a Japanese-American that he would pull their local charter if they did not allow the man to work.
This full immersion program in race and employment relations outside and within his home during and after World War II led Ross in a new direction. Thompson tells us that “Ross the social worker was receding, soon to disappear; the outlines of Ross the campaigner, Ross the organizer, were beginning to take shape.”
The circumstances out of which Ross emerged in his late thirties as a superb organizer have been chronicled elsewhere, notably in Ken Burt’s The Search for a Civic Voice: California Latino Politics. Thompson dives more deeply into the discipline of organizing, using Ross’s experience to demonstrate what Ross felt was necessity for an organizer—full devotion to a cause—but for others could seem like near obsession.
Ross knew how to listen, as he had already shown in his work with the New Deal “alphabet soup” agencies. Despite poor Spanish skills, he began to do that listening in southern California barrios, working first for the American Council on Race Relations and then, crucially, for famed Chicago organizer and author (Reveille for Radicals) Saul Alinsky and what was to become the Community Service Organization (CSO). Prior to their meeting, Ross had spent a couple years bringing together Southern California Mexican American and African American low income communities in coalitions for voter registration drives, successful campaigns to oust racist school board and local city council officials, and efforts to integrate and secure resources for schools and community centers.
These activities had brought him to the attention of the older Alinsky (not to mention the FBI). It was also during these campaigns that Ross realized that the house meeting was the essential building block of community organizing, a method he refined over time with near-scientific precision.
In Thompson’s telling, when Alinsky, founder of the Industrial Areas Foundation based in Chicago, met Ross, he wrote a friend, “I have hired a guy who I think is a natural for our work. It will really be the first time that I have an associate who understands exactly what we are after.” The phrase, ‘what we are after,’ referred to organizing working people in the early years of the Cold War, as anti-communism was corroding longstanding progressive political alliances, poisoning public discourse, and enveloping anyone whose occupation was “organizing,” especially in working class communities of color, within a fog of suspicion.
Nowhere did these factors play into the equation more than in the melting pot of Boyle Heights, where immigration combined with radical politics circa 1950 to morph the neighborhood—just east of downtown Los Angeles—from early twentieth-century white working class origins to a diverse international community including Russians, Mexicans, and Japanese. But as Thompson recounts, the area was commonly known as the “lower East Side” of Los Angeles, with a large Jewish working class population, heavily leavened with socialists and communists.
A decade later, fearful working class Anglos fought against and fled integration a few miles away in Watts, other south Los Angeles County neighborhoods, and the downtown. But here, the leftward tilt of this midcentury community was already a couple generations old; Boyle Heights had been a bastion of support for labor organizer Fred Wheeler in the 1910s and 1920s, the first Socialist elected to Los Angeles City Council. Postwar Boyle Heights welcomed a growing Mexican American population and a broader mix of other ethnic groups at the same time as a racist police department and media culture led by The Los Angeles Times promoted social exclusion via employment codes, blacklists, restrictive housing covenants, and the physical repression of non-whites.
The organization Ross built at the intersection of these many currents of politics and culture was the Community Service Organization (CSO). His work with CSO was the best-known part of Ross’s history, yet Thompson contributes new nuggets of information and interpretation. The CSO emerged from the nuts and bolts organizing techniques and experiences that Ross brought to a circle of Latino Boyle Heights activists around Edward Roybal.
Roybal eventually became a successful career politician, the first Latino to be elected to a citywide position since the nineteenth century; later he was elected to Congress. But when Ross met him, he and his circle were trying to regroup after their first effort, a loss. With Ross’s assistance, and based on the model he had developed over the previous couple of years, the group focused on voter registration in the growing but mostly non-voting Mexicano population. The next time around, Roybal got elected to the Los Angeles City Council.
The CSO, under Ross’s guidance, created a template for the most successful form of progressive alliance in the post war United States, replicating the same strengths and weaknesses many times elsewhere. Focusing on achievable goals in poor and working class communities, Ross relied on direct one-on-one organizing to create building blocks of change from house meetings to broad organizational coalitions to voter registration and turnout. Direct action tactics, like those that the nascent civil rights movement was borrowing from the mass union organizing of the previous two decades, were not first resort but were also not unknown in CSO either. But the deceptively simple thing emphasized by Ross was that to be an organizer meant one had to be organized—before, during, and after any moment in an organizing campaign.
Unions, churches, and civil rights organizations were all welcome to participate and support the CSO, and many did with financial contributions and the loan of organizers. Communists and their “front groups” were not officially banned from taking part, and in this way CSO was virtually unique among organizations in the era of, “Are you now or have you ever been….” Ross also urged Roybal not to vote for a proposed Los Angeles city ordinance seeking to force communists to register with the police.
Perhaps it was Ross’s early tutelage by his student friend or association with UCAPAWA organizers in his central valley farm labor camp that gave him the courage to do these things. He knew who communists were, what they stood for and above all the hard work they put into progressive causes.
But he was a pragmatist too, and when push came to shove Ross was not above figuring out the proper parliamentary procedures for denying communists the floor in meetings, or how to maneuver behind the scenes in coalitions to keep the CSO free from the red stain—enough so that progressive Latino political and community organizers closer to the Party like Burt Corona later accused Ross of red-baiting.
Ross organized CSO chapters in nearby southern California cities and then across California. It was in San Jose in 1952 that the meeting with Chavez took place. Of that moment’s impact, Chavez later said, “I learned quite a bit from studying Gandhi, but the first practical steps I learned from the best organizer that I know, Fred Ross. He changed my life.” Ross did the same for Dolores Huerta, the future co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, whom he likewise recruited to the CSO a few years later in the north San Joaquin Valley town of Stockton.
Huerta, who had more formal education than Chavez, soon combined raising children, work for the CSO, and organizing farm workers with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), launched by the AFL-CIO with more resources than any previous effort in the fields. Brimming with energy, but not so good on time management, she needed Ross’s direction to focus her passion for social justice; as Thompson put it, “Huerta had a way of careening through life as if she were a football player covered in pads, running straight into challenges with a complete lack of fear.” Over time Huerta grew disenchanted with AWOC’s organizing model, which focused on signing up labor contractors, who in turn would bring workers into the union as a group, but crucially without a sense of their own agency.
Chavez, meanwhile, moved up to national director of the CSO, and eventually had to face two problems that threatened its viability throughout its growth and decline in the early 1960s: lack of a clear mission and shaky funding. Chavez grew more certain over time that he wanted the organization to move into farm worker organizing; its reluctance to fully commit to that goal eventually drove him to resign in 1962. At that point, penniless, and with eight children, he moved with his wife Helen to Delano.
It was here that he and Huerta divided up the map of the great agricultural valley at Helen’s kitchen table and began to put Ross’s organizing methods to work, finding and recruiting farm workers to their association (it wasn’t to be called a “union” until 1965) one house meeting at a time.
Their timing was good. Against the backdrop of a prosperous economy (at least for non-farm workers), ascendant civil rights movement, and a large and supportive AFL-CIO at the apex of its power, Chavez and Huerta could find allies in powerful places as they attempted to do something no one had before: build a farm worker union that lasted.
They almost succeeded. Ross’s contributions were considerable, including overseeing critical early union representation elections, serving as organizing director from 1966 to 1968 and putting in place protocols for the consumer grape boycott. The union organized tens of thousands of workers in several of the most important crops of California’s multi-billion dollar agribusiness empire. Collective bargaining, backed up by strikes and the boycott, forced growers to pay more attention, and higher wages, to farm workers than ever before.
For a decade and a half the union, despite the uneven playing field, contested seriously with the growers for power in the fields and public opinion. At that point, however, the union hit a wall. Much of the problem was not of the union’s making—the receding of the mass social movements of the 1960s and 70s, the ascension of anti-union, small government forces to the highest elected offices in California and the United States, and the long slide of union power and density. The UFW was a clever small fish swimming with larger protectors. When its supporters in labor and politics were assailed with troubles of their own, the small fish found itself facing its predators alone. And it did not survive.
Given the power of California agribusiness, it may well not have mattered what decisions Chavez and the UFW leadership made. Alinsky astutely aphorized the difficulties involved in farm worker organizing: “It’s like fighting on a constantly disintegrating bed of sand.”
Nonetheless, the other part of the problem was indeed the fault of the union leadership: it stopped organizing. Like a revolution, a union movement either organizes and moves forward, or else retreats. The union’s decision in the late 1970s to pull back from the fields to farm worker “advocacy” was compounded by Chavez’s increasingly autocratic and erratic behavior. His unfortunate choice to travel to the Philippines to accept an award from dictator Ferdinand Marcos shocked the UFW’s Filipino members, triggering the resignation of UFW vice-president Philip Vera Cruz. (Chavez’s choice eventuated in another, less historic, but personally significant consequence: I too ended my UFW volunteer activities.)
Thompson efficiently glosses recent revisionist history of the UFW’s decline—a story told at some length by Frank Bardacke and Miriam Pawel, and more succinctly by Marshall Ganz—while injecting his protagonist into the proceedings in order to ask, in essence, the question, “Why did Fred Ross, arguably the only person who Chavez might have listened to, not intervene?”
In the book’s penultimate chapter, “Blind Spot,” Thompson attempts to account for Ross’s failure to confront Chavez’s bad decisions and the union’s retreat from organizing. Apparently only one ugly instance, in which Chavez reportedly orchestrated an anti-Semitic smear against two long-time union leaders challenging his authority, roused Ross to call Chavez on the phone and protest. Numerous purges of union stalwarts who were perceived by Chavez as threats were abetted or ignored by Ross.
Ross’s son, Fred Ross, Jr., an accomplished organizer himself who provided Thompson with extensive access to his father’s documents, told his father at the time, “Dad, this is fucking wrong. You know it’s wrong.” But, he explained, “My dad had a hard time going there. His fallback position was that no one had made the sacrifices that Cesar had made. Except for the anti-Semitism, I don’t think my father ever challenged Cesar.”
Ross’s other blind spot related to similarly disastrous circumstances, but within the personal sphere of his family. Two wrecked marriages and alienated children represent just the headline over numerous ‘are you kidding me?’ stories recorded by Thompson, the result of Ross’s choice, nearly every time, of work over family life. One instance will suffice to paint the picture. Frances, pregnant, and suffering from polio, was in the hospital for three months. On the day she was to finally return home, Ross failed to show up at the appointed time, because he was at an organizing meeting.
Ross had some insight, albeit limited, into the damage caused by his prioritizing organizing over all else. He later admitted, “When you start organizing, that’s it. You’re not working any nine to five job anymore. You’re not working just six days a week. That’s the end of family life. I didn’t know that. Not that that would have stopped me.”
Thompson’s assessment of Ross’s legacy is astute, concise, and mostly accurate. In addition to closing a gap in UFW historiography, America’s Social Arsonist is a compact synthetic history of the social justice movements in which Ross played an important part. And Ross certainly deserves the credit Thompson gives him for pulling together key elements—especially putting house meetings at the center—during the early post-World War II fights to create an effective modern organizing playbook.
The book is not without a few questionable calls. Were house meetings as an organizing tool invented by Ross? It’s probably best to call this a reinvention. CIO unions utilized the tactic, especially in company towns where the public sphere as well as the workplaces were dominated by powerful employers. Due partly to a substantial presence of Communist Party members on staff and in leadership of a number of these unions, house meetings, like cell meetings, were traceable to underground organizing in Czarist Russia, clandestine meetings linked one to another away from the eyes of the hated government or company spies.
Beyond this, the occasional errant factoid mars Thompson’s otherwise scrupulously accurate narrative—e.g., the Ludlow Massacre of 1913 occurred in a Colorado mining town where John, not his son David Rockefeller (who wasn’t yet born) employed the miners. It might have also been useful to at least refer to the work of Ernesto Galarza. Although Thompson mentions the pioneering National Farm Labor Union staffer briefly, his contributions to the anti-Bracero fight and stubborn attempts to organize California farm workers in the 1950s were unfolding at the same time that Ross and Chavez were building the model in CSO that ultimately succeeded, for a time, in doing what Galarza could not.
In the historical moment following the recent Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, which managed to propel the concept “socialism” back into mainstream political discourse, the question facing the thousands of young people (and older ones) inspired by his vision of a “political revolution” is, what next? If they are to sustain a mass movement for social justice into the Trump era, amid its effort to roll back social justice to the nineteenth century, effective organizing will have to anchor the otherwise ephemeral passions of the moment.
Organizing has also clearly moved into the digital age. It is data driven (although it actually always has been; as Ross said, “If you can’t count it, it doesn’t exist”—we just have better ways to count now). Social media can spread the word for a meeting or demonstration faster than it seemed possible in years past. Beyond these superficial differences between the past and present of organizing, however, Thompson’s book provides a clue about what’s next: people talking with people, taking the inspiration and data and doing the hard work of using the tools, old and new, to organize. There are no short cuts. Fred Ross’s life provides an example—with both positive and negative lessons for organizers—pointing toward what is to be done.
Fred B. Glass is the author of From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), recently reviewed in Boom California. He serves as Communications Director for the California Federation of Teachers and Instructor of Labor and Community Studies at City College of San Francisco. He wrote and directed Golden Lands, Working Hands, a ten-part documentary video series on California labor history.
Copyright: © 2017 The Author(s). This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/