UFW Organizer Was Tireless Fighter for Civil Rights and Mentored Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta
Iconic labor organizer Fred Ross, Sr. – a mentor of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta – will be inducted in the California Hall of Fame in October.
“Most folks did not know who my father was,” said Fred Ross, Jr., an iconic IBEW 1245 organizer in his own right. “But I see my father as a symbol of the unsung heroes who do this social justice work day in and day out who are never recognized.”
Ross, Sr. was a pioneer for racial and economic justice. In the thirties and early forties, he organized “Dust Bowl” refugees in the migratory worker camps that John Steinbeck wrote about, helping them form camp councils and self-governance. In the mid forties, he worked with Japanese Americans during World War II, helping them get jobs and housing as a precondition to getting out of the internment camps.
After the war, in the midst of KKK activity, he organized eight Civic Unity Leagues in California’s Citrus Belt, bringing Mexican Americans and African Americans together to battle segregation in schools, skating rinks and movie theatres. In Orange County he organized parents to fight segregation in local schools and successfully integrated School Boards across the Citrus Belt through voter registration drives and civic engagement. One of the most dramatic outcomes of his work in Orange County occurred when parents sued the School Districts and prevailed, (Mendez et al vs. Westminster School District, et al.), creating the legal precedent and laying the foundation for the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision.
In 1947, Saul Alinsky hired him to organize the Community Service Organization (CSO) in Los Angeles’ eastside barrio. The CSO activists helped 50,000 individuals obtain citizenship, registered 500,000 voters, elected the first Hispanic to the Los Angeles City Council, and won a major legal victory against police brutality directed at Mexican-Americans. In the early 1950s, he met Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, recruiting them to the cause and becoming a lifetime mentor. Together with CSO leaders across California and Arizona, they successfully overcame voter suppression efforts and passed landmark legislation on behalf of immigrants.
In 1966, Ross became the fulltime Organizing Director for the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) where he trained organizers for the strikes and boycotts for the next ten years. Jerry Cohen, former UFW General Counsel stated, “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.” In the 1980s, he joined his son Ross, Jr. at Neighbor to Neighbor and trained another generation of organizers to challenge the Reagan foreign policy in Central America.