Review of America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century

In the history of U.S. 20th century social movements, a central figure is community and labor organizing pioneer Fred Ross Sr. Famously known as the guy who trained Cesar Chavez, Ross was known largely in left Californian circles in the post-World War II era.  He trained thousands of organizers over his lifetime and his famous Axioms for Organizers has been a bible of organizing for generations of activists. But because he tended to stay in the background, he is not generally known by the wider public. An excellent biography by Gabriel Thompson, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century (University of California Press, 2019), tells the story of how Ross came to organizing, his kind of community organizing work, and his complicated legacy regarding Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW). An interview with the author is here.

Ross Gets Politicized

Ross was born in 1910 and grew up in a fairly conservative, middle class family in Los Angeles. He was exposed to progressive ideas in college, and after graduating during the Depression, he did relief work for a few different New Deal government agencies. This included working with the migrant “Okie” farm workers of Grapes of Wrath fame. He discovered that he loved talking with people and they further awakened his interest in social justice and farmworker issues.

Interestingly, he also spent time working at a Japanese American internment camp, where he came to see the internment as immoral. He became a strong advocate for Japanese Americans and after they were released, assisted them in getting jobs and housing. Some of this work involved convincing white union members and leaders to accept Japanese American coworkers. There was one incident where he accompanied longshore union leader Harry Bridges to convince union warehouse workers not to strike in protest of Japanese Americans there.

Ross Discovers Organizing

Starting in the late 1940s Ross worked with the American Council on Race Relations (ACRR) and then with the Community Service Organization (CSO), a network of community groups, with mostly Mexican-American members. They would organize around local issues such as police brutality, discrimination, segregation, and inadequate schools and public services.  Ross would travel the state, spending months in various cities setting up local chapters and running campaigns, through conversations and house visits, developing leaders and recruiting members.

The general CSO approach involved large-scale voter registration, election turnout, and persistent confrontation with local elected officials.  A number of CSO chapters were successful in many of their fights. And this being the McCarthy era, conservative opponents tried to disrupt this work by red-baiting Ross, even though he never held any explicit socialist beliefs.

A fascinating aspect of Ross’s development as an organizer in those years was his theory of group organization and power. Ross was frustrated by the existing civil rights “unity councils” led by professionals, especially business owners concerned with their own power and position.  These groups craved respectability and were destined, in Ross’s words, to “meet, seat, eat, and repeat (or retreat).”  

Ross also later noticed that CSO chapters that became dominated by middle-class careerists often became moribund, while those with strong working-class participation remained active. When the leadership of a group was reluctant to rock the boat with the local power structure, the group stopped fighting and was politically dead. Regarding his views on working class leadership, the book states:

If his year with the ACRR left Ross disillusioned with what he considered mushy professional types, it deepened his faith in the abilities of so-called average folks – field hands, blue-collar workers, housewives – to upend the status quo. Having suffered the sting of injustice most acutely, they were more likely to put in the hard work to end it. Alienated from the dominant white culture, they more easily saw through the lies and empty rhetoric of the opposition. Without as much to lose, they refused to back down.

It was in those years that he discovered and perfected his house meeting tactic, where he would meet with groups and then ask everyone to host a house meeting and invite their friends. He found that this was a great way to tap into social networks and talk to a lot of people in a comfortable setting.

Ross was completely dedicated to his organizing, to the exclusion of nearly everything else, including his family. The book is pretty clear — for most of his life, Ross was a terrible husband and father.  Organizing came first and family was barely second. He was always working and often gone for months at a time. He was twice divorced and spent little time with his three children. He eventually developed a closer relationship with one of them, Fred Ross Jr, who also became an organizer.

Ross on Organizing

The problems in his private life related to his philosophy of organizing — it required total dedication and sacrifice of everything else. One of Ross’s axioms is “injustice never takes a vacation,” and organizers had to meet that challenge. Ross thought only a select few would have the proper drive and enthusiasm to do it well.  The needs of the campaign determined everything and demanded an organizer’s full attention for as long as it took. He was not about self-care, and burnout meant lack of commitment.

Moreover, after years spent perfecting his techniques, he came to believe that organizing was a craft that had to be done exactly right, and that meant his way. In his trainings, some folks loved this kind of guidance, but he would sometimes clash with New Left activists in the 1960s who objected to his dictatorial style. Ross had little patience for what he regarded as sloppy organizing. Another of his axioms is: “In any kind of work if you do a half-assed job at least you get some of the work done; in organizing you don’t get anything done.” He didn’t have much respect for New Left-style organizing, with their theatrics, or raising larger issues in local campaigns, such as the Vietnam War. Ross insisted that focus, hard work and attention to detail was what won campaigns.

For Ross, there was a definite way to have a conversation, hold a house meeting, make a phone call, keep records, remind people of their commitments, talk to people while handing out flyers, etc. He was known for being relentless in interrogating folks on how things were going in their campaign work, with no detail too small to discuss. “Whom had they met with? What did the worker say? What did they say in response to the worker? Why did they say that? What might they say next time?” As the book makes clear, he was endlessly patient while organizing people to develop their power and democracy, but very authoritarian in his attitudes on how it should be done. But he got results.

This is where I think the book could have done more in revealing further detail about Ross’s organizing methods. We get glimpses here and there, but as someone who has been in and around organizing circles for a few decades, I wanted more. How did Ross structure a one-on-one conversation? How did he run a house meeting with a group of people? What does a Ross-designed flyer look like?

Ross and the UFW

The book tells the famous story of how Ross met Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, later the founders of the UFW. Ross was building a CSO chapter in San Jose in 1952 when a local resident brought him to meet someone who wasn’t home. Ross wrote in his journal, “To Cesar Chavez, not home, too late, back Monday at 8pm.” Ross returned for a house meeting that included Chavez, later writing “Chavez has real push, understanding, loyalty, enthusiasm, grassroots leadership qualities.” Ironically, Chavez at first thought this gringo Ross would be a “phony do-gooder,” but they developed a friendship and lifelong working relationship.  Ross met Dolores Huerta in 1955 at a house meeting during another campaign in Stockton. Both Chavez and Huerta would be involved for years with the CSO before starting the UFW in the 1960s.

The story of the rise and fall of the UFW in this era has been told many times. I recommend Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers for an exhaustive and fair assessment of the union’s history. What this book adds is more detail on Ross’s participation in the union’s activities, and there’s a particular reason why that’s interesting. As the UFW took on its famous and successful grape and lettuce campaigns, Ross was there to help. He served as organizing director for a few years and then played the role of elder statesman, trainer and campaign strategist. He was particularly active in training organizers for the union’s famous national boycott campaigns. 

This is where things get interesting, and disappointing. Events at the union turned bad in the late 1970s. According to many accounts, including this book, an increasingly dictatorial Chavez turned away from organizing and toward loyalty tests and staff purges.  He began using the infamous group therapy “Game” sessions, adapted from the Synanon drug rehab organization, where people in the center of a group were subjected to relentless criticism. Ross appears to have participated in some firings as a Chavez partisan and otherwise stood by and did little.  The book recounts how former staff said that perhaps Ross was the only one Chavez would have listened to, but Ross was completely loyal to him.

A few incidents are revealing. The book discusses the famous, rowdy 1981 UFW convention, where Chavez blocked the election of several dissident farmworkers to the board. 

Now farmworkers who wanted a true union were walking out on Chavez. Ross watched it all unfold. The hateful chants. The antidemocratic maneuvering that robbed farmworkers of their votes. But at the end of the convention, when the shouting died down and the protesting farmworkers left the building, Ross walked to the front and swore in the newest members of the executive board of the United Farm Workers, which had not a single farmworker on it.

Also around that time, an anti-semitic campaign started against two former Jewish staffers who were said to be trying to take over the union. Ross knew that Chavez must have approved of this campaign, since he controlled everything in the union. Ross was appalled and he spoke to Chavez about it. Fred Ross Jr. states that this may be the only time he ever challenged Chavez.  Perhaps if Ross had tried to intervene more forcefully in those years, nothing would have come of it. But it’s fascinating to wonder if the union’s history would have been altered for the better if he could only see what was happening.

Ross and Alinsky

Comparisons are inevitably made between Ross and another giant of that era’s community organizing, Saul Alinsky. An essential overview of Alinsky’s life can be found in the excellent Let Them Call Me Rebel, Saul Alinsky: His Life and Legacy.  They were certainly allies and Alinsky funded some of Ross’s work over time. They had similar theories of the necessity of building local power and disrupting the status-quo to win reforms. Alinsky also had his guides to organizing, the books Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. But perhaps a big difference was their organizing approach, with Ross devoted to person-by-person organizing to build new organizations, while Alinsky would assemble a coalition of existing community groups. When the two of them first met, the book explains,

Ross raised one area of concern. In Chicago, Alinsky had made his name by building a coalition — the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council — that included representatives from neighborhood groups, various parishes, and the packinghouse union. This successful experiment of an ‘organization of organizations’ was the model for social change that Alinsky championed in Reveille for Radicals. But Ross’s experiences thus far had soured him on the idea of building an organization by pulling together already formed groups. What groups that did exist in the barrios and colonias, he told Alinsky, usually lacked political power. Others buckled easily under pressure. Bringing weak or apolitical groups together would only result in a weak and apolitical coalition. It was better to build something new.

Ross’s Legacy

Ross’s Axioms are a list of organizing advice and aphorisms. A review of the book is here, which includes a sample of the axioms:

  • “A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.”
  • “The duty of the organizer is to provide people with the opportunity to work for what they believe in.”
  • “To win the hearts and minds of people, forget the dry facts and statistics; tell them the stories that won you to the cause.”
  • “90 percent of organizing is follow-up.”
  • “If you think you can do it for people, you’ve stopped understanding what it means to be an organizer.”
  • “If you are able to achieve anything big in life it’s because you paid attention to the ‘little’ things.”
  • “When you find ‘live wires’ put them to work immediately. Find something they can do-any little thing-get them started and ready to do more, or you’ll lose them for the cause.”
  • “When you are tempted to make a statement, ask a question.”
  • “Good organizers never give up. They get the opposition to do that.”

Overall, what is the legacy of Fred Ross, and is he still relevant today? He is certainly one of the major players in the development of 20th century organizing, and his influence on the growth of the UFW, which itself had a major impact on many thousands of people, can’t be overstated. A lot of his ideas about organizing are valuable and now seem like common sense for today’s organizers. They would be familiar to many folks who are trained in various programs now. But perhaps his demand that organizers adhere to a specific, detailed organizing methodology has not survived quite as well.

Moreover, his insistence on total dedication and sacrifice for the cause is not a common approach to organizing today. I admire his commitment, but perhaps a more useful framework would be that we need many more people doing some good organizing work, rather than very few dedicating every hour to it. And ultimately, though he had a rare and inhuman capacity for relentless work, his insistence on loyalty to his friend Chavez blinded him to the troubles at the UFW, and that is all too human.