Review of America’s Social Arsonist, by Gabriel Thompson
by Michael Gecan, Co-Director, Industrial Areas Foundation
Gabriel Thompson has produced a masterful and engaging book about a premier American organizer, Fred Ross Sr.
The title comes from a quote by Ross, “A good organizer is an arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.” It’s clever and dramatic, but the book itself, thankfully, does not glorify the dramatic; instead, it does a remarkable job of describing how Fred Ross Sr. and his colleagues invented modern organizing by experimenting with a number of basic techniques and tools.
Here’s one: “……Ross stumbled upon a tactic that would become the building block for his method of organizing. After holding a small meeting, Ross asked if people knew anyone else who might be interested in getting involved. One man who worked in the orange groves told Ross to come over to his house; he would invite the entire crew. At that meeting Ross, asked the same question, and another worker volunteered….’I began to get the idea,’ Ross later said, ‘that this was a really good way to organize, because each meeting was linked with the last one.’ The house meeting method was born.”
Systematic training was another. “Beginning in 1956, Ross helped train leaders to run what they called ‘educationals,’ which were structured but open meetings for members to discuss issues in more depth. It didn’t take long for Ross to realize their value.” Dolores Huerta, one of Ross’s greatest finds, ran the educationals conducted in Stockton – focusing on some of the themes that the IAF and others later developed into a core curriculum for thousands of organizers. Sessions on power analysis, issue analysis, leadership, how to run effective meetings were all tried and tested.
The books stresses Ross’s commitment to the craft of organizing – a craft with high standards, clear accountability, an attention to detail, respect for the wisdom and insights of people mostly marginalized, and the drive to find and support leaders from local communities.
One of those leaders was Cesar Chavez, who developed Community Service Organizations and then went on to build the United Farm Workers. The early and middle years of the Ross-Chavez relationship are filled with tough campaigns and hard won victories, often with the strong support of the ILGWU and the Steel Workers. Another leader was J. J. Rodriguez, of the Amalgamated Butcher Workman and Meatcutters of North America (which later became UFCW Local 770). What Rodriguez learned as a leader and co-founder of the CSO equipped him to rise to the presidency of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
Thompson doesn’t shy away from the limitations and flaws in Ross’s work. One was an inability or unwillingness to figure out how to create a strong dues base sufficient to support the organizing over the longer term. Instead, a dependence on often-fickle foundation funding and a reluctance to ask people to own, literally, their own organizations led to a series of organization collapses once the money ran out.
The second was the over-reliance on the charismatic leadership of Cesar Chavez. Long after others had begun to see how that leadership had drifted into domination and even paranoia, Ross Sr. refused to hold Chavez as accountable as he held almost everyone else. Miriam Pawel has also documented this tragic story in two fine books.
And the third was the notion that organizing had to be all-consuming. Thompson is unsparing. “Ross was an organizing fanatic, and this served his career – if not his family – well. But it shouldn’t be held up as the only model to emulate.” I’d go further. It shouldn’t be held up as a model at all. It was the product of a mostly male and highly macho organizing era, which Alinsky also promoted, that has been proven wrong by a generation of women and men who valued both organizing and family life and found time for both.
This fine book is many things – useful, moving, and sad. It highlights the creative innovations and the painful lessons of an organizer who spent his career behind the scenes, but who is getting, at long last, the attention he richly deserves.
Get your copy of America's Social Arsonist today via University of California Press. Order online today and save 30% (Use source code 16M4197 at checkout).
Michael Gecan is the co-director, with Ernesto Cortes, Jr., of the Industrial Areas Foundation and the author of Going Public. The founder of the IAF, Saul Alinsky hired Fred Ross Sr. in 1947 and Cesar Chavez in 1954. The IAF also raised much of the money that underwrote their work as they created Community Service Organizations. Alinsky refused to support the formation of the United Farm Workers Movement, and Chavez went on to prove him wrong. The author worked closely with the late Jim Drake and the late Jessica Govea, both great colleagues and good friends. The author is also a colleague and friend of Fred Ross Jr.