With new advocacy groups popping up all over the internet, members of Congress using Snapchat and worldwide marches starting on Facebook, it may seem old-fashioned to think that organizing lessons can be found in not just a book, but one about someone born at the beginning of the last century. 

“America’s Social Arsonist” celebrates the lifelong work of organizer Fred Ross, pictured left with his son Fred Jr., staff organizer with Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245.

“America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century” by Gabriel Thompson teaches us that even stories rooted in decades past have lessons that still hold true today.

“He was the greatest community organizer who ever lived,” said Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 Business Manager Tom Dalzell, who worked with Ross during the ‘60s and ‘70s when they were organizers for the United Farm Workers. He also hired Ross’ son, Fred Jr., in 2009 to lead the organizing program at Local 1245. 

Described by Thompson as one of the most influential community organizers in American history, Ross trained thousands of organizers, some of who – like his son – have gone on to train even more.

Whether you use the telephone or Twitter, the essence of organizing remains the same: people getting other people to act. And we still respond best to in-person interactions. Ross knew this. He pioneered the house meeting as a form of organizing.

“As my father knew very well, technology is a tool to accelerate organizing, not a replacement for it,” said Ross Jr. who assisted Thompson with the book. “He valued relationship building and listening. It’s easy to move fast and not spend enough time having conversations, but that’s where the stories are.”

Born in 1910, the elder Ross got his start organizing during the 1930s in rural California. He covered the same terrain as folk singer Woody Guthrie (who is pictured next to Ross on the book’s cover photo) and John Steinbeck, who was then gathering information for his soon-to-be Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Grapes of Wrath,” about Depression-era tenant farmers.

Ross Sr. would spend the next five decades organizing across the country, though much of his work was in his home state of California. Along the way, he created a list of organizing principles, now collected in the book, “Axioms for Organizers.” An axiom is something widely accepted to be true, which for Ross included both the mundane like attention to detail, and the more philosophical, like “organizing is providing people with an opportunity to become aware of their own capabilities and potential.”

A selection is included in the appendix for “America’s Social Arsonist,” the title of which is taken from the axiom, “A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.”   

New Decade. Same Old Fights.

“Those axioms still apply today,” said Carmella Thomas, director of professional and industrial organizing. “Different time, different era. Same issues.”

In fact, those principles can be seen in IBEW campaigns today.

One of the axioms, “an organizer is a leader who doesn’t lead but gets behind the people and pushes,” was a guiding principle during the January win at utility company BGE in Maryland that created a new local, Baltimore Local 410, with more than 1,400 members.

“We were clear from the start. We were not organizing them. It was their campaign and we would do everything we could, throw everything we had, at supporting them. But they had to do it,” said Fourth District International Vice President Kenny Cooper.

Ross Sr. wrote that “Good organizers never give up – they get the opposition to do that.” At Electrolux, a manufacturing plant in Tennessee, the organizing team lost its first campaign by 59 votes. But they came back 16 months later – and won, bringing hundreds of new members into Memphis Local 474.

“We put our heart and soul into it, every one of us,” said Ricky Oakland, assistant to the international president for membership development.

A Marathon, Not a Sprint

Organizing can be hard, grueling work with long hours, up against seemingly insurmountable odds. But as many organizers will attest, it’s also some of the most rewarding work. Ross Jr. saw that when he first worked with his dad, organizing in rural Arizona.

“As a result of the work he was doing, lives were transformed,” Ross Jr. said. “People can find meaning in their lives by doing this kind of work.”

As a labor organizer, you have to go by the rules, the National Labor Relations Act, said Thomas, but what drives an organizer is the passion behind it.

“Our organizers come from a place of respect for the workers,” Thomas said. “It’s not a job, it’s a calling. It’s lifelong. We don’t do the job for the money. There is no such thing. If you’re a true organizer, that’s the last reason you do the job. It’s because you want to fight for that employee.”

Ross Jr. said he hopes that readers are inspired by the people who aren’t the focus, the rank and file, which is likely what his father would want too. Even his students who went on to become prominent leaders in their own right recalled the respect Ross had for everyone he worked with.

“I watched him at first very closely for the signs of paternalism and superiority. Never ever did I see those signs in Fred. He never looked down on us,” said Cesar Chavez, former student and legendary leader of the United Farm Workers, when he attended Ross’ memorial in 1992.

Respect and hope are requirements for this type of work. So is a belief that change is possible, no matter how long it takes. As Ross told Chavez when he asked him how long an organizing project was going to last, “I had to tell him. I said, ‘it’s going to last forever.’”

“Even after a campaign ends, it doesn’t end,” Thomas said of the negotiations and contracts and battles unforeseen. “Not everyone out there’s union. Maybe that’s when we stop.”