Fred Ross Jr. from Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 was one of the most celebrated organizers of his generation.
His students fill some of the highest organizing positions in the Brotherhood. Outside the IBEW, he had a hand in some of the most consequential national and state political elections of our time, and he was a critical organizer in one of the most recognized labor movements of the last half of the 20th century.
It is the nature of organizing, which Ross had at one time defined as "providing people the opportunity to work for what they believe in," that the organizers are never in the spotlight, and the great ones aren't even on the stage.
When he died in November, just a few months after his 75th birthday and his retirement from Local 1245, most IBEW members had most likely never heard his name.
But Ross' organizing strategy and tactics, the textbook for empowering poor and working people that he inherited from his father and then developed himself, are now used throughout the IBEW.
"There are many good ways of organizing in and out of the IBEW. Fred's way of organizing won us so much," said Jammi Ouellette, assistant to the international president for membership development. Ouellette was a call center worker in Northern California when she took her first organizing training under Ross and his work partner of nearly 40 years, Eileen Purcell.
Jennifer Gray also came up through Local 1245 before becoming the IBEW's director of professional and industrial organizing. She saw how successful what she called the "Ross playbook" was across the state and country, in political and labor campaigns.
"I don't know if everyone has caught wind of it yet, but this is a way to success," she said.
Ross came to his trade the way many people in the IBEW came to theirs — he followed his father.
His father had been away from home working for long stretches of Ross Jr.'s childhood, something many children of linemen and wiremen also share with Ross Jr., along with deciding to go into the family trade after a high school summer as a helper on the job.
He joined Fred Ross Sr. in Guadalupe, Ariz., working with Mexican Americans, migrants and Native Americans to fight segregation, police brutality and the grinding poverty of farm work. It was a continuation of the work his father had done finding jobs for Japanese Americans leaving the World War II internment camps and, during the Great Depression, running a relief camp for displaced Dust Bowl farmers that became the model for Weedpatch in John Steinbeck's novel "The Grapes of Wrath."
His father's greatest impact, though, and where Ross Jr. made his true start in labor organizing, came out of the Community Service Organization, which his father started, again focusing on the poor, usually Latino communities of Southern California. That is where Fred Ross Sr. found his greatest students and partners, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who turned the United Farm Workers into one of the highest-profile labor movements of the mid-20th century.
If anything, Fred Ross Sr. may be an even more celebrated organizer than his son, despite his wish to spend a lifetime behind the scenes. Carey McWilliams, longtime editor of The Nation magazine, called him "a man of exasperating modesty."
But it wasn't just modesty. It was strategy. Ross Sr. had learned from and worked with organizing giants like John L. Lewis and Saul Alinsky. "You don't develop new leaders, you push people into action by refusing to do it yourself," Ross Sr. wrote. "You are then providing them with the opportunity to become aware of their own capabilities."
This is one of the "Axioms for Organizers" collected in a book of that name, a playbook inherited, expanded and updated by Ross Jr. and Purcell over the next 40 years, including nearly 15 years at Local 1245. It is now the beating heart of the IBEW's organizing strategy.
Ross Jr. came to Local 1245 in 2009 after a decade organizing the workers at Catholic hospitals for the SEIU.
Tom Dalzell was the business manager at Local 1245 when Ross Jr. arrived. He came to 1245 as an attorney in 1981 from the UFW's legal staff. Dalzell's mother had worked with Ross Sr. in 1942 in migrant camps, and he grew up hearing stories about the elder Ross. It's why Dalzell volunteered with the UFW in high school and returned there to work after earning his law degree. The UFW is also where he and Ross Jr. met in the early '70s.
In 2006, Dalzell was elected business manager, facing, he said, daunting challenges from the local's main employers — public and private utilities roiled by deregulation and the arrival of investment bankers to the formerly staid industry.
There was little of the energy, the empowerment or the fire that had been so fundamental to the UFW, the fire Dalzell knew would be necessary to thrive in the new era of California utilities. He reached out to Ross Jr., telling him, that if he ever left, he would have an office at 1245 the next day.
Three years later, Ross Jr. finally came to Local 1245, and persuaded Dalzell to recruit Purcell.
"They didn't come into a small, sputtering organizing department," Dalzell said. "They came into a nonexistent one, and they just built it."
Their most effective innovation was the Organizing Stewards program. Rank-and-file members were nominated for the program for their potential, even if many didn't see that potential in themselves, Ouellette said.
"When he said, 'You are in this room because someone believes in you,' I remember thinking: 'Wow. That's a lot. I'm just a call center worker,'" she said.
The curriculum was the distillation of nearly 70 years of experience: from his father, from the UFW, from his work on Nancy Pelosi's first campaign for Congress where Ross ran grassroots and get-out-the-vote campaigns.
The key insight in his work was that the only way to scale up a movement was to constantly return to the individual connection, firing up each person to inspire five more, and each of them, another five more. Scale up and keep it personal, again and again, until you win.
Purcell said that what made Ross so singularly successful was that he was comfortable "inviting people to do the impossible."
Or as his father put it in "Axioms for Organizers": "A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire."
Gray said the program worked because the stewards were quickly put into campaigns where the stakes were high — "war conditions," Dalzell called it — across the state and the country.
They fought so-called right-to-work proposals in Michigan, a Tea Party takeover of the state Senate in Wisconsin and recalls of union allies in California, among many other local, state and national campaigns. By Dalzell's reckoning, they went to at least 30 states.
When the time came to fight bad contract offers or organize new units, the local had hardened veterans who knew how to run campaigns and a locker full of IOUs from locals and other unions to call in.
Fred was a master at the craft, Purcell said, and while he made it magical, he believed everyone had the potential to dive in. There was no magic to it.
"Fred would insist he wasn't a hero. He liked victories, and he was incredibly skillful, inspired and relentless. But he understood that organizing is very practical," Purcell said. "He was the best and he made it fun, but he deeply believed that given the opportunity, everybody can learn it."
And everyone should, Ouellette said.
"The IBEW is at a crucial, pivotal point, like Local 1245 before Fred," Ouellette said. "We are committed to grow too."
Since his appointment, International President Kenneth W. Cooper has said that the IBEW must grow to 1 million members in the next five years, or it will lose ground.
"We won't be able to indenture our way to maintaining market share, let alone taking advantage of the enormous potential in our industries," Ouellette said. "We all want the IBEW to grow, and an important part of this organizing plan is educating, empowering and activating the rank and file to tell their story and understand the importance of their voice."