You might call Jim Schmidt an activist’s activist. As the former executive director of Farmworker Legal Services in New York (FLSNY) and the co-founder of Rochester’s Band of Rebels, Schmidt was a dedicated advocate for racial and economic justice. Most of his career was defined by his efforts to improve conditions for New York farmworkers, inspiring countless others committed to worker justice. He died on November 10, 2012 at age 73.
I attended dozens of Justice for Farmworkers campaign events with Schmidt after first meeting him in 2000, and I interviewed him on several occasions to learn more about one of New York’s longest serving farmworker advocates. His politics were shaped at an early age by his parents. His father, a union organizer who later became head of the Cayuga county AFL-CIO Labor Council, used to tell him: “The only people you can trust are workers. The boss and the wealthy will sell you out.” While his father’s politics shaped Schmidt’s dedication to worker empowerment, like so many others, he was moved to action after witnessing first-hand the living and working conditions of the poor and marginalized.
After teaching high school history for four years, he spent a summer in upstate New York as part of a program funded by President Lyndon Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity, providing adult education to migrant farmworkers. He recalled his first visit to a farm labor camp: a truck arrived crammed with migrants, including a 15-year-old African-American girl cradling her broken arm. After the grower refused to help, Schmidt brought her to the nearest hospital, which denied her treatment. That summer was, in his words, a “spiritual awakening about people’s willingness to treat others with brutality,” and he subsequently quit teaching high school to continue working with farm hands.
Around this time, he personally escorted Robert Kennedy on visits to upstate farms and was by his side when a farmer infamously greeted the senator with a shotgun. Part of Schmidt’s job was training female farmworkers to act as teachers’ aides. When a new federally-funded migrant education program refused to hire any of his many qualified trainees while offering him a better position, he called the Buffalo Evening News with the story, knowing he was risking his own job prospects with the new program.
In 1981 Schmidt became the first director of FLSNY, a post he held for 25 years before cancer forced him into semi-retirement and part-time work on the organization’s human trafficking project. He spoke about his efforts in the measured tones of someone accustomed to addressing contentious issues: “When you underpay people and expect such long hours; when you don’t provide protection from the use of pesticides; when you allow people to live in the kind of housing they live in, is it not a form of brutality?” Schmidt organized food-buying cooperatives and waited in the night shadows of farm labor camps to privately discuss laborers’ grievances, fears, and problems. He traveled with New York migrant workers to Texas and Mexico (where he ate his first tamale—corn husk and all) and organized Sunday evening discussion groups on class analysis and political economy, hoping to establish a cooperative farm. These meetings eventually broke down because so many members were deported.