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.
To combat exploitation, Schmidt helped stop the police and state troopers from evicting farmworkers and was instrumental in countless cases that awarded back pay to workers and improved labor conditions. Schmidt and FLSNY also played an important role in the first federal case under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000) against labor contractor Maria Garcia, who pleaded guilty to forced labor; one of the charges involved keeping workers in locked barracks at gun point. Schmidt was also the force behind FLSNY’s broader advocacy work including training other advocates to teach farmworkers about the law, founding the Farmworker Women’s Institute, and initiating special projects on domestic violence, racial profiling, pesticide education, personal finance, workers’ compensation, and human trafficking. Schmidt also taught me how a more subtle form of empowerment occurs when the vulnerable have outside validation for their concerns—when they are made to feel important—and, in this regard, he stressed the importance of listening to workers’ stories.
Despite decades of hands-on work with New York’s agricultural workers, at the end of his career he never failed to be shocked anew by the treatment they received. At the same time, he never gave up hoping for change. Passionate about civil rights, he talked about farmworker advocacy in the same breath as Nat Turner, the Abolitionist movement, the French Revolution, and the writings of Karl Marx. He zealously argued about strategy and politics, yet had a unique talent for shaping consensus. As one former FLSNY staff member witnessed, “Given Jim's famous love for starting fights, it's ironic that he’s been so successful at bringing (and keeping) people together around the farmworker issue.”
Despite running three organizations (earlier in his career he served as executive director of the Cayuga County Action Program and as the first director of the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte, Montana), he proudly identified as a member of the working class. His early jobs included bagging groceries as a member of the Meat Cutters Union, working in a shoe factory, and cleaning out stables at the county fairground. He also organized and walked in the Justice for Farmworkers 180-mile march from Seneca Falls to Albany in 2003. Schmidt was at ease discussing Marxism with workers, talking sports or religion with friends, or using a bullhorn at the Band of Rebels’ weekly demonstrations in front of the Rochester offices of banks and corporations.
Many of those in attendance at Schmidt’s memorial service told stories about his passion, earnestness, drive, and strong opinions. In attendance were dozens of those whose careers were influenced by their interactions with him. In the weeks following his death, I was in touch with a fair number of folks who counted Jim among their mentors; one summed him up as a “stubborn, hotheaded, ideologically dogmatic dreamer,” which is pretty spot-on. However, a former co-worker’s remarks are, perhaps, even more telling: even if he disagreed with you, if you were committed to what you thought was the best ethical action, Schmidt would “have your back.”