Tribute to Al Rojas, Our Friend and Comrade

The ORGANIZER WEEKLY NEWSLETTER

Issue No. 22 — March 26, 2021

socialistorganizer.org

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Tribute to Al Rojas: A Dossier

(a) Statement by Socialist Organizer,

(b) Rojas Family Letter to Mexican President López Obrador, and

(c) Article by Al Rojas on the Fight to Stop NAFTA and for Legalization for All Undocumented Immigrants 

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Al Rojas: Fighter for Workers’ Rights Until His Last Breath

Statement by Socialist Organizer

Al Rojas addresses Binational Conference Against NAFTA 2.0 and Deportations, held in Carson, California, in December 2017

Our friend and comrade Al Rojas — a tireless fighter for the rights of workers and all the oppressed — passed away on March 20 at the age of 82. In the letter sent to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador [see below], the Rojas family recounts many salient features of the life of Al Rojas, underscoring why he was a “giant” in their eyes. He was a “giant” in our eyes, too.

Though he was a co-founder of the United Farm Workers (UFW) union in 1966, together with Cesar Chávez, Al never received the accolades or recognition that Chávez received. And there was a reason: Al spoke his mind at all times, refusing top-down directives that would hinder rank-and-file empowerment, organizing, and independence in relation to the twin parties of capitalism, the Democrats and Republicans. Al eventually was shunned and cast aside because he would not accept the UFW’s subordination to the Democratic Party. In all the glowing tributes, from full-length movies to California state holidays honoring Cesar Chávez, Al Rojas was air-brushed out of the picture and official UFW history.

This did not deter Al one bit. He kept organizing farmworkers, “guest-workers,” undocumented immigrants, youth, public-sector workers — and he always linked the struggle for workers’ rights in the fields and workplaces all over the United States to the fight across the border against the NAFTA and CAFTA “free trade” agreements [see article by Al Rojas below]. Al understood deeply that the capitalist system and U.S. imperialism were ultimately responsible for the destruction of the national economies south of the Rio Bravo that fueled the forced migration to Northern Mexico and into the United States.

This is what Al wrote in 2018 in support of Labor and Community for an Independent Party (LCIP), of which he was a Continuations Committee member:

The Democratic Party is a full accomplice in the attacks on immigrant workers and their families, as it (1) authored and promoted the NAFTA and CAFTA trade agreements, which deepened the poverty in Mexico and Central America, forcing millions to flee their lands and communities, and (2) it promoted the militarization of the U.S. border and the mass deportation of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The Democratic Party majority voted to allocate $4.6 billion for ‘border security,’ including huge sums going to for-profit prisons and detention centers. 

“Having a ‘D’ next to your name does not give you a free pass. Working people are organizing outside the Democratic Party — and the movement is growing. Change is coming — so that we can elect independent working-class candidates who genuinely represent working people. Building such an independent movement, and such an independent political party, is the task before us.

“After 50 years of activism, I feel there is no better time to move forward and build a solid independent labor movement that fights for our rights. There is no better time to build a new independent labor-based political party in alliance with our Black and Brown communities. Both struggles must go hand in hand. The task is urgent!”

Al was a close friend of Socialist Organizer and The Organizer newspaper. He received monthly bundles of our newspaper, which he distributed to activists in Sacramento, and he was a regular supporter of our fund drives and international campaigns. He was a comrade and a brother.

Socialist Organizer extends our most profound condolences to Desirèe Rojas, Fatima Garcia, Shalom Rojas and the rest of Al’s family. All of us are at your side in this moment of grief; we, too, feel keenly the loss of a pillar of our movement.

We will honor his memory by redoubling our efforts to support the farmworkers in San Quintin, and to fight for the legalization of all undocumented immigrants in the United States, the repeal of NAFTA 2.0 and the shameful “Immigration Pact” — and for a Labor Party based on the trade unions and oppressed communities.

Farewell, dear comrade,

Al Rojas, Presente!

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Letter from the Rojas Family to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador

March 25, 2021

Honorable Andrés Manuel López Obrador
President of Mexico,
Mexico City, Mexico

Dear Honorable President,

I write you this letter to inform you, if you have not already heard, that our father, Albert “Al” Rojas, passed away on March 20th in Sacramento, California. I write you this letter because our father was also a longtime friend of yours, going back to the days of the first presidential campaign of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas — a campaign that laid the groundwork, decades later, for your successful election campaign in 2018.

Al Rojas and Desirèe Rojas

We as a family would like to tell you in our own words what our father meant to us. His story is the story of millions of migrant families from Mexico, but it is also the story of an exceptional individual— a true rank-and-file labor and community leader — who shunned the spotlight, always promoting los de abajo, the downtrodden ones, to be the protagonists of the struggle for justice.

Our father came from a family of many generations of farmworkers; many of whom were forced to migrate to the United States. They traveled up and down the California coast, or throughout the Central Valley, following the harvest through the seasons and saving their money to get by through the winters.

Albert Joseph Medrano Rojas was born on July 31, 1938 in Tagus Ranch, in Tulare County, California. His mother’s name was Gabriela Medrano; she was from Chihuahua. His father was Rafael Anguiano Rojas; he was from Briseñas, Michoacán. Our father’s cradle was a peach crate made of pine wood with a peach label on the outside.

Our father started working in the fields as a little boy, living and understanding the reality of indentured servitude. His father — my grand-father — was often attacked by swarms of wasps when picking fruit. Though still a child, our father was taught that when this happened his job was to haul 1-gallon tin buckets up a 20-foot ladder to hand to his father so that he could rinse his arms to ease the pain from the bites. My grandfather’s body would get all bitten up and bleed profusely. This is just one of the countless stories that our father used to tell us.

Our father never forgot all the cuts and wounds on his father’s hands. As the years went by, my father’s hands began to resemble his own father’s hands.

Years later our father became a farmworker organizer under the tutelage of John Soria and Peter Lauwerys of Oxnard, California. He understood deep down in his soul that the suffering of farmworkers, especially children farmworkers, had to come to an end.  

While living in Oxnard, he and my mother, Elena Bates Rojas, decided to raise a family. Together they had four children: Debra, Albert Jr., Desirèe, and Shalom. Our father devoted his life to working with unions, initially in the U.S., but later also in Mexico (particularly with the Mexican Electrical Workers Union, SME). His love for Mexico grew into a 40+ year organizing and solidarity effort.

Al Rojas was a founder of the United Farm Workers Independent Union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters (UFW-IBT), based in San Jose, California. Led by Oscar Gonzalez, from1961 to 1963 they organized committees throughout California, specifically in the coastal areas from Northern California down to the Mexican border. It was during that time, in 1966, that the UFW-IBT merged with the National Farm Workers Association (a non-profit organization) led by César Chávez and others, and with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, led by Larry Dulay Itliong. The merged union became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), AFL-CIO.

Our father was a co-founder of the UFW with Larry Dulay Itliong and César Chavez. This has made our family very proud. All of us children were raised to be activists and organizers. In the UFW’s Malcriado newspaper, my mother refers to her “little activists” as strike (huelga) organizers because we all passed out leaflets at the side of our parents.

Our father went on to become a lead organizer in California and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of the UFW Grape Boycott. In fact, the Pittsburgh Boycott committee (1968 to 1970) was one of the most successful in the country. He championed every labor and community struggle for basic democratic rights and justice — from the lettuce strike, to the drivers’ license for immigrants (so that they could get to work), to the right of Mexicans living in the United States to be able to vote in Mexican elections, to the fight to end guest-worker programs, to the fight for legalization of all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. (Papeles Para Todos) — and so much more.

He also was one of the founders of SEIU Local 1000 through an intense organizing campaign waged by the Caucus for a Democratic Union, which won the election to incorporate with national SEIU, with Eliseo Medina as president. He later went on to serve as Deputy Labor Commissioner of the state of California.

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Our father was tireless and fearless; he knew who he was: a farmworker and son of a farmworker.

Our father’s focus was always on Mexico. He fought tooth and nail for the right – and ability — of Mexican families, particularly the youth, not to be forced to migrate to the United States – Por el Derecho a No Emigrar!

He fought for a Mexico that would serve all its people, especially the working class, the campesinos, and the poor. It broke his heart to see the Triquis community in Oaxaca — as well as other indigenous communities across Mexico — dismantled because of the NAFTA “free trade” agreement, with families forced to flee to Northern Mexico, or to the United States, in search of jobs, just so they could survive, while leaving their loved ones behind as he experienced in his own family — the separation of families.

“The real issue,” he wrote in a 2018 contribution to the discussion bulletin of the Binational Conference Against NAFTA and the Wall of Shame, “is organizing and representing workers and the workers’ right to negotiate a union contract. The real issue is legalization for all immigrants who are in the United States to work because their home economies are being devastated by ‘free trade’ agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA.”

That is why he championed with such fervor the struggle that began March 17, 2015, in San Quintin, Baja California, of close to 80,000 farmworkers (many of them indigenous people from Oaxaca) who were seeking nothing more than an independent union and a contract with giant Driscoll’s and Andrew & Williamson corporations. These workers, as you know, Mr. President are toiling in sweatshop conditions and have been denied a contract that would improve their wages and working conditions.

That is why our family calls upon you and your administration to extend your fullest support to these farmworkers and insist, with the full backing of Mexico’s new federal labor law, that Driscoll’s and Andrew & Williamson must allow the workers to form the union of their choice, with a contract that contains a living wage and all other protections on the job, thereby putting an end to the “protection contracts” with the company unions.  This is what our father wanted more than anything else. The is what he organized to achieve daily till the end of his life.

Our family believes that our father deserves to be recognized for all his work on behalf of workers’ rights and democracy in Mexico. He was a giant in the eyes of everyone in our family, but he was also a giant in the eyes of the tens and tens of thousands of workers and youth who stood at his side in the fight for justice, both in Mexico and the United States.

We also feel strongly that one of the best ways to honor his memory is for your administration, Mr. President, to take a stand squarely in support of the San Quintin farmworkers. We thank you for your attention to our message and plea for justice in San Quintin.

We wish you and your family the very best,

In solidarity,

Desirée Rojas
President
Labor Council for Latin American Advancement Sacramento Chapter
AFL-CIO, and Change to Win

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Stop NAFTA 2.0 – Legalization for All Undocumented Immigrants! Labor Rights for All!

“Legalization for All Who Are Here to Work Because Their Home Economies Are Being Devastated by ‘Free Trade’ Agreements Like NAFTA and CAFTA”

By AL ROJAS

[Note: The following article was submitted by Al Rojas to the discussion at the Binational Conference Against NAFTA 2.0, the Wall of Shame and Deportations, held in Carson, Calif. in December 2017.]

My family and many others spent well over 25 years organizing and eventually founding the United Farm Workers Independent Union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, based in San Jose, Calif. Led by Oscar Gonzalez, from 1961 to 1983, we were able to organize committees throughout California, specifically in the coastal areas from Northern California down to the Mexican border.

It was during that time, in 1966, that the UFW, IBT merged with the National Farm Workers association led by César E. Chávez and others and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, thereafter becoming the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

Having worked alongside “braceros” in the vegetable industry in Oxnard, Calif., in the early 1960s, I was able to understand the issues involved in foreign contract labor then embodied in the Bracero Program.[1]  At that time people like the Hon. Dr. Ernesto Galarza, César E. Chávez, Gilbert Padilla, John Soria and others opposed this inhumane system of indentured servitude, which did not allow workers protections, the right to decent wages, or the right to decide whether to have a union of their choosing represent their interests.

Although the Bracero Program was abolished through the efforts of Galarza, Chávez, Padilla and others, it has now resurfaced as the “guest worker” program.

Turning its back on its proud history, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez came out in support of proposed federal legislation called Ag-Jobs. In essence, Ag-Jobs would allow the recruitment of foreign workers from countries like Mexico, Thailand and Vietnam to labor in U.S. fields as “guest workers.”

In coming out in support of Ag-Jobs, ironically the UFW is taking on a contradictory role, being a union in defense of farm workers’ rights and now acting as agents in the recruitment of foreign agricultural workers for the U.S. corporate agri-business-industry.

Ag-Jobs was heavily supported by the National Farm Bureau, California Nisei League, Western Growers Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Republican Party, the Democratic Party and then-President Barack Obama.

The need for an overhaul of our immigration laws is not in question here. The issue is that at a time when unemployment is estimated at between 18 percent and 21 percent in California’s Central Valley and there are over 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., it is a complete farce to mislead the public by promoting and pushing for importing cheap foreign labor through a guest-worker (Ag-Jobs) program.

What we need are decent wages and working conditions and humane immigration reform.

The real issue is organizing and representing workers and the workers’ right to negotiate a union contract. The real issue is legalization for all immigrants who are here to work because their home economies are being devastated by free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA.

The real issue is the millions of U.S. workers who are unemployed and struggling to feed their families, while the White House and Congress bail out Wall Street to the tune of billions of dollars.

I, and others, believe that the UFW needs to concentrate on organizing and representing workers. The real issue is decent wages, benefits, safety protections, and the right to unionize, NOT more guest-worker programs that exploit workers who are not free to unionize and who are completely in the hands of the employer, who is free to hire and fire at will.

If agricultural growers paid a decent wage, U.S. workers would apply for those jobs and there would be no need for guest workers.

ENDNOTE

[1] The Bracero Program was a series of laws and diplomatic agreements, initiated on August 4, 1942, when the United States signed the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement with Mexico. It was terminated in 1964. Mexican workers were promised 30 cents an hour, but part of their wages were to be put into a private savings account in Mexico. To this day, an estimated US$95 million in promised wages were never paid to the bracero farmworkers or their families.

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