Sacramento loses Latino Labor icon
By Sheri Williams
Albert “Al” Rojas, a Labor icon and champion of farmworker rights, passed away on March 20 in Sacramento.
“Our most sincere condolences to Al’s family, and to the family of Labor, which has lost a great champion,” said Sacramento Central Labor Council executive director Fabrizio Sasso. “Al didn’t just fight for workers’ rights, he lived the struggle, every minute of every day. He was and will remain an inspiration to all of us who do this work.”
Albert Joseph Medrano Rojas was born on July 31, 1938 to a family of farmworkers in Tulare County. His mother, Gabriela Medrano, was from Chihuahua. His father, Rafael Anguiano Rojas, was from Brisenas, Michoacan. As a baby, Roja’s cradle was a peach crate made of pine wood, his family said.
Rojas began working in the fields as a small boy. His 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,” explained his daughter, Desiree Bates Rojas. “My grandfather’s body would get all bitten up and bleed profusely. 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,” she said.
Shaped by those early experiences, Rojas became a Labor organizer, first under the tutelage of John Soria and Peter Lauwerys in Oxnard, California. He understood deep down in his soul that the suffering of farmworkers, especially children farmworkers, had to come to an end, said Desiree Bates Rojas.
It was during his time in Oxnard that Rojas and his wife, Elena Bates Rojas, decided to raise a family. Together they had four children: Debra, Albert Jr., Desiree, and Shalom.
Desiree Bates Rojas said her 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 also a founder of the United Farm Workers Independent Union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters (UFW-IBT), based in San Jose, California. Led by Oscar Gonzalez, from 1961 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.
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.
Desiree Bates Rojas said that though her father made California his home, he never forgot about the needs of workers in Mexico.
He served as president, and in other official roles, of the AFL-CIO’s Northern California Chapter of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA). He fought to expose the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the cause of the forced migration and separation of millions of undocumented workers families. He never stopped fighting for the rights of migrant and indigenous people—don’t call them immigrants, he would say—victimized and imprisoned by ICE and stripped of their human rights by US law.
“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!,” she said. “He fought for a Mexico that would serve all its people, especially the working class, the campesinos, and the poor.”
Desiree Bates Rojas said 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. He brought the Driscoll Berry Boycott to Sacramento, exposing the Driscoll corporation over the environmental degradation, inhuman working conditions and daily wages of $10 or less. The Driscoll Berry Boycott became one of Rojas’ chief concerns, and he fought for awareness for years in Sacramento and across California.
“Al could be soft-spoken, his voice could be gentle. But there was no mistaking the fury of his love for farmworkers as the most exploited and oppressed members of the working class and the energy he brought to the struggle against injustice whenever and wherever he found it,” said Desiree Bates Rojas. “Or his contempt for those who, through hypocrisy and self-dealing, betrayed the workers and their unions.
Not all of Rojas fights were big ones. He was always aware of the smaller battles that carried sorrow and weight for those they touched. In 2008, Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a teenage farmworker, died because of extreme heat in the fields. It was Rojas who stepped forward to expose the criminal political complicity that led to her death. In 2009 Luis Gutierrez was killed by the Woodland Police. It was Al Rojas who gathered supporters together, four years after his death, for a candlelight vigil on the lonely roadside where Luis was shot down.
Al Rojas will be missed. But he will never be forgotten.
The family asks that anyone wishing to honor Rojas make a contribution to LCLAA Sacramento Chapter or AFL-CIO and Change to Win. Contributions can be sent to: LCLAA Sacramento Chapter, P.O. Box 4388, Davis, CA 95617. Contributions from corporations are not accepted, in accordance with Al’s beliefs.