THE DAILY RECORD
Advocate battled for farmworker rights
By Mike Murphy
New York Daily Record Posted: 1:13 am Mon, November 19, 2012 1:13 am Mon, November 19, 2012
James F. Schmidt taught history to Syracuse public school students and basic education to adult migrant workers. He fought long and hard for farmworker rights, leading a small law firm for 25 years. Most recently, he led demonstrations at local banks in his fight against corporate greed.
And before losing his six-year battle to cancer last week, Schmidt, 73, of Rochester, had earned the admiration of those he fought for and the respect of many he fought against, friends say. “He certainly affected a lot of people in his efforts to save the world,” said Peter Dollinger, an attorney with the Empire Justice Center who worked with Schmidt for about eight years.
One of Schmidt’s proudest moments came in organizing and participating in a march for farmworker rights, from Geneva, Ontario County, to the state Capitol in Albany.
The event matched Schmidt’s gift for advocacy and his ability to connect with the people he sought to help, said Lewis Papenfuse, co-executive director of the Worker Justice Center of New York. “It drew a lot of attention and highlighted some of the plights of farmworkers and got a lot of discussion going,” Papenfuse said of the march, which was held in the mid-2000s.
Schmidt was the director of Farmworker Legal Services of New York Inc., for 25 years. Described as a mentor and teacher, Schmidt also kept the organization going for 25 years through various funding issues and assorted trials and tribulations that came in leading a small organization that in many cases fought bigger businesses. Tackling those issues helped attorneys focus on bringing cases to justice, Dollinger said. “Certainly, Jim was a very passionate advocate for farmworkers and working people in general,” Dollinger said.
In the 1970s, Schmidt worked on cutting-edge technologies as director of the National Center for Appropriate Technologies in Montana. But after he and the board parted ways, he wound up loading trucks. “Jim wasn’t afraid to do just about anything,” Dollinger said.
His engaging personality overcame language and cultural barriers and made him many friends among workers, and even respect from the employers and farmers on the other side of the battle, Papenfuse said. “He was not afraid to address issues, and you knew where he stood,” Papenfuse said. “He was definitely someone who watched your back.”
The same tenaciousness he demonstrated on behalf of justice was evident in his fight with cancer. The disease took his leg, but Papenfuse remembers him playing a round of golf. He also continued to participate in protests with the Band of Rebels, a group he helped form to battle corporate greed and economic injustice, according to its website.
Schmidt was proud of the times when he could talk to workers and to convince them to advocate for themselves as well as his work on a project helping workers exposed to pesticides. “He was able to take on the exploitation of workers,” Papenfuse said. “He deserved to be proud of that.”