Jim Schmidt

James Schmidt
July 20, 1939 – November 10, 2012

On Saturday, November 10, 2012, we lost a friend, a mentor, a true inspiration to us all.  We send our deepest condolences to his family.  He will be missed, but he will not be forgotten.  His legacy lives within each of us.  The following videos are part of the tributes Jim has received.

This video honoring Jim was presented at the Rural Migrant Ministry’s Annual Dinner in 2010: Rural Migrant Ministries Salutes Jim Schmidt

Jim was awarded the Worker Justice Award at the inaugural fundraiser for The Worker Justice Center of New York. This is a video of his acceptance speech.


James F. Schmidt 73, formerly of Auburn died Saturday November 10, 2012 at Strong Memorial Hospital, Rochester.

The son of the late John and Susan Schmidt, Jim was born in Auburn on July 20, 1939. He was a graduate of Mt. Carmel High School and received his Bachelor’s at Oswego SUNY and a Master’s in History at Cortland, SUNY.

He began teaching at Central Tech of Syracuse, and then began teaching migrant farmworkers.  He was the former Executive Director of the Cayuga County Action Program. He worked in the Human Affairs Program at Cornell
University, and became the first Director of the National Center for Appropriate Technology in Butte, Montana.  He later served as  the Director of Farm Worker’s Legal Services of NY for over twenty-five years.

During his high school years, Jim excelled at basketball, played semi-pro, and coached JV basketball at Nottingham High School. He was an avid golfer and runner.  He was known for his lifelong commitment to the movement for
Social Justice.  He was a co-founder of the Band of Rebels.

Jim is survived by his wife Denise Young, two sons, Robert (Barbara) Schmidt and John “Jack” (Shannon) Schmidt all of Baldwinsville, a step-daughter Gillian Young-Miller of Rochester, five grandchildren, James, Lauren, Alexander, and McKenzie Schmidt and Fallon Young-Streaker, a sister Mary (Michael) Mastropietro, of Saratoga Springs, two brothers, J. Edward (Karen) Schmidt of Long Island, and Thomas (Janis) Schmidt of Auburn, a sister in law, Linda Schmidt of Auburn, several nieces and nephews.

In addition to his parents, Jim was predeceased by his first wife Elaine Schmidt, and a brother Robert Schmidt. Friends are invited to call on the family Thursday from 4-7 at White Chapel Funeral Home 197 South St. Auburn. A Memorial Service will be announced in the Rochester area. Burial will be in St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Fleming. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Wilmot Cancer Center or
United for Peace and Justice.


November 10, 2012 from the Syracuse Post Standard

James F. Schmidt, 73, formerly of Auburn, died Saturday.

Survived by wife, Denise Young; sons, Robert (Barbara) and John Jack (Shannon) Schmidt of Baldwinsville; stepdaughter, Gillian Young-Miller; sister, Mary (Michael) Mastropietro; brothers, J. Edward (Karen) and Thomas (Janis) Schmidt; sister-in-law, Linda Schmidt. Calling Hours: Thursday 4 to 7 p.m. White Chapel Funeral Home, 197 South St., Auburn.

News article published Feb. 23, 2012 in the Post Standard 



We received this email from Owen Thompson.  It expressed our feelings about knowing Jim, that we wanted to share it with you:

Dear FLSNY folks,

I just heard  that Jim died last week. I enjoyed reading this article, which I assume you’ve seen: http://band-of-rebels.com/2012/11/21/jim-schmidt-advocate-battled-for-farmworker-rights/ But they missed my favorite historical Jim story, which was his stint taking Bobby Kennedy on a poverty tour of Upstate farms. (If you wondered if it was worth reading that exhaustive history of the Cornell Cooperative Extension that was lying around the office, it was–for that story.)  The crew was famously greeted with a shotgun by a farmer whose name I now forget (and whose next-generation owner gave me a pretty scary bellowing decades later, shortly before we cleaned his legal clock). The incident was widely publicized at the time and lent some gravitas to RFK’s tour–so I had to wondered, reading that story, if Jim had a hunch that farmer would do the movement a favor by providing a lasting symbol of white grower intransigence.
Jim was a stubborn, hotheaded, ideologically dogmatic dreamer, and these traits were without a doubt what made him great. I remember cringing inside at his enthusiastic prediction, following his surgery, that he would get a space-age prosthetic leg and start running marathons with it–but thinking back on it now, I see a straight line between the wild optimism of that sick, aging Jim who would do anything to keep pushing FLSNY forward, and the wild optimism of that young Jim who had the guts to start FLSNY in the first place.  (Editors Note:  Jim was the first hired director of FLSNY and certainly had guts and perseverance, but was not actually the founder)
It took a stubborn man indeed to think there could be a tiny office tucked away in the Upstate Rust Belt advancing the human rights of farmworkers across the country. FLSNY was focused on New York State, of course, but its role in exposing and litigating the Maria Garcia case likely changed the face of human trafficking law on a national scale. Even at its lowest moment, Jim and FLSNY set an example of what a radical, independent legal services office could be: when the Gingrich congress bullied nearly every legal services place in the country out of serving undocumented immigrants, FLSNY held its ground and encouraged its peers to do the same, to the point of joining a group lawsuit against the federal government to challenge the new funding restrictions (we lost, I think). I’ve seen plenty of eyes glaze over when I explain how legal services funding works and what it has to do with social justice, but it made a permanent impression on me to start my professional life in an institution that prized its independence and proved you could find the money to do good work if you stuck to your principles and worked your ass off.
I wish I’d shown up a few years earlier and gotten to work (and fight!) more with Jim before his illness took so much of his time and energy. But that would have been tricky timing, since as it was, I was just days out of college when Jim grilled me aggressively on the topics of immigration reform and Mexican oil extraction before quietly passing a note to the rest of the staff and heading out to another meeting. The note said one word, “hire.” I was lucky that it did.


Remembering Jim Schmidt

The Nation

Maggie Gray | January 2, 2013

You might call Jim Schmidt [1] an activist’s activist. As the former executive director of Farmworker Legal Services [2] 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 [3] 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.”

[1] http://www.wjcny.org/jim-schmidt
[2] http://www.wjcny.org/about-us
[3] http://www.ruralmigrantministry.org/jfw.html