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WUWM is honoring the lives of Latinos in Milwaukee and their contributions to the community during Hispanic Heritage Month.

Celebrated legacy labor leader Jesus Salas shares lessons in organizing

Jesus Salas
Audrey Nowakowski
"Obreros Unidos" is a first-hand narrative of the fight for farmworkers' rights from celebrated labor leader, Jesus Salas.

WUWM is celebrating the rich cultural diversity of Milwaukee’s Hispanic and Latino people during Hispanic Heritage Month. One major part of Milwaukee's Hispanic and Latino community is the history of organizing and fighting for migrant workers rights. Jesus Salas is a noted labor leader who has had a hand in nearly every major labor and education call to action in the Milwaukee area since the 1960s.

Salas cofounded Obreros Unidos (Workers United) and was the first Latin CEO of United Migrant Opportunity Services (UMOS). He's also taught bilingual courses at Milwaukee Area Technical College for two decades and was a lecturer at UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee. Salas is retired from teaching and still lives in here in Milwaukee, where he continues to be active in Latino community organizations.

Salas notes that with retired life finally came the opportunity for him to write about his vast history and experiences with the labor movement in his book, Obreros Unidos: The Roots and Legacy of the Farmworkers Movement.

Jesus Salas ( front left) leads the March to Madison in 1966.
Credit D Giffey
Wisconsin Labor History
Jesus Salas ( front left) leads the March to Madison in 1966.

In the book, Salas recounts what life was like as a migrant worker along with his family starting at age seven, to how he energized the farmworkers movement in Wisconsin in the 1960s to fight for better working conditions an fairness for migrant laborers and their families.

Salas is perhaps best known for leading a historic march from Wautoma to Madison in 1966. Inspired by the example of César Chávez, Salas and others marched to demand action from state lawmakers to address violations in Wisconsin's minimum wage laws and housing codes.

In addition to fighting for migrant workers rights, Salas also joined forces with other Milwaukee Civil Rights leaders like Father Groppi and Vel Phillips to advance even more community causes. With the legacy of the movement going well beyond the fields of Central Wisconsin impacting generations to come, Salas shares some key lessons he's learned from his work over the decades.

The workforce is a family base

"The picture that I write is of women and children working. That was my point of view from the very beginning," notes Salas. "And the other thing that is mindful of it being a family workforce, was we would have never had a youth movement, we would have never had a women's movement grow out of the farmworkers movement if it hadn't been family based."

He adds that today the labor movement and labor unions are male dominated, and Salas often tells people in the movement today that they "have to engage the whole family. You can't leave the mom at home."

Partner with other movements & activists

Salas often worked with other Milwaukee area community leaders not only to combine forces and increase visibility, but to advance multiple causes simultaneously. "I call it the intersection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Farmworkers Movement," notes Salas.

When he first came to Milwaukee, Salas was working on the Grape Boycott out of a backroom of an Archdiocese funded office on National Avenue. "Low and behold that same summer of '68, Father Groppi is marching from the North Side to Allen Bradley just several blocks down the street. So I just walked over and I introduced myself and that was the beginning," he says.

Father Groppi would join Salas in the Grape Boycott against Kohls Food stores, joined them in fighting for access to University of Wisconsin schools, and Salas in turn joined Groppi in the Welfare marches. Through the intersection of these movements, Salas would meet and work with Vel Phillips, Orville Pitts and Lloyd Barbee.

"When [Barbee] started the lawsuit to desegregate the Milwaukee Public School System, we piggybacked and we demanded the bilingual education and hiring of bilingual staff. Those things intersected ... it was a great pleasure to work with Father Groppi, to get to know Vel Phillips, and to work with Lloyd Barbee," Salas says.

Leadership is learned

Salas says in the beginning he was known as a farmworker first and an organizer second. He admits he made plenty of mistakes trying to organize and build a movement, and a lot of that work was learning how to adjust what organizing looked like in an urban city like Milwaukee compared to organizing around farms in Central Wisconsin.

Salas recalls some of his early work was convincing other farmworkers to support daycare centers at the labor camps to improve their work and living conditions. "That was a task," he says. "It wasn't that I had no abilities, but it was just 'how do we do this?' I was new to it, the very first strike was a disaster and I take full responsibility."

"There was a lot of lessons learned myself. So, César [Chávez] is right - there are no natural born leaders you have to be trained," adds Salas.

Jesus Salas pictured on a rally flyer supporting the Grape Boycott of 1967.
Jesus Salas pictured on a rally flyer supporting the Grape Boycott of 1967.
There's still work to be done

While Salas notes that he's very proud to see the organizations he helped to build stay active and improve their work decades later, there are still many issues that need to be addressed so that Milwaukee's Latinx community can thrive today.

"For instance, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee could do a better job providing more extensive hiring of the faculty. I know this is a bad time of the fiscal year ... because the present legislature has not been very kind to funding the university," Salas says.

Regarding college students, Salas notes that the Children Qualified Applicants of Undocumented still have to pay out-of-state tuition. It's typically several times the in-state tuition rate and these students are not eligible for federal financial aid.

"When I was a member of the Board of Regents we convinced the chancellors to provide some assistance and then I worked with Governor [Jim] Doyle to pass an in-state tuition for the Dreamers. Then Governor [Scott] Walker when he came in in 2010, not only takes away our right to organize as public employees, but takes away the right of Dreamers to pay in-state tuition. So there's a big gap that needs to be remedied," says Salas.

In Wisconsin, undocumented immigrants can own and register their vehicles, but they aren’t allowed to drive them. Currently organizations such as Voces de la Frontera is fighting to change that.

"It's just punitive," says Salas. "There's no reason - if you believe in safe roads there shouldn't be anyone out there driving without learning how to drive. And the fact that you have a whole community because they simply haven't processed their documentation [is unacceptable]."

On a local and national scale there is the issue of rhetoric around the United States border, as well as the topic of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in our schools and colleges. "Diversity and Inclusion is not solely ... a minority issue ... It is about all," says Salas.

"Those are the things I think that are still out there that weren't there when we were organizing that still need to be addressed," he says. "And it takes all of us ... the whole community to respond to that and to delve into these issues and find out what's going on and to be critical about the issues that are on the table."


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
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