September 26, 2008
AMHERST, Mass.—On Monday and Tuesday, Oct. 6 and 7, Amherst College will celebrate the donation of the papers of labor lawyer and social activist Jerry Cohen ’63 with a series of events on campus. Sponsored by the Amherst College Library; Constitution Day Fund; the Spanish Department; La Casa, La Causa and Chicana/o Caucus groups and the Center for Community Engagement, the following events are free, open to the public and wheelchair accessible:
• Poetry reading by Martín Espada, Puerto Rican poet and professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and discussion with Cohen about using his papers and other collections for research in social activism—Noon, Frost Library’s Archives and Special Collections.
• “Activism in 21st -Century America: Jerry Cohen and Marshall Ganz in Conversation with Ilán Stavans” (Ganz is a professor at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and currently an organizer for the Barack Obama campaign; Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College 40th Anniversary Professor at Amherst College.)—7 p.m., Cole Assembly Room, Converse Hall.
• Screening of the film Fighting for Our Lives: The United Farm Workers’ 1973 Grape Strike—7 p.m., Room 4, Merrill Science Center.
Jerome Cohen was born in Chicago in 1941. He received a B.A. from Amherst in 1963 and went on to earn a law degree at Boat Hall, Calif., a few years later. He was working as a first-year attorney at the California Rural Legal Assistance Office (CRLA) in 1967 when he attracted César Chávez’s attention and was called to join the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). Acting as Chávez’s personal attorney and General Counsel of the UFW, Cohen played a critical role in the union’s organizing drive in California and other agricultural states. His ability to use the law as an offensive weapon to advance organizing goals and build power in the union prompted him to direct the UFW legal department for the next 14 years, during which he helped migrant laborers win basic rights through litigation, strikes, boycotts and other nonviolent tactics. His work resulted in many important constitutional decisions that continue to protect farm workers to the present day. He stepped down as General Counsel of the UFW in 1979 but acted as attorney and negotiator for the union until 1981. He has since then engaged in private practice.
About the Cohen Papers
The Cohen Papers document the emergence of the UFW and Cohen’s role in its struggle to organize farm workers in agricultural states such as California and Arizona. Most of the material pertains to the period prior to the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (1975), when the union was not governed by any organizing statute and its activists strived primarily to win recognition as well as basic rights for the migrant laborers they represented. They sought nonviolent tactics, including the creative use of the law, to improve working conditions. Cohen was in the forefront of the UFW’s legal battles as a negotiator, strategist and personal attorney to César Chávez. The Cohen Papers trace the intertwining of law and labor organizing during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with emphasis on the court cases and contracts that helped to build the UFW as the pioneer and one of the most important labor unions for rural workers in the UnitedStates.