Chris Schneider, Fresno civil-rights lawyer, receives state Bar honor

Chris Schneider is most proud of helping to bring a shopping center to west Fresno and completing a United Farm Workers law program. His certificate of completion was signed by the late Cesar Chavez and former UFW lawyer Ellen Jane Eggers.
Chris Schneider is most proud of helping to bring a shopping center to west Fresno and completing a United Farm Workers law program. His certificate of completion was signed by the late Cesar Chavez and former UFW lawyer Ellen Jane Eggers. plopez@fresnobee.com

Fresno civil rights lawyer Chris Schneider has done pretty well for someone who never finished college and didn’t attend law school.

He is executive director of the nonprofit Central California Legal Services, overseeing a $5 million budget and a staff of 50 who provide free legal services to immigrants and the poor throughout the central San Joaquin Valley.

Under his leadership, CCLS was instrumental in getting a shopping center built in long-neglected southwest Fresno, helping the homeless in their legal fight with Fresno City Hall and making sure poor rural residents didn’t get gouged in their utility bills.

For his two decades of service, Schneider, 59, will receive one of the highest honors given by the California State Bar – the Loren Miller Legal Services Award, which is named after the late Southern California civil rights leader and judge.

Schneider will be given the award Thursday at the Bar’s annual meeting in Anaheim.

Growing up in Indianapolis, Schneider said he took a keen interest in California’s farm labor movement while in school.

In fact, his early knowledge of the United Farm Workers grape boycotts led him to be interviewed in 1972 by an Indianapolis television reporter named David Letterman. Yes, that David Letterman. Schneider was 16 years old at the time.

He later volunteered with the fledgling UFW as a teen. He stood on picket lines, organized boycotts and faced down Teamsters and others who were bent on breaking up the farmworkers union.

During his time in the UFW, from 1973 to 1989, he became close friends with UFW leader Cesar Chavez, who encouraged him to become a lawyer, and met many of the farm labor leaders – both Filipino and Mexican – who participated in the first grape boycotts that took place in Delano 50 years ago.

Now, after working for CCLS for nearly 23 years, Schneider says he will be leaving his $126,000-a-year post in December. He is not retiring, but just wants to do something different.

Friends and colleagues say he will be hard to replace because he is hardworking yet humble about his achievements. They say his main strength has been encouraging others to do their best to serve the community.

“His legacy will be his words to us. That we can do anything if we put our minds to it,” CCLS board president Gregory Gillett said.

Midwest upbringing

Schneider’s life reads like a Horatio Alger Jr. novel.

He was one of nine children of a German-Irish Catholic family. His father, Louis O’Reilly Schneider, was a World War II Navy veteran who worked two or three jobs at a time – salesman, welder and bartender – just to put a roof over the family’s head and food on the table. His mother, Dorothea Magdalene Raftery Schneider, was a hospital records clerk.

Yet, sometimes it wasn’t enough.

At age 10, Schneider saw his parents lose their home.

In a recent interview, Schneider recalled sleeping on the floor and hearing his father and older brothers moving the family’s furniture to a neighbor’s garage. The family was then split up among relatives and friends.

With help from others, Schneider said his family was homeless for only a few months. Yet, the experience left an indelible mark.

“I could see how it impacted my parents, putting a lot of stress on them,” he said. “If they had been able to have a lawyer, things may have been different.”

Schneider said Catholic priests also had a significant influence on him.

He recalled one priest who marched in civil rights demonstrations in Selma, Ala. During catechism, another priest talked about his time with the UFW in Delano.

“It was my first introduction into the UFW struggle,” he said. He was 12 years old at the time.

Schneider said his father also wanted him to become a lawyer. He said his father and uncles often sat around the kitchen table and argued about the merits of the turbulent civil rights movement of the 1960s. He said his father didn’t participate in the marches, but usually won the arguments because he believed in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement.

Other incidents impacted Schneider’s life.

He went to a public pool in Indianapolis that barred minorities. He said his father got upset with the attendant and vowed never to return.

He also recalled a priest telling the congregation in a Sunday sermon that they shouldn’t live in an exclusive country club because it discriminated against people of color.

“It was a courageous sermon,” Schneider said. “But it was his last one. He was no longer the associate pastor.”

Starting out in civil rights

In 1973, at age 17, Schneider left Indianapolis for California to volunteer for the UFW for the summer.

“The first day of the summer program took us to the picket lines of the Coachella Valley,” he recalled.

On the picket line, “Teamster goons” taunted the volunteers, he said. Some farmworkers were beaten. Others were shot at. But they never backed down. “I had never seen such courage, such commitment,” Schneider recalled. “The workers had faith, not only in the movement, but in themselves.”

From Coachella Valley, Schneider went to Los Angeles to organize boycotts, picket stores and hand out literature.

Once the summer ended, he returned to Indianapolis to go to college and fulfill a promise he had made to his father. But after one year of college, he rejoined the UFW and never looked back.

Schneider said he didn’t speak Spanish, so he had to learn as he went along. Later, he said, Chavez started a program in which English-speaking UFW workers learned Spanish and Spanish-speaking workers learned English.

He first worked in Chicago, organizing grape boycotts from 1974-76. He then spent a year in Milwaukee, organizing boycotts.

He said he learned the trade from such unsung labor leaders as Fred Ross Sr. and Gilbert Padilla.

“Chris is one of the kindest persons you will ever meet,” said Padilla, 87, of Fresno.

Padilla said he met Schneider in Chicago in the 1970s, when the UFW was organizing grape boycotts around the United States.

“He never complained and never criticized anyone,” Padilla said. “He was always there to work, to do his job.”

Schneider said Chavez also played a big role in in his life. Chavez was his best man at his wedding. Chris and Magdalena Beltran Schneider have been married for 33 years. They have four children.

In 1977, Schneider worked at UFW headquarters in Keene, in Kern County.. His duties included community organizer, administrative assistant to Chavez and organizing boycotts, a job that took him across the Valley and to the far reaches of California. With encouragement from the UFW leader, Schneider joined the union’s legal apprenticeship program, working as a paralegal and representing the union in hearings before the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. He said he often was pitted against seasoned attorneys.

At night, Schneider would read law books and listen to cassette tapes of UFW lawyer Ellen Jane Eggers’ lectures in his car.

Without going to law school, Schneider said he passed the California Bar Examination on his first try. He was admitted to the State Bar in June 1986.

Work in Fresno

Schneider left the UFW in 1989. He first co-founded a law firm to serve the legal needs of the farmworker community. He then worked for the California Rural Legal Assistance office in Delano, where he handled housing and labor matters. After four years with CRLA, he was named executive director of Central California Legal Services in 1993.

Established in 1966, CCLS provides free civil legal services to low-income residents of Fresno, Kings, Merced, Mariposa, Tulare and Tuolumne counties. Through a partnership with the Health Consumer Alliance, CCLS also provides health-related legal assistance to residents of Madera, Monterey, San Benito, San Luis Obispo and Stanislaus counties.

The nonprofit’s clients include the working poor, people with disabilities, immigrants, veterans, seniors and other low-income individuals who need legal assistance with such things as housing, public benefits, health, education and immigration.

In a region that lacks financial resources, Schneider has been able to get outside attorneys to work pro bono for the nonprofit as well as get law students and interns to pitch in.

“Our mission is to advance justice and empower people,” said Schneider, who was president of the Legal Aid Association of California from 1994 to 1999.

In anticipation of receiving the Loren Miller award, Schneider talked with a reporter from the California Bar Journal. The article focused on his many accomplishments, including driving on a lonely stretch of Highway 99 in Kern County in the middle of the night in 1989 to search for Peruvian shepherds.

The landmark research led CCLS to publish “Suffering in the Pastures of Plenty: Experiences of H-2A Sheepherders in California’s Central Valley,” the first documentation of the deplorable working conditions endured by sheepherders. Schneider’s efforts resulted in the improvement of working conditions and wages for California sheepherders, according to the State Bar’s website.

Schneider also served on an advisory committee that led to the opening of the Fresno County Superior Court’s first Spanish Self-Help Education and Information Center.

In 2002, CCLS helped stop a large water rate increase to families receiving arsenic-tainted water in the town of Alpaugh, where residents already were paying more for water than those in surrounding towns.

In addition, Schneider recruited the law firm of Arnold & Porter LLP to provide a team of pro bono attorneys from the firm’s branch offices in Los Angeles, Palo Alto and San Francisco to co-counsel with CCLS for more than 30 cases representing homeless clients. They had sued the city of Fresno for seizing and destroying their belongings. The litigation, which took place between 2012 and 2014, resulted in a settlement, policy changes and increased community awareness of the legal rights of the homeless.

“Essentially, Chris has done a lot with few resources,” said Gillett, CCLS’s board president. He added that Schneider’s “gift is his humility and his ability to give a lot of people hope.”

Gillett said: “We will never be able to replace Chris, but he left us in a good position.”

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts