Remembering Peter Haberfeld, labor attorney who worked alongside Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta

Haberfeld was proud of his arrest record — watching the polls in Mississippi in 1967, protesting the Iraq war in 2003 and twice in Berkeley in the ’60s.

Peter Haberfeld in 2021. Credit: Victoria Griffith

Peter Haberfeld, a lawyer for the people and a community organizer, died of a heart attack at his home in Oakland on Dec. 1, 2021. He was a fighter and a nurturer, disciplined and hard-working, with an enormous capacity for friendship and love. He was intelligent, generous, witty, kind, fun, mischievous and relished the absurd. Peter hated abuses of power and loved challenging authority. He was always there for his family and friends. 

Born in Portland, Oregon, on Oct. 23, 1941, Peter was eight minutes older than his identical twin, Steven, and 10 years older than his sister Mimi — all children of a Swiss mother and Austrian father who immigrated to the United States to escape the rise of Nazism.

They lived on their family farms in the Willamette Valley and later in rural Los Angeles County. On their farms, the twins developed a love of animals and a deep attachment to nature. They were proud to be viewed as farmers, were enthusiastic participants in the 4-H club for years, and loved getting their hands dirty raising chickens, pigs and especially their Black Angus cattle.

Peter and Steven attended Reed College. Choosing to skip the 1963 graduation ceremony, Peter instead hopped a freight train to the Bay Area and hitchhiked to the East Coast where he embarked for Europe. He earned a law degree at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall and commenced a life of activism as a lawyer, and labor and political organizer.

Peter was proud of his arrest record:

  • During the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement
  • While serving as a poll watcher during the election campaign of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to elect candidates to the state’s legislature in 1967
  • At People’s Park in 1969
  • And with his wife, Victoria Griffith, in the streets of San Francisco protesting the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

During “Freedom Summer” in 1966, Peter worked for C.B. King, the pioneering civil rights attorney and only Black lawyer in Southwest Georgia. He was deeply influenced by his mentor’s brilliance and profoundly affected by the glaring oppression and lack of equity for Black people in the Jim Crow South. Progressive attorney Francis Heisler, a beloved mentor, encouraged Peter to go to Mississippi to register voters. The experience cemented his determination to defend, and work closely with, the marginalized, the abandoned and the powerless.

Peter Haberfeld, age 40. Credit: Robbin Henderson

Between 1968 and 1975 Peter was an attorney and organizer in the California Central Valley providing legal aid to Latino youth and farm workers.  In 1975, he joined the United Farm Workers (UFW) legal staff working with iconic leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and another mentor, the renowned community organizer Fred Ross, Sr., during the legendary battle to establish the farm workers union. He helped win the landmark legal case, Murguia v. Municipal Court, which successfully sought to limit racially discriminatory prosecution of the defendant UFW members.

Peter was the first staff person hired to run the new office of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. He worked at the Youth Law Center, California Rural Legal Assistance, and the Bar Sinister in Los Angeles, incurring the wrath of the conservative legal establishment everywhere he went.

Peter organized and advocated for back-to-the-land folks in Shasta County and worked as a lawyer for the Department of Industrial Relations, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, and the Public Employment Relations Board. He organized teachers in Fremont, Oakland, and Vallejo, and worked for the Oakland Community Organization organizing teachers and parents for school reform in Oakland. Peter fought his final court battles at the law firm of Siegel & Yee, including an epic case that ensured the survival of the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

Peter redefined retirement. He volunteered on the Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns and kept his bar membership current so he could represent those in need of help. His last legal engagement was on behalf of friends who found, 11 years later, they had been consistently overcharged for trash collection. The City of Berkeley offered them only one year’s compensation — less than a tenth of the overcharges collected. Diligently researching the laws and statutes that applied gave Peter great satisfaction, and he was a hero to his friends when he forced the city to restore the unlawfully collected fees in full.

In 1994, Peter met the love of his life, Tory, during the campaign for Proposition 186, California’s universal healthcare effort. They married in 2004. Together they shared humor, adventure, and a love of learning languages. Peter adored his daughters Demi and Selena and loved being a father, and was delighted by his grandchildren Marina and Alexa, Demi’s daughters. In recent years, Peter and Tory traveled and studied languages. They loved farming, and spent time “Wwoofing” (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in France. Peter wrote about political affairs in France, Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, and Peru.

Peter is survived by his wife, Victoria (Tory) Griffith; his daughters Demetria (Demi) Rhine of Oakland, and Selena Haberfeld Rhine of New York; his grandchildren, Marina and Alexa Escobar of Oakland; his identical twin, Steven (Rena) Haberfeld, of Israel; and his sister Mimi Haberfeld of Mexico. He was dearly loved and will be terribly missed by legions of people who considered him central to their lives, whether they were from his social or political networks in the Bay Area, communities of friends throughout the world, ranging from Shasta County to the Oakland YMCA, to farms and cities in France, Buenos Aires . . . the list goes on. 

A memorial is being planned for the spring.

Peter was enraged at a system that sacrifices and devalues its people. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to The East Oakland Collective, an organization that addresses the needs of the unhoused, including food insecurity, of people in East Oakland.