In 1969, at the age of 16, Miguel Contreras climbed off his tractor in the grape fields of the San Joaquin Valley town of Dinuba and joined Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers.
He has been a staunch union man ever since working alongside Chavez in the grape boycotts of the 1970s, then leading the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union here in Los Angeles for 14 years.
Last fall, Contreras was elected to one of organized labor’s top positions executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the local labor behemoth that represents 325 union locals and more than 600,000 workers. He is the first Latino to head the federation in its 102-year history.
Contreras is married to Maria Elena Durazo president of the militant Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, Local 11, and one of the most controversial labor leaders in town making him one-half of what many refer to as the “first family” of the L.A. labor movement.
Contreras recently spoke with the Business Journal.
Q: The economy here has changed quite a bit over the years, with manufacturing jobs going overseas, more and more temporary workers, more and more subcontractors. Do these trends make your job more difficult?
A: I’ve always believed that the best union organizer is bad management, bad conditions. And that’s what’s starting to prevail in Los Angeles. There are a lot of social and economic ills here. People can no longer make a living working at these dead-end, low-wage, no-benefit jobs. We’re decaying because of it. And we think that one of the answers to this is proper unionization.
Q: How do you plan to pull that off? L.A. doesn’t really have a reputation as a strong labor town.
A: L.A. can be a strong labor town. Clearly, having 600,000 union members in L.A. County is pretty significant. If we can organize all those workers, I think we’ll be quite a force.
Opportunities here in Los Angeles are pretty great. We’re where New York City was decades ago, with the immigrant workers coming in. Labor unions have always been built on the backs of immigrant workers. The most exploited workers in our history have been immigrants. And the labor movement was born when immigrant workers tried to end their exploitation. The ground here is very fertile.
Q: Organized labor made a huge effort in last November’s election. Do you see the various unions playing a larger role in city and county politics?
A: Clearly, we had a very good (election) in November. Here in L.A., we targeted six races and we won five, and those were five seats held by Republicans. Some people didn’t think we had a shot. But we targeted those areas, and we were very successful. We won seats that enabled the Democrats to retake the state Assembly.
Now, the Democratic leadership (in Sacramento) knows that a big part of why they’re in power and why they have the speakership is because of the work that labor men and women did here in L.A. County.
I think we can make a difference in the (election of the) next governor of California (and) on the make-up of the house in California, both in the congressional delegation and the Sacramento delegation.
Q: There’s a local primary coming up, with a number of hot issues, one of the most controversial of which is Mayor Riordan’s charter reform initiative. Have you taken a position on that?
A: We have thousands of union members working for the City of Los Angeles, at all levels, whether they be firemen, traffic officers, clerks, librarians, electricians. Charter reform is going to affect them. We want to be at the table. We’ll be formulating our position in a few weeks.
Q: Is it safe to say that you’re wary of shifting power from the City Council to the Mayor’s Office?
A: We’re not certain. The simple answer that it depends who the mayor is is not going to work here (laughs). We want to see a system that’s going to work for all of Los Angeles. There has to be middle ground somewhere on this issue.
Q: What about the mayoral race itself? State Sen. Tom Hayden has thrown his hat in. Will labor throw its weight behind him?
A: It’s no secret that both candidates have been courting the individual labor leaders of L.A. County, seeking their endorsements. We’ll provide a forum for the candidates, where both Sen. Hayden and Mayor Riordan will be invited to speak. Then we’ll take a vote among the union leadership. We have our options open.
Q: Quite a few of L.A.’s manufacturing jobs have been moving overseas. What are labor unions doing to address that?
A: It’s not a regional problem. It’s a national problem. The answer probably is in terms of the tax structure or the incentives to be given to companies.
On the other hand, you don’t want to create a situation where the only way you can stay in Los Angeles is to have minimum-wage jobs. If that’s the case, then we lose. Our quality of life is going to deteriorate even more. And we can’t afford that. We saw in 1992 what happens when the dynamite explodes. We can’t have hopeless people roaming the streets of Los Angeles, because then crime and other bad elements win out.
Q: But what do you say to the argument that unions and regulations make it more expensive to do business, which drives good jobs out of L.A.?
A: You have to invest in the city you want to do business in. You can’t just take from the city of Los Angeles. You have to put back into the city. That means providing a decent standard of living, decent medical plans, more educational opportunities. That’s the only way we’re going to “turn L.A. around” to quote the mayor.
Q: Relations between organized labor and the business community in L.A. seem strained, at best.
A: I think they’re non-existent.
Q: So how do you get labor and business on the same page?
A: I think we need a partnership between labor and business. I don’t think business can do it alone. I don’t think labor can do it alone. We need to come to the table and agree to do something about the quality of life in Los Angeles.
Q: How does it feel to be the first Latino leader of the federation?
A: I think my election is the labor union reflecting its membership, and I think it sends a strong message to the immigrant community that unions are not just open to them we are them.
Take a look at education. There are 670,000 students in K-12 in L.A. County. Sixty-seven percent of them are Hispanic. Of that group, almost 70 percent qualify for free lunch programs. That’s the Los Angeles workforce of the future. Their only hope to have a decent job is through unions.