If there was a dynamic duo of the Los Angeles labor movement, it was Unite HERE Local 11 President Maria Elena Durazo and her husband, L.A. County Federation of Labor Secretary-Treasurer Miguel Contreras. During a time when nationwide union membership was on decline, they helped the L.A. region become a hotspot for labor activism. While Contreras built his reputation as a behind-the-scenes political kingmaker, Durazo focused on building local membership and making union operations more inclusive for the rank-and-file. Her 16 years of effort were capped this month when the Los Angeles Hotel Employer’s Council agreed to a two-year contract, lining up Local 11’s contract expiration with locals in several other cities. The victory came at a bittersweet time, after Contreras’ death on May 6.
Question: Describe your first impression of Miguel Contreras.
Miguel was asked by our international union to step in and put Local 11 into trusteeship so that it could become more viable and govern itself. I didn’t know him, his history or what he was all about. So I felt I had reason to argue with him about what gave him the right to come in, instead of us working it out within the local. I checked out his references with the Farm Workers union and other people who knew him. He invited me to come back on staff because the previous leader had fired me. I eventually gave in and worked with him.
Q: What changed your mind about him?
In 1986, Ronald Reagan had signed the immigration amnesty law. There were a lot of requirements in order to qualify. You had to take English classes and all kinds of things. He got the international union to put $100,000 into setting up a program for the members and lawyers so they could follow through with all the steps. He made sure we had rank-and-file committees in every negotiation to build trust. In that process, I got to see who he really was and that’s why I fell in love with him.
Q: You were on a plane when he had his heart attack.
I landed at LAX and I was taking a shuttle to my car. Apparently there were some messages on my cell phone. I hadn’t gotten to them yet. The messages said to just stay at the airport and someone was on the way to pick me up. Finally, my older son Mario got through to me. I said, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” And that’s when he told me.
Q: Did he show signs of being sick?
He had diabetes. There were times when he would go throughout the day without eating because he was so busy. When you’re a diabetic, you just can’t do that. He had to have these meals at these exact times. There were times when it would just throw him off. Then he would feel ill and he would have to recuperate. For Christmas, as a family gift, we signed him up to the gym. I know he was trying very hard to put himself on track.
Q: What did you learn from him?
Whether you were the President of the United States or a dishwasher, he would use his sense of humor to break the ice and make people feel more comfortable.
Q: He was good friends with Antonio Villaraigosa, yet the County Federation of Labor endorsed James Hahn for mayor.
Antonio was disappointed because he has roots in labor. Mayor Hahn is not an anti-union mayor. He has also supported many issues that are important to unions. Some people felt you don’t turn around on an incumbent who is supporting many of your issues.
Q: What impact do you think Villaraigosa will have as mayor?
When he says unions can work with big business and the businesses can still make a good profit, the business community will listen to him. The hotels knew his background and they still listened to him. He has that personality, those convictions and beliefs, but he is not taking one side or the other.
Q: Did your husband share your view that the national AFL-CIO had become stagnant?
Yes. He was probably the most important regional labor leader who was of the opinion that the AFL-CIO needs serious reform. His position as the head of the Central Labor Council in Los Angeles didn’t conflict with what he fundamentally believed that the labor movement has to do a better job of organizing and developing more types of political programs.
Q: Didn’t you hand pick L.A. City Councilman Martin Ludlow to succeed your husband?
When I started talking to other people, they were all amazed that Martin would consider it. I don’t consider that hand picked. His family’s beliefs are very pro-union. His mother was an activist organizer in the secretary’s union. He’s African-American but in our industry, where the majority of workers are Latino immigrants, he felt very comfortable. That’s really important he sees that workers are workers.
Q: What was the key to your recent victory against the hotels?
The whole question was what are the interests of (hotel) owners and investors and what are the interests of operators and managers. We believed there was not an identical overlap. When you are an owner and investor, you put your own money down. It is in their interest to watch out for labor disputes that could be protracted and have a deeper impact on their returns. A chain that manages hundreds of hotels may be willing to take more risks. It’s not their money they are risking. We were able to appeal to owners and investors that a dispute like this was not in their interest.
Q: Your new contract expires on Nov. 30, 2006. What is the negotiation plan?
In 2006, the contracts in many cities expire. At various times during the year, it will impact 50,000 or so hotel workers. We are not going to be pushing for a single national agreement.
Q: If you are not seeking a national contract, what is the advantage to having the contracts lined up?
Think of what happened with the grocery workers. The supermarket owners put their energy, thought and strategy into a single area. We believe if they have to do that throughout North America, they’ll see they have to negotiate with 10 or 12 different cities and ask, “Is there a more effective way of addressing some key issues rather than having to fight all over the country?”
Q: What was it like growing up as a migrant farm worker?
I’m number seven in the family of 11 children. Both my parents were born in Mexico. Each one of us was born in a different town. We went to two or three different schools a year. We missed the very beginning of the school year or we had to leave early at the end of the year, depending on the crops. So we didn’t grow up with a group of friends that we knew through the years. It wasn’t until I was about 12 or 13 that we settled down in Fresno.
Q: How did that affect your education?
My dad wanted us to focus on school. He used to sit me down nights and teach me to write in Spanish. Even though his English was very limited, he really placed a lot of emphasis on it. He was macho in one way but he pushed the girls really hard in saying, “You don’t ever want to depend on a man to take care of you.” In hindsight, I’m somewhat grateful. At the time, I didn’t like it.
Q: Why did you become a union organizer?
What impacted my life the most was seeing how our family was treated while we were working in the fields. I remember my dad trying to negotiate some fair piece rate because we worked as a family “This big orchard, how much would you pay?” and the grower taking full advantage, to squeeze and squeeze for the least possible rate. I remember we had to live in the grower’s barn. So the grower knew we weren’t making enough money to be able to rent a house.
Q: Those are unhealthy working conditions.
One of my brothers born after I was I must have been 5 or 6 years old died because my mother couldn’t get him to a doctor on time. He was just a few months old and got a fever. We didn’t have enough money to bury him. We as migrant farm workers always went to Catholic Church. The priest had to take a collection to be able to bury my baby brother. You just don’t get through life without remembering things like that.