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The Wage Warrior

Politicians fear her, unions revere her, and the entire state has felt the impact of her actions. How did labor leader Maria Elena Durazo become so powerful?

 
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Durazo with members of Southern California’s United Food and Commercial Workers union, which went on strike for more than eight months in 2011 as a new contract was negotiated

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Grocery workers during contract negotiations, 2011

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Grocery workers during contract negotiations, 2011

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In October about 4,000 Verizon employees and members of the Communications Workers of America Local 9400 walked off the job

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Members of the grocery workers union gathered outside of Ralphs during the 2011 strike

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Activists rallied for immigrant and labor rights on May Day 2009, a holiday that historically celebrates workers’ rights

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Another scene from the May Day 2009 rally

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Members of the Gardena Valley Democratic Club and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor picketed the New Otani Hotel, circa 1995, on the grounds that its workers were nonunion

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Durazo with her parents at a United Farm Workers convention in Fresno, circa 1995

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About 80 union officials and hotel workers from the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11 demonstrated in a planned civil disobedience action at the Hyatt Wilshire in 1989

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Durazo picketing with her husband, Miguel Contreras, in 1988

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Durazo with her husband and their son, Michael, in La Paz, Baja California Sur, circa 1995

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While promoting Proposition 87 at an American Lung Association event in November 2006, Durazo posed for a photo with Brad Pitt and then-Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

 


The sky starts to glow as a cool dawn sets in above Chavez Ravine, where a few hundred labor union activists have assembled for a caravan to Bakersfield—a media event, as it were. Their plan is to bother some Republican congressman about the immigration reform legislation currently stuck in the bowels of Congress. The different unions clump together—Teamsters dressed in black over by the gate; a small cluster of gray-haired members of IATSE, the entertainment union, by the coffee tables; service workers, dressed in regal purple, marching in a ten-yard oval near the news vans, grateful for the B-roll. A priest walks by eating a doughnut. 

In the center of the massive parking lot stands María Elena Durazo, a little American flag in her hand as she basks in the warmth of a light affixed to Univision’s TV camera. At five feet two, with chin-length auburn hair and tortoiseshell glasses, María Elena is not exactly what you’d expect in a union boss.

That is what they call her, María Elena—everyone in the parking lot, the janitors, the cinematographers, the truck drivers, the welders, the teachers. They all know her and come up to her and hug her, and she hugs them back, tells a joke, and laughs—an infectious cackle. She is at once their kind and loving aunt, and El Jefe.

Most of the unions in Los Angeles belong to the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor (often called the “County Fed” or just “the Fed”), the central labor council that represents the AFL-CIO in L.A., a sort of umbrella group composed of about 300 locals and 600,000 workers. It does everything any big union does: push for legislation, run expensive political campaigns, and help unionize workers. Locals pay to be a part of the County Fed, and each has a vote in proportion to how many members it has and how much money it puts in per member. For seven years Durazo has been its executive secretary-treasurer, a title that makes her sound more like a midlevel bureaucrat than what she is: the leader of what is perhaps the most robust labor movement in the country and a woman who some say is the most powerful person in Los Angeles. After all, mayors come and go. Durazo, at age 60, has been around for decades and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere.

She walks over to where her staff is gathered by a white pickup truck. Its owner, a retired fireman from Alhambra, has set up a sound system for the union heads and politicians to fire up the crowd before the caravan begins. For now it’s blasting Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” An intern hands Durazo a cup of coffee, and someone tells her that a photographer from Rolling Stone is joining the procession. “Wow! Rolling Stone!” she says, and she starts to dance a sort of shimmy. Glory days / Well, they’ll pass you by, glory days / In the wink of a young girl’s eye, glory days / Glory days.

“María Elena, look!” says another staffer, pointing to the edge of the parking lot, where a group of maybe 20 LAPD motorcycle cops stands around drinking coffee. Durazo bursts out laughing. “They sent 20?” she asks. “We wanted, like, two!”

The police department was supposed to assign a few officers to shepherd the line of cars through Elysian Park and toward the 5 freeway. But last night it looked as if the LAPD had canceled without explanation. “So I called Chief Beck,” Durazo tells me, grinning. “I said, ‘Chief, we need them to at least just get us to the freeway.’ He said, ‘OK, I’ll see what I can do.’ ” In the end the LAPD will shut down all four lanes so that the caravan, united as one, can safely enter the freeway and begin its journey.

Just how much influence does Durazo have in Los Angeles? Anyone who wants to build anything big—a hotel, a skyscraper, a sports stadium, a rail line—must first go through her and the County Fed, providing assurance that the project will create “good union jobs.” In the exceedingly rare instance that a nonunion project does get approved by the labor-friendly city council, it can face protests and even litigation. Developers are said to be frustrated that a single interest group has so much clout, but nobody is willing to speak openly. “I don’t know any developer who would go on record saying anything that would antagonize María,” a consultant told me.

“She’s one of the foremost power brokers in the city—there’s no question about that,” says Jaime Regalado, the former head of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs. “Call it a fear factor, call it a respect factor. Those who make decisions in the public sector have to listen to her.”

The Fed’s sway over the city’s physical growth is matched only by its sway at City Hall, a result of its ability to spend millions of dollars in advertisements and deploy an army of paid “volunteers” who go door to door for any election. But their reach is rather limited in more high-profile races. In fact, the County Fed has somehow managed to lose every competitive mayor’s race for the last 60 years, including the most recent, where it dumped more than $400,000 into a super PAC on behalf of Controller Wendy Greuel. Not only did Greuel lose—badly—but she succeeded in making her opponent, the ultraliberal ex-city council president Eric Garcetti, sound like something of a labor critic. It was a baffling turn of events, set in motion by the Department of Water and Power union’s campaign blitz against him, as well as the County Fed’s, which sent out a flurry of glossy mailers claiming, rather dubiously, that Greuel would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and that Garcetti “owned a company whose oil drilling is believed to cause cancer.”

When I first meet Durazo at the County Fed’s headquarters, a forgettable two-story building on a forgettable Westlake block near MacArthur Park, I ask her whether she regrets going after such a labor-friendly candidate so viciously. “It’s a campaign,” she answers plainly. “We did what we could to support Wendy.”

Durazo finally sat down with Garcetti months after the new mayor took office, and while she doesn’t have Garcetti’s ear like she had his predecessor’s, her hold on the 15-member city council remains as strong as ever (she helped elect about two-thirds of them). And, judging from the early favorites in the campaigns to replace the termed-out Zev Yaroslavsky and Gloria Molina, unions appear poised to gain control of the county’s governing body, the five-member Board of Supervisors, which for all its opaqueness has up until now remained stubbornly independent of labor’s grip.

For many Durazo’s approach is too singularly focused on creating union jobs, to the detriment of any other consideration—say, traffic, walkability, neighborhood character, or business competitiveness. Some argue that her agenda hurts working-class people as a whole. In 2007, she fought against the expansion of Providence hospital in Mission Hills, which employed nonunion nurses, and she’s opposed nonunion supermarkets like Fresh & Easy, even in poor areas considered “food deserts.” Durazo recently tried to prevent Walmart from opening a Neighborhood Market in a Chinatown storefront that had been vacant for decades, in a part of the city decidedly light on supermarkets (the city council couldn’t stop Walmart, though it wasn’t for lack of trying).


This feature originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

“These are things that are just mind-boggling,” says police chief-turned-city councilman Bernard Parks. “People who say they’re for the working poor but don’t want you to have access to groceries? They don’t help working families. They help union members.” Parks has long been the fly in labor’s ointment. He spent most of his tenure as police chief feuding with the Los Angeles Police Protective League over his ability to fire officers; as city councilman, he became infamous for handing out Vons vouchers during the 2003 grocery store employees strike. Unions spent a total of $8.5 million to defeat Parks in his Board of Supervisors race against Mark Ridley-Thomas in 2008, then for good measure spent more than $1 million against Parks in his city council reelection bid against the virtually unknown Forescee Hogan-Rowles, who came within 1,500 votes of winning.

“They don’t demand that you support them some of the time,” says Parks. “They’re unyielding. They want you to support 115 percent or you’re not a true friend.” Parks hasn’t been persuaded, but at City Hall he can look like a man without a country. Most politicians seem to view Parks’s career as an object lesson in whom not to piss off. Reward friends. Smite enemies. That’s what labor does. So the city council operates under a cloud of fear. Parks says he can’t count the times he’s asked a colleague to second a motion, only to be met with, “ ‘Oh no, I can’t do this.’ ”

“What’s wrong?”

“‘Well, you know, the unions are opposed to that…’” Or “‘I’m gonna be trying to get my chief of staff elected when I leave, and he can’t get elected unless there’s union support.’”

“I’ve heard from council members that she often calls and threatens them,” says Central City Association president Carol Schatz, the downtown business leader who’s among the few public figures to regularly speak out against Durazo. “No special interest—and organized labor is very clearly a special interest—should have as much clout as she has had.”

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It’s a two-hour drive to Bakersfield, and Durazo is beside me in the middle seat of the minivan leafing through a stack of papers that includes a resolution she’ll put forward at the AFL-CIO convention being held in L.A. the next month, in September. “Too many details. Just give me the big picture,” she says, turning to her iPhone. She asks me what she should tweet about the caravan. I suggest “woo-hoo!” and “road trip,” which she uses after a good five minutes of deliberation—and then asks what a hashtag is. I try explaining it, after which I take out my own phone and tweet, “Currently explaining what a hashtag is to @Maria-EDurazo.” When she sees that, she deadpans, “Oh, you think I’m a dummy?”

Stories may abound of Durazo’s dragon lady qualities—making threats and holding grudges. But I’m struck by a different side of her: a warm, indefatigable charm that most civic leaders lack. She shows me photos of her grandkids with her at the Dodger game the night before. Next comes a picture of her beside Evander Holyfield (he towers above her) from a few months ago, then one of Durazo when she was 21 at a wedding, looking gorgeous in a pink gown with her hair down to the small of her back.

The familiar “Marimba” ring tone chimes out from her phone. It’s the head of a local that the County Fed represents. He wants her to talk to a state assemblyman, Mike Gatto, about a piece of legislation regarding health care premiums. “He did get our endorsement,” she says. “I just don’t know him very well. We’re supposed to meet next week.”

When we reach Bakersfield, the caravan of cars from L.A. seems to make little impression on the dusty city as it putters through an unending procession of strip malls and parking lots. “Maybe you guys need to honk more?” suggests a reporter from the Los Angeles Times who’s sitting in the backseat.

“Yeah!” agrees Durazo, excited, and tells the driver, “Margarita! Honk! Honk!” Margarita starts honking the horn. Nobody seems to notice.

We’d heard that there was going to be a counterprotest, and finally we see an elderly white lady in a white Lincoln on our right; a sign in her side window reads No Amnesty in red and blue marker. “Lady, you look pathetic,” mutters Durazo, snapping a photo of the Town Car.

Eventually Durazo meets up with Dolores Huerta, the 83-year-old cofounder of the United Farm Workers, who lives in Bakersfield. The two diminutive Latinas, old friends, head a column trudging toward the Bakersfield office of Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy. The marchers chant, “McCarthy! Escucha! Estamos en la lucha!”—McCarthy, listen, we are in the struggle. But as they move toward the congressman’s office, a bland storefront in the corner of a business park, they’re met by a small contingent of counterprotestors waving signs—American jobs for citizens—and chanting “USA! USA! USA!” Soon their refrain spreads to the union column, until both sides are shouting at each other “USA! USA! USA!,” the two visions of America pinging back and forth like sonar in the 98-degree heat.

Later Durazo tells me how the oven-hot desert air reminds her of her childhood. The seventh of 11 brothers and sisters, she was born to migrant farmworkers in Madera. Durazo was already bringing water to workers in the sun at the age of five. An early memory is of the tiny white casket of her youngest sibling floating down the aisle of some church in the San Joaquin Valley. The priest had to collect money to pay for the burial. “We were conscious of the fact that we lived in poverty—extreme poverty. That connection wasn’t too hard to make,” she says. “We had a big flatbed truck we would put the tarp over. That was our sleeping quarters. We did everything out of it.”


This feature originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

They traveled all around California’s Central Valley, picking grapes, tomatoes, nectarines, plums, olives, even cotton, while Durazo’s parents had a running debate. Her father took great pride in the job he did, the job they all did, their great family of field hands. “He felt highly responsible to the work. ‘No shortcuts,’ ” says Durazo. “Just, ‘you do your best.’ And of course my mom would be like, ‘You know, we’re not getting paid enough…’ But my dad would say, ‘That’s not the issue here. You’re gonna work hard because we have a responsibility. That’s it.’ ”

“What side did you come down on?” I ask.

“Oh, I agreed with the side that we were working too hard for too little!” she says with a laugh.

The family settled down for good in Fresno when Durazo was in fifth or sixth grade, and she started attending the same school every year, returning to the fields in the summer for work (the summer she learned to drive was also spent washing alfalfa). An older brother, Ben, was the first in their family to go to college—he died before graduating, but only after bringing Durazo to her first protest, against the Vietnam War. He also helped her apply to college and for the financial aid that helped her attend Saint Mary’s College of California. She studied under Bert Corona, the labor activist known as “El Viejo”—“the Old Man”—during the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s, which culminated in a series of walkouts by high school students in East L.A. and other Latino-dominated parts of the region.

Through Corona, Durazo became involved in her first labor dispute—a strike by mostly immigrant women at a tortilla factory. “I didn’t see it as a union issue,” she says. “I saw it as immigrant women with bad conditions fighting back. I think that made it very natural to what I was already exposed to, not a distinct struggle for different rights. It was all to me part and parcel of the same thing.”

After she graduated in 1975, Durazo moved to the Bay Area, where she got married and had her first son, Mario. The marriage didn’t last long; Durazo and Mario moved to Los Angeles, where she found a job as an organizer with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. “Back then la migra—immigration agents—they were notorious,” she says. “They would drive up in green vans, and they would walk into the factory where there were immigrants and they would just say, ‘We’re here.’ Period. And run through—literally run through—the factory and round people up. It was a roundup.”

Durazo went to Peoples College of Law, where her classmates included Gil Cedillo, now a city councilman, and former mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, back when he was known as Tony Villar. But she returned to organizing, accepting a job with HERE Local 11, which represents hotel and restaurant workers. Before long, however, she would be organizing against her own union’s leadership. “The demographics of the union had changed, becoming predominantly Latino,” says Harold Meyerson, then a columnist with the L.A. Weekly. “Scotty Allan, the head of the local, refused to conduct any meetings in Spanish, which was a way to maintain control. He also had stopped organizing and had cut sweetheart deals with the restaurants.”

And so Durazo sparked an insurrection, leading a slate of candidates who voted out the old guard. In turn the ousted bosses immediately charged Durazo and her allies with fraud and had the ballots impounded. Durazo and other candidates filed a lawsuit, Allan resigned, and HERE International placed the union under a trusteeship. “We were creating such a ruckus inside the local union,” Durazo tells me, “the parent union said, ‘Whoa, things are out of control inside this Local 11.’ ”

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You can spend plenty of time with Durazo and still miss them—the small tattoos on the insides of her ankles: On her right is the red rose she got seven or eight years ago. “I love roses!” she tells me with an almost girlish grin. On her left is a tiny red broken heart. “I got it…” Durazo says, her grin fading, “after Miguel passed.”

Like Durazo, Miguel Contreras was the son of immigrant farmworkers. He began the fight for labor as a teenager, organizing for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in the late 1960s and early ’70s. In a single summer he was jailed 18 times for picketing. Gregarious and charismatic, Contreras was a rising star in the labor movement. By the late ’80s, he was working for HERE International as a roving troubleshooter of sorts, parachuting in and out of locals—which is why he was sent to Los Angeles to deal with the imploding Local 11.

When they met for the first time at the HERE headquarters, Contreras told Durazo they shared the same goals. “Join with me,” he said, “so we can change this local union to be what it should be.” Durazo was suspicious. “I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, right,’ ” she says. “ ‘You’re just using us to come in and take over, the big bad parent union.’”

Nevertheless Durazo was intrigued. The two formed a partnership—perhaps an uneasy one at first, but they bonded out of a shared sense of purpose and an immense workload. “We shook up a lot of employers, who were so used to the old ways where workers were not involved,” recalls Durazo. “A lot of employers started pushing back. It was one battle after another after another…. And somewhere in between, Miguel and I found some time for ourselves.” Within a year Durazo and Contreras were married. They had a son, Michael, shortly after.


This feature originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

“From the moment you met them, you knew they were a power couple,” says Fabian Núñez, a friend who would later serve as the political director of the L.A. County Federation of Labor before becoming speaker of the California State Assembly in 2004. “They both evolved together and strengthened one another.”

The movement they helped guide was an anomaly. Throughout much of its history L.A. was a largely inhospitable place for organized labor. Harrison Gray Otis used his role as publisher of the Los Angeles Times to lead a business elite hell-bent on keeping the city union free. Unions fought back: On October 1, 1910, James B. McNamara, the brother of the Iron Workers Union’s secretary-treasurer, planted 16 sticks of dynamite in the Times building, killing 21 people. The papers called it “the crime of the century,” and it caused a popular backlash against socialism and unions in the region. Labor membership did experience a boom after World War II, when the tire and aerospace industries moved in, setting off a wave of migration and unionization. But by the 1990s, most of those unskilled, well-paying jobs had left town, in part because of the end of the Cold War and the shuttering of airplane plants. Union membership as a percentage of the workforce in Los Angeles, which had peaked in the mid-1950s at 37 percent, plunged by 1996 to 15 percent.

Contreras’s genius was to take the moribund labor movement and the rising Latino population and fuse the two. While organizers like Durazo focused on unionizing the growing Latino workforce, Contreras ran political campaigns targeting new Latino citizens, who until then were hardly voting. Other leaders were doing the same thing, and Latino activists were already incensed by Proposition 187, the draconian ballot measure passed by Californians in 1994 that barred illegal immigrants from using public health services and schools (it was later declared unconstitutional by a federal court). The stars were aligned for a political shift.

“Miguel is the guy who changed California from a purple state to a blue state,” says Meyerson. “What he realized was labor, at election time in L.A., didn’t have to confine its activities to union members. He saw the Latino working class as a group that could be mobilized politically, and no one was doing it.

Tired of watching labor support middling Democratic candidates, Contreras began recruiting his own, running independent campaigns on their behalf, allowing his affiliates unlimited resources, and sending out droves of precinct walkers—a tactic that people weren’t using at the time in L.A. (As campaign consultant Bob Shrum famously said in the 1980s, “A political rally in California consists of three people around a television set.”)

Durazo played a key role in the building of her husband’s political machine. While Contreras’s charisma was legendary, she was known more for being a firebrand—a better speaker but with sharp edges and an almost bitter resentment toward her opponents, who were, after all, employing much of her membership. Durazo once had a video made called “City on the Edge,” proclaiming how unsafe Los Angeles was and at one point comparing it to South Africa under apartheid; 2,500 copies were delivered to convention planners, intended as a sort of middle finger to the hotel owners who were in heated discussions with Durazo (they signed an agreement soon after). She was partial to publicity stunts, like sending hotel maids to make a bed in the middle of Figueroa Street downtown or going on an 11-day hunger strike to win greater job security for cafeteria workers and janitors at USC. Durazo turned HERE Local 11 into one of the most active unions in the city, and her husband relied on it.

“We were the first union he counted on for resources, money, for people,” says Durazo. You could see their partnership at work during negotiations over the building of Staples Center in the late ’90s. Contreras cut a deal with the future AEG, which owns the arena, to make sure the bulk of the jobs were unionized. Durazo sold the plan to the liberal wing of the city council, while Contreras delivered the Republican mayor, Richard Riordan.

Not that the couple always agreed. Núñez recalls a time when a group of city workers threatening to go on strike was planning a rally. Normally the County Fed would send a contingent to fill out the crowd, but Contreras thought a settlement was imminent—and anyway he was close to Riordan. So Contreras and Núñez conspired to leave the issue off the agenda at the County Fed’s board meeting. But then Durazo raised her hand. “She basically took on her own husband!” says Núñez, incredulous. “She said, ‘There’s this rally. We got to go support the city workers. That should be on the agenda.’ And this wasn’t even her union!” Contreras, embarrassed, changed course, and the Fed sent scores of workers to the rally (and blamed the whole matter on Núñez). “When we had our disagreements or arguments, it was very easy for us to move on—primarily because of him,” says Durazo. “Frankly, if it wasn’t for him, I think we would have exploded many, many more times.”

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On the evening of May 6, 2005, Durazo was flying into LAX after an overnight trip to Denver. It was the first time she had missed her husband’s annual Cinco de Mayo labor leader awards celebration, and she was still disappointed. “He and I had had this little squabble,” she recalls. He wanted to bring along to the event the Chivas Girls, cheerleaders from the L.A. soccer team that Mexican fans usually root for. “I was like, ‘Since when do skimpily dressed girls have anything to do with labor?’ So he kind of backed off, but I think he ended up taking one or two of them anyway.” Durazo checked her phone on the shuttle ride to the parking lot. Her oldest son, Mario, and her friend Sylvia had left urgent messages, telling her to call. She can’t remember who broke the news: Miguel was dead.

“I’m by myself, looking for my car, just gotten off the shuttle, and I go berserk,” Durazo tells me. Tears streaming down her face, she saw a security guard and cried, “I gotta find my car.” By the time she made it to Daniel Freeman hospital, the city’s political establishment was already there. The mayoral runoff was just 11 days away, and both candidates were in the waiting room—the incumbent, Jim Hahn, whom the County Fed had endorsed, and Antonio Villaraigosa, whom by all accounts Contreras actually wanted to win.

The first official announcement about Contreras’s death was that the 52-year-old diabetic had suffered a heart attack in his car; it was later revealed he had died in a South L.A. botanica, a Latino apothecary that sells herbal medicines. The 911 call came from a woman who said that Contreras had gone in for a card reading.


This feature originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

But months later the same botanica was raided by the LAPD in a prostitution sting—set up in the wake of Contreras’s death. As David Zahniser, then writing for the L.A. Weekly, would report, the coroner hadn’t conducted an inquiry, despite a state law saying that the body of anyone who hasn’t seen a doctor within 20 days before dying must be examined. Although the story was laid out in a plain, just-the-facts kind of way, Zahniser’s implication was clear: Contreras was with a prostitute (or possibly a masseuse who gave “happy endings”) when he died, and the city fathers helped cover it up to preserve the totemic leader’s legacy.

Today when you ask almost anyone who knew Contreras—at least in off-the-record conversations—you’ll hear phrases like “notorious philanderer” and “flagrantly unfaithful.” Perhaps the biggest open secret about him, though it has never been reported, was that he was carrying on a nine-year affair with the majority leader of the state senate at the time, Gloria Romero, who in Zahniser’s story was among the few people trying to find out the truth behind Contreras’s death. When I mention the article to Durazo, her easygoing manner instantly chills. “I thought it was disgusting,” she says, her voice just above a whisper and tinged with venom. “I thought that writing a story like that, which speculates and raises all kinds of issues a year after he died—I thought it was completely irresponsible and completely insensitive to our family.”

When I bring up the marital indiscretions later, she says she doesn’t want to comment. But the next day I get an e-mail from her saying, “No good person is perfect. Miguel was always faithful to the cause both of us have dedicated our lives to.”

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The labor movement in L.A. wouldn’t be what it is if Contreras hadn’t connected it with a growing Latino workforce. But the influx of Latino immigrants, especially in traditionally African American parts of the city, had led to a certain amount of tension between the two ethnic groups within the labor caucus. After Contreras’s death, the County Fed hoped to smooth things over by appointing an African American named Martin Ludlow, who’d just been elected to the city council, to succeed him. “It kind of made sense to have someone like Martin, who was a color-blind progressive, take the helm,” says Jaime Regalado. “The hope was that it would ease the tension.”

But less than a year later Ludlow resigned after investigators found that his city council campaign had been illegally aided by the public school service workers’ union, SEIU Local 99. Into the void stepped Durazo—the obvious candidate, to be sure, although the transition proved difficult. “For María Elena it was a big step,” says Courtni Pugh, the County Fed political director whom Durazo inherited from Ludlow. “I would not say that her passion was politics. Her passion was for organizing.”

Much had changed in the last decade. A Latino was mayor. Another Latino, Núñez, was speaker of the state assembly. The L.A. City Council, too, was filled with Latino surnames: Reyes, Padilla, Huizar, Cardenas. The Contreras machine had made it to the top of the mountain. Now Durazo had to hold it all together—at a time when the national labor movement was fracturing. Since 2005, a number of big internationals, including the SEIU, the United Farm Workers, and the Teamsters, had split off from the AFL-CIO to join the newly formed Change to Win. But in Los Angeles the big unions remain part of the County Fed, in no small measure because of Durazo, who’s been able to find enough common cause to keep everyone under the same banner.

“That’s really unusual,” says Joe Mathews, who was an L.A. Times political reporter before becoming a fellow at the New America Foundation. “Famously we’re so sprawling. There’s not one person who is the face or the boss of anything. But she’s managed to do that in a town where no one does that.”

Durazo, who makes $158,000 a year, has also needed to keep in line all those politicians her husband had helped get elected. In 2007, Alex Padilla’s chief of staff, Felipe Fuentes, was planning to run for the city council when he got some unwelcome news: Local term limits had just been relaxed from 8 to 12 years, and now former councilman Richard Alarcón had decided, after only a month in the state assembly, that he wanted those extra 4 years (probably in order to qualify for a city pension). He planned to run against Fuentes and yet another pro-labor Latino candidate, Cindy Montañez. It was, as one political consultant put it, “a clusterfuck.”

The consultant recalls that Durazo held a sit-down with Alarcón, Fuentes, and Montañez and laid it all out: Alarcón, the eldest, would get the city council seat. Fuentes would get Alarcón’s state assembly seat. Montañez, left with the short straw, would get some political appointment that paid six figures. Which is exactly what happened.

But there are relatively few of these power broker meetings. Durazo’s specialty has been putting together coalitions to push the labor agenda through the city council. “It’s not the same insider game,” she says. “That, Miguel was much, much better at. My approach is much more ‘Who are the interests? And why would they care about this issue? Let’s bring them to the table.’”

One of the main engines for this has been the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, or LAANE, a nonprofit created by Durazo, Contreras, and a friend of theirs named Madeline Janis.


This feature originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

Harold Meyerson has called LAANE a new model for American liberalism. Its detractors say it is labor’s unregulated lobbying arm (lobbyists for business groups have to meticulously report every hour they spend talking to politicians; evidence suggests that LAANE officials are in frequent contact with many city councilmen but aren’t held to the same standards). In 2007, LAANE pressured the city council into passing an ordinance that required every hotel along Century Boulevard, near LAX, to hire union workers or pay their employees a “living wage,” which was then just over $10 an hour.

Last year LAANE changed how garbage is collected for private businesses and apartment buildings in L.A., which for more than a hundred years had been done by private businesses, many of them small, family run, and—of course—not unionized. LAANE put together a coalition of labor and environmental groups to propose a new franchise system, which would carve the city into 11 zones and give large waste-hauling companies the exclusive rights to pick up garbage.

Environmentalists, who became the public face of the plan, said it would lead to fewer and cleaner trucks on the road. But the underlying motive for Durazo was, clearly, to get rid of the smaller waste-hauling companies that are harder to unionize. Never mind that the law would reduce competition and possibly lead to higher rates. The city council approved the plan in November 2012, by a vote of 11-3, over the advice of their top budget adviser.

“They felt, historically, unions’ role in this country has been to represent all working people’s interest,” says Roxana Tynan, the current executive director of LAANE. “That’s the big picture that María Elena and Miguel were trying to take us back to. In order for labor to win, they realized they needed to work hand in hand with community groups.”

This type of alliance-building proved groundbreaking: Shortly before its September convention in L.A., the AFL-CIO announced it would form a coalition with other progressive groups, such as the Sierra Club and the NAACP—an acknowledgment that labor’s clout is, at a national level, ever shrinking. “The L.A. Fed is a model for how the labor movement can and must evolve to rebuild America’s middle class,” says Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.

Membership in the County Fed has stayed more or less flat under the leadership of Durazo, who will face no significant challenge when she runs for another four-year term in 2014 and plans on staying in the job for the long haul. (Durazo has shrugged off rumors that she was seeking a national position with the AFL-CIO.) While business leaders in the city initially viewed her leadership with extreme trepidation, their camps are often aligned. They both backed a recent proposal to build AEG’s football stadium downtown, and both endorsed many of the same candidates in the last election.

Where they certainly don’t overlap is on the matter of the living wage ordinance, which Durazo wants to expand to hotel workers throughout the city. “You could make an argument that this was legislative-sponsored blackmail,” says Ruben Gonzalez, vice president of public policy and political affairs at the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, noting the ordinance penalized any hotel  near LAX that didn’t hire unionized employees. “The business community would say that job creation is number one, and a job is a job is a job. Labor says that a union job is inherently better than a nonunion job. Then they take it a step further and say, ‘It’s the job of government to help us organize.’”

Durazo counters that she doesn’t push businesses so hard that they’ll break: “We want businesses to succeed! Some people don’t think that. But we do.” She adds, however, “The only time I don’t want a particular business to succeed is when I believe they’re causing more damage by existing than not. There are some businesses whose purpose is to drive down wages.” Like Walmart. Or Fresh & Easy.

It’s a frustrating stance for folks like Gonzalez, who can’t see why customers shouldn’t be the ultimate arbiters of which businesses deserve to exist. But like so many others, he can’t help being charmed by and admiring Durazo, who for all her stubbornness and ruthless drive has a kind of unassuming magnetism that is surely part of her success.

Gonzalez recently ran into Durazo in the back of city council chambers. “There’s my favorite labor leader!” he said to her with a hint of sarcasm.

“Yeah, right!” said Durazo, grinning.

Gonzalez told her someone recently asked him how he wanted to be remembered. His answer? “I want people to say I was the María Elena of the business community.” Durazo cackled. Then she frowned and said, “I don’t think I like that.”

Hillel Aron’s writing has appeared in the L.A.Weekly and Slake and on The Huffington Post. This is his first story for Los Angeles.


This feature originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine