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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“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.”