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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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.