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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“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.