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?

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