MARIA ELENA DURAZO, LABOR ORGANIZER
María Elena Durazo is widely regarded as one of the most powerful and savvy union organizers in the United States. On May 15, 2006 she was elected to serve as the Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, an organization which represents more than 800,000 workers through more than 300 separate unions. In 2010 she was reelected to this post.
María Elena was born the seventh child in a family of eleven children to migrant worker parents. Growing up, María Elena traveled with her family, following the crops throughout California and Oregon, and experiencing the exploitative conditions and hardships that migrant laborers suffer. The pay was meager, the weather was either baking or freezing, there were no bathrooms in the field, no fresh water for the workers and contractors were eager to take advantage of young female workers.
This early experience left her with indelible memories. In a conversation with film maker Jesús Treviño she recalls, “As migrant farm workers, my dad would load us up on a flatbed truck and we would go from town to town and pick whatever crop was coming up. We moved from school to school so I didn’t have any friends–my family was my friends. I think of my dad when he had to negotiate with contratistas (contractors). I knew we worked so hard and the contratistas were chiseling us down to pennies. What was pennies to them meant food on the table for us.”
The poverty had tragic results on her family. She lost a young brother because her mother lacked proper medical care. In her interview with Treviño, she recalls “He was a new born baby. And he died when we were working in the fields in San Jose because my mother didn’t have access to health care. I have a memory of a small coffin. My parents couldn’t afford to bury him. They had to go to the local priest to have him buried.”
In spite of these obstacles, María Elena attended St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, and graduated in 1975. In college she became involved in the Chicano Movement at the urging of her older brother. Then she entered the labor movement as an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (later called UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees).
In 1983, she joined the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) Local 11 as an organizer. She soon found that the union as then constituted was not responsive to much of its membership– 70% of its members were immigrants from Mexico and Latin America, but held few leadership positions. Meetings were held in English and workers often didn’t know their rights.
While working as a union organizer, she pursued an education in law at the People’s College of Law and earned her degree in 1985.
By 1987, María Elena was ready to lead a drive by the rank and file of HERE Local 11 to make the union more responsive to its majority-Latino membership. The organizing drive successfully instituted a shop steward system that educated the rank and file on their rights, workers were now able to participation in negotiating their union contracts and all meetings and publications were from then on bilingual.
In 1988, she married fellow union activist Miguel Contreras whom she met while at HERE Local 11. Soon thereafter, in May of 1989, María Elena ran for and was elected President of Local 11. She served in that capacity from 1989 to 2006.
Her approach is not timid, often placing her in harm’s way. During the union’s campaign against the New Otani Hotel, the first hotel to be built non-union in downtown Los Angeles, she led workers in civil disobedience protests for which she was arrested after she and New Otani workers sat down at an intersection and would not move until police dragged them away. She felt a point had to be made.
As María Elena explains it, “The New Otani started a trend toward workers not having union rights and not being part of the union movement. Latino hotel workers versus very, very wealthy powerful corporation. I think its important that when a corporation takes on house keepers and dishwashers that they not feel they can squash us or that there will get away without repercussions.”
María Elena Durazo is a formidable force in Los Angeles and nationally.
In 1996, she became the first Latina elected to the Executive Board of HERE International Union.
In 2003, she served as National Director of the Immigrant Worker’s Freedom Ride which mobilized national support for legislation to revamp national immigration laws.
In 2004, she became the Executive Vice President of UNITE-HERE International, the organization made up of the UNITE and HERE unions which had merged.
In 2008 María Elena Durazo served as the Vice Chair of the Democratic National Convention Committee and as National Co-Chair of the Barrack Obama Presidential Campaign.
In 2010 she was reelected to serve as Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
Besides her union work, María Elena has served on many civic commissions and boards. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley appointed her to the Los Angeles Commission on Airports, Mayor Richard Riordan appointed her to the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Committee and she has also served on the California State Coastal Commission.
María Elena was married to the late union leader Miguel Contreras, who served as Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor from 1996 until his untimely death on May 6, 2005. She has two children with Miguel Contreras, , Mario and Michael Contreras.
Currently she serves as Chair of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), a non-profit grassroots organization committed to creating quality jobs in Los Angeles; the Los Angeles City Economy and Jobs Committee; the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau and the California League of Conservation Voters.