Like her or loathe her, there can be little doubt that Maria Elena Durazo has become one of the most powerful figures in Los Angeles politics and that she has lifted the plight of low-wage workers into the public consciousness. Durazo announced Wednesday that she is leaving her powerful position as leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, but her impact is likely to be felt in the region for a long time to come.
In a city historically hostile to organized labor, Durazo presided over a movement that made labor possibly the greatest single power in L.A. electoral politics. The County Fed, as it is known, vets candidates for state and local offices and has become adept at encouraging, or extracting, promises from aspirants to support the organization's agenda and those of its member unions.
Those unions hold sway over the City Council, which at their urging mandated a higher minimum wage for employees at hotels near Los Angeles International Airport in 2007 soon after Durazo ascended to the County Fed's top spot, and just last month raised such wages for hotel workers citywide. The council now is considering Mayor Eric Garcetti's proposal for a mandatory minimum wage increase for all city workers.
Durazo rose to leadership in the labor movement in Unite Here, the hotel workers' union, but she and the County Fed are at least as well known for working to boost the pay, pensions and power of public employees. Of course, what is in the best interest of union members is not always in the best interests of the public. Sitting across the bargaining table from city leaders who labor helped elect, the County Fed's public employee unions were able to negotiate contracts that brought the city of L.A. dangerously close to insolvency.
The County Fed endorsed Sheila Kuehl for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and if elected, Kuehl could form part of a labor majority in county government. Her rival, Bobby Shriver, has sought to distance himself from public sector unions during the campaign, but he also has strong labor ties.
Under Durazo, public employee unions have had such success as to spur voter backlash. Labor backing and fundraising may have doomed, rather than aided, the 2013 Los Angeles mayoral campaign of Wendy Greuel. But the County Fed endorsement remains a near-indispensable asset for L.A. Democratic candidates because it is generally accompanied by heavy donations and get-out-the-vote efforts.
Durazo is returning to Unite Here to lead an effort inextricably intertwined with the life of Los Angeles, working on immigration and civil rights for workers. Her imprint on the region has been unmistakable, and she likely will continue to be a force to be reckoned with.