Organizer Wins Post of President : Latina Leads Takeover of Union From Anglo Males

Times Staff Writer

When union organizer Maria Elena Durazo took a job with the hotel and restaurant workers union six years ago, she found a union at war with itself.

The long-entrenched Anglo administrators were so out of touch with their predominantly Latino rank-and-file membership that when the members asked for Spanish translation of union meetings, their leaders told them to “learn English.” The open animosity between union members and officials bordered on “hatred,” she said.

Durazo never doubted that she would eventually help oust the old guard, but said she did not imagine that the change would come so swiftly or that she would end up at the helm of the union--Los Angeles’ 13,000-member Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Union, Local 11.


One of the few Latinas to head a major union local in the country, Durazo, 36, is a heroine to the waiters, busboys, cooks and maids who elected her president recently with 85% of the vote.

Calling Durazo’s election “the most dramatic emergence of (Latino) union leadership,” William Robertson, executive secretary of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, predicted that “this will happen with other unions as their membership becomes more immigrant. It will be a natural consequence.”

Moreover, the potential for increased unionization in industries with large immigrant work forces has grown dramatically in the region, as hundreds of thousands of people have gained legal status under the government’s amnesty program, according to labor leaders.

“Through organizing we’ve given hope back to the members,” Durazo said. “They tell me that now they are again looked upon as human beings instead of as ‘stupid wetbacks’ who anybody can treat anyway they want.”

Durazo’s victory was the culmination of a sometimes frustrating, sometimes bruising battle that resulted in the local’s parent union placing it in trusteeship for two years. The campaign also pitted Latino community allies against each other in what some characterized as “a family feud.”

Pokes Fun at Life

The Mexican sayings or dichos that pepper Durazo’s English and poke fun at life’s ironies spring from such human drama.

The woman who has spent most of her life battling on behalf of immigrants is now accused by a small but vociferous group of former supporters of “selling out.”


Durazo also raised a few eyebrows last fall when she married Miguel Contreras, the international union representative sent to administer the local during the trusteeship. For her part, Durazo said she should be judged on her performance, not her choice of a husband.

Noting that a new labor contract with the city’s biggest hotels includes protections for illegal aliens and opportunities for promotions, Durazo said that “now workers have a chance to move ahead and progress, which is why they came to this country in the first place.” Up to 70% of the union’s members are Latinos.

The daughter of Mexican immigrant field workers, Durazo has not forgotten her roots. Like her husband, she is a product of the Chicano movement of the 1970s. Later, as a single mother working her way through Los Angeles’ People’s College of Law, Durazo was a leader in a community organization advocating immigrant rights when--even among Latinos--few were taking such positions.

In 1979, when the International Ladies Garment Workers Union hired her as an organizer, she recalled, she was glad to get paid for what she had been doing for free on the streets.

“I’d go make house calls, and it would all come back to me,” she said, recalling the images of her own childhood: the cramped living quarters too small for her family; sleeping with her brothers and sisters in her father’s pick-up truck; never enough money to get ahead, despite the long hours in the fields. And the growers, like the designer label manufacturers in the city, were the only ones who ever got rich.

Durazo eventually went to work as a law clerk for Abe Levy, a leading labor lawyer who represented Local 11 and later got her the union job.


Ironically, Levy’s firm later defended Local 11 leaders against a suit brought by rank-and-file members over the issue of conducting bilingual meetings. The workers won the suit in a precedent-setting federal appeals court decision two years ago. But, in another ironic twist, Durazo’s new administration--which is bilingual--was left with the nearly $200,000-bill in legal fees incurred by its predecessor.

Not only were the union’s aging leaders--many of them retired members--out of touch with the membership, but they had also failed to keep abreast of changes in the industry, Durazo said.

During the 23-year tenure of former union leader Andrew (Scotty) Allan, not only did the union lose members by the thousands, but wages and benefits for workers slipped well below those in other major cities, Durazo said.

“It’s going to take us a few years to catch up,” said Contreras, Durazo’s husband and the international’s representative, who will remain at the local until the formal installation of Durazo later this month.

Waiters in Los Angeles earn from about $80 to $130 a day, depending on tips, while hotel maids earn $5.75 per hour, he said.

In what Contreras described as “the biggest wage increase this (union) local has received in about 20 years,” non-tip employees, such as maids, received pay raises of $1.50 an hour over three years. Under the contract ratified in December, waiters received a raise of 80 cents an hour, he said.


Despite the whittling away of union contracts during the Allan years, all efforts to mobilize workers to unseat him had failed. After three years as an organizer and arbitrator, Durazo made her move.

“I had complete faith that there were enough workers here with the talent and the motivation to make the change,” she said. But persuading workers that their vote counted and that Allan’s election was not a forgone conclusion was not easy.

Members said they were inspired by Durazo’s capacity for hard work and steadfast optimism. “Many of us come from countries where the powerful always have their way,” said Lourdes Portugal, 33, a maid at the Century Plaza who was recently elected to the union’s executive board. “Maria Elena has made us realize that united we can take control and run things the way we want. Now we can speak up when there is an injustice. Maria Elena has instilled this in us.”

Durazo laughs easily and seems younger than her years, despite the premature strands of gray in her shoulder-length hair. “But don’t ever cross her,” her husband warned. “She goes for the jugular.”

In her free time, when she is not attending meetings to plan action against U.S. policy in Central America or for nuclear disarmament, Durazo devotes herself to her 13-year-old son, Mario. The boy frequently accompanied his mother on her campaign stops and is no stranger to picket lines.

Durazo stepped forward with a full slate of candidates to challenge Allan two years ago. Charges of election irregularities on all sides, however, forced the international union to nullify the ballots and take control of the local.


The international sent in Contreras, who “fired everybody,” Durazo recalled. Contreras then invited Durazo’s opposition organization to join him in “turning the local around,” he said.

Although initially skeptical, Durazo ultimately joined him as staff director, and together, the two developed shop stewards and other local officials from the immigrant work force, she said. All union meetings were conducted in both English and Spanish, and participation of Latino members in contract negotiations was welcomed for the first time.

Hotel and restaurant industry representatives said the changes at the union have had little effect on management so far.

“We’ve dealt with Maria Elena Durazo in the past and we certainly have no problems with working with her in the future. She is a very able young woman,” said Irving Baldwin, spokesman for the Hotel-Restaurant Employers’ Council of Southern California. “She has obviously opened up the union to more member participation. It’s a different way of doing business, but as far as being able to do business with her, we see no problem.”

According to Contreras, the union made it clear to management early on that “they could consider the free ride (under Allan) over with.”

Before contract negotiations began, a 400-member union committee planned demonstrations and other activities at hotels throughout the city to show support for the union’s proposals. At some hotels, workers wore union buttons to show their solidarity.


Ready ‘to Deal’

“The contract negotiations really took place at the work site, not at the bargaining table,” Contreras said. By the time formal negotiations started, management was ready “to deal,” he said.

Durazo said she plans to step up Local 11’s organizing drive of non-union, as well as, new hotels, noting that more than a dozen are on the drawing boards for the area. The drive will be assisted, she said, by a recent pledge from Mayor Tom Bradley to encourage operators of new hotels not to interfere with organizing efforts.

Meanwhile, Durazo still has a few internal problems to iron out. Although Durazo and several members of her opposition organization accepted Contreras’ offer two years ago to work with the international union’s trustees, others did not. And old allies suddenly became enemies.

This year, as the trusteeship has given way to new elections, some of Durazo’s former allies campaigned against her. An unsuccessful slate of candidates, headed by former supporter Javier Rodriguez, is now charging that union employees illegally helped Durazo’s campaign during work hours and that she received unfair advantages from the international union.

The union’s “white male-dominated national leadership beheaded the independent movement two years ago and bought off the main leader--Durazo,” Rodriguez charged.

Durazo’s supporters are quick to point out that despite the barrage of charges, Rodriguez received only 330 votes to Durazo’s 2,391. Rodriguez, who works occasionally as a bartender, belongs to an East Los Angeles family of longtime community activists who over the years have worked with Durazo on many of the same causes.


The fallout from the acrimonious campaign has been so intense that some mutual friends will not talk publicly about it. While acknowledging the contributions of Rodriguez and his brothers to the Latino community, others say that this time the perennial gadflies have gone too far.

“I believe they made a real error here,” said Gilbert Cedillo, a union representative with Los Angeles County’s Service Employees International Union, who grew up with the Rodriguezes and attended law school with Durazo. “You have to be able to build coalitions to be successful.

“If you can’t work with Maria, who can you build coalitions with?” asked Cedillo, who described Durazo as committed, honest and capable.

To other Latino leaders in unions with large immigrant memberships, Durazo’s victory is a welcome sign of things to come.

‘Transitional Point’

“Labor is a reflection of the overall society and is still a white-male-run institution,” said Ernesto Medrano, an AFL-CIO national field representative. “But we are at a transitional point,” he added, saying that he foresees increasing efforts on the part of labor to recruit and promote more Latinos.

Jesus Jimenez, a United Furniture Workers of America international representative in Los Angeles, said that Durazo’s victory is “the kind of change that is needed.”


“We come from countries where we have known real poverty, where you have to really work hard to survive, and where people have given their lives for their piece of land,” he said. “Why should we be intimidated by some boss simply because he speaks English, wears a tie or sits behind a desk?”