LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Maria Elena Durazo : Controversial Local Union Head Takes No Prisoners to Win the Point
She has given Mayor Tom Bradley heartburn by comparing Los Angeles to South Africa under apartheid. She has earned the enmity of hotel operators and convention planners with her tactics--they’ve accused her of trying to drive away the very business that feeds her members. But to thousands of waiters, busboys, dishwashers and hotel maids across the city, Maria Elena Durazo is a tireless crusader for dignity. Not yet 40, she has emerged as one of the city’s most powerful, innovative and controversial labor leaders.
The daughter of Mexican farm workers, Durazo has spent her adult life battling for the rights of this country’s lowest-paid workers--Latino immigrants. During the 1970s, she worked in sweatshops as an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers. In 1989, after a six-year campaign, Durazo became the first Latino, and the first woman, elected to head the Los Angeles Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 11.
Durazo hides a tough determination behind a bright smile and an open personality. She shocked and infuriated many in the city’s political Establishment when, during a bitter contract dispute with a group of big hotels, her union produced a sharp-edged videotape called “City on the Edge.” The tape contrasts positive images of Los Angeles--wide beaches, beautiful shops and luxurious hotels--with scenes of violence, poverty and desperation. In June, the union mailed 2,500 copies to chambers of commerce and convention planners throughout the country. Bradley, who supported Durazo’s union in the past, condemned the tactic--his spokesman called the tape “inaccurate” and “a negotiating ploy.” Tourism officials howled, claiming the video further damaged their industry--already reeling from the civil unrest of last spring.
But Durazo’s rough methods seem to have worked. Shortly after the tape went out, her union settled their contract with the hotel owners. And Durazo continues to innovate. When new South Korean owners of the Wilshire Plaza Hotel recently refused to rehire most of the employees who worked there, Durazo successfully appealed to members of the Korean-American community to join her workers on the picket lines.
Her members--two-thirds male and predominately Latino--call her by her first names, Maria Elena. They recently reelected her to a second term by a wide majority. And while Durazo is aware of the dangers of alienating local leaders, she predicts her militant style of action will become more common in labor disputes if American unions are to survive.
Question: Many unions seem to be trying non-traditional tactics to replace strikes. Your union distributed a videotape that blames poor wages in the tourism business for aggravating the city’s problems. The tactic seems to have worked for you. Is this kind of action going to replace traditional union tactics?
Answer: The reality of what the tape was saying is that things aren’t going to work for the tourism industry unless it pays attention to the people who work in it. We have to get that message out to as many people as possible. And this tape did that, on a national, even an international level. That may not be the last video that we produce.
It used to be we’d have a dispute with a particular corporation, and we would go out on strike and see what happened. We’re not going to do that any more. We’re going to find out what hurts that employer. We find out where they make their money and how they make their money, and we go to those points. Sometimes, it means going, not to the operator of a hotel, but to the owner who never gets involved. They say, “Leave me alone, I’ve got nothing to do with this; your contract is with the operator.” But we say, “No, you are the owner of this property and you can tell your operator to give us a fair shake.”
So we find out things about the owner and apply pressure there. We also have some friends who are political leaders and, if they stand with us, that can be helpful. We just figure out who has the most influence over the operator, and if we can get to those folks, we’ve got it made.
Q: Your tape angered a number of local officials, including Mayor Tom Bradley. Could that be a problem--alienating elected officials who might be able to help you in a labor dispute?
A: I believe that anyone, including the mayor, who respects the right of our union to fight for our members should understand that there will be times when we disagree on a tactic. We didn’t disagree on the objective, only on one of the tactics that was used. We have to be bold. Look what bold, destructive tactics had to be taken by the people in South-Central. That’s not something that anybody wants--but they weren’t worried that some leader would be upset--because they had to express their anger at the poverty and the desperation going on in their community.
We may not have that level of desperation in our union, but we definitely have the anger and the will to grab people’s attention. Not a single person, including the mayor, has said they will not work with us and support us in our future endeavors. I think that shows mutual respect for what has to be done.
Five-thousand workers and their families now have a guarantee of high- quality medical care for the next six years because of our efforts. I think that is a real contribution toward rebuilding L.A. Had we not taken strong actions, that would have been thousands of people who would not have health care. The governments are in trouble, there is no money, and I think the money has got to come from the private sector.
Look, if the majority of the people in a community are making minimum wage, and are getting no benefits, that community is going to end up being a very bad place--high rates of crime, gangs, people on welfare. That’s the result of not having respectable jobs with respectable wages. The biggest contribution we can make to rebuilding L.A. is to do all we can to persuade the tourism industry that it can be a leader in the community by providing decent wages and benefits.
Q: There seems to be a consensus among labor organizers that the biggest potential pool for union membership is among Spanish-speaking workers. Do you agree with that, and should labor unions be more active in organizing Latinos?
A: Yes, and I think not just in terms of the fact that there are so many Latino workers, but also because they are going into industries in which there have previously been few Latino workers. Many of the immigrant workers in our union had little knowledge of unions before they came here. But once they get here, they find themselves facing a lot of obstacles and discrimination, and that makes them quite open to working within an organization that can help them.
Q: What sort of pitch do your organizers make to non-union restaurant and hotel workers?
A: If you are an immigrant, you need an organization to defend you. If you don’t have that, you are subject to an employer who knows that you are afraid, who knows you will probably not report him for violations of the law, who knows that you need your job so desperately that you are not going to challenge him if you are abused. You know, as an immigrant, that if you take him on by yourself, the chances are you will end up on the street.
Workers, especially immigrants, are looking for dignity more than wages and benefits. They feel marginalized--they can’t vote, can’t do anything about their children’s education; they are second-class citizens. But when they have a union, they can make decisions that affect their lives. Nine times out of 10 that is the reason we get called by non-union workers--because they are being abused by their supervisors, because they simply want to feel some dignity about how they earn a living.
Q: Do you see parallels between the experience of your members and union members of the past, many of whom were also immigrants?
A: The hotel and restaurant industry is an easy one for immigrants to come into. There are so many different jobs that you don’t need English to perform--you can work in the kitchens, in housekeeping; that is much the same as it might have been for other immigrants in the past. It’s also an industry in which employees can advance, so once they do learn the language, they can move into higher-paying jobs--that remains the same. These are low-paying jobs and the workers tend to be the most exploited, and that, too, remains the same.
Some of the issues we deal with are different, however. Health care--that’s the No. 1 issue these days. Our members have always treasured having a medical plan, and that is clearly under attack by employers. While some employers see cutting health care as just a way to bust the union, for many employers it is a legitimate concern, because the cost of care has just skyrocketed. For years, keeping the medical plan and sacrificing pay increases were what was done during contract negotiations. Because of that, our wages here are not comparable with those of other big cities. Our job now is to keep the medical plan and also do more in the arena of wages.
The other big issue is job security. Hotels are being bought and sold at an ever increasing rate, and they are often owned by companies that haven’t been in the hotel business before. They hire an operator and, two years later, change operators, and the new operator fires everybody. The issue of ownership and management is one of the big problems facing our workers today.
Q: One of the criticisms of unions these days is that they are just another special-interest group. What are you doing to change the perception of unions in this country?
A: We haven’t done enough education about unions. When you couple that with attacks from corporations and from the right wing, then you get the result we have now. I think we need to work harder to let people know that because of unions, we have things like a minimum wage, like Social Security and a good workman’s-compensation system. Right now, we are pushing for national health care, even though we already have health plans. So we have to work harder to get the message out, that unions are good for all Americans.
Q: I think everyone would agree that unions have been in decline. Do you see any hope for a resurgence in unions?
A: I think a lot of unions thought all they had to do was hold onto what they had and the movement would remain strong. I think the reality is that if you don’t continuously organize, you will be destroyed. Plus, when economic conditions get to the point where they are now--where people are losing jobs left and right, benefits are being attacked and employers are threatening to move jobs to Mexico or somewhere else--people are getting fed up. It’s just like what’s happening with politics. I hope people will see unions as a tool for change, and I hope we in the unions can respond to the challenge.
Q: If every hotel and every restaurant in Los Angeles was unionized, why would this be a better place to live?
A: Because our communities would be more stable. Our union is in a unique position of having the majority being immigrants. Those immigrants have the ability to become leaders in their communities and to help Los Angeles become a better city. Immigrants are more and more the future of L.A., and in our union we are trying to make immigrants full participants in this city. If immigrants are indeed the future of L.A., then what we do is very important for the future of everyone in this town. And that is why we think what we are doing is so important, and why we have to be so bold in doing it.
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