School Reflects a Love of Labor

Times Staff Writer

When Miguel Contreras arrived in Los Angeles in 1987 to fix the battle-scarred hotel employees union, the young national organizer worked out of the large two-story union hall at 4th and Bixel streets.

“We didn’t know what to think of him,” recalled Maria Elena Durazo, then a local organizer who was challenging union leadership. “I was suspicious of his real intentions.”

It was in that hall west of downtown that he repaired Local 11 of the hotel workers union, making a special effort to reach out to Spanish-speaking workers. It was where he started the local career that made him chief of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor for a decade, and where he held meetings for political campaigns that tapped the energy of immigrant workers. There he also made his intentions clear to Durazo. They were married in December 1988.

And this afternoon, a new high school occupying the same corner will be formally named after Contreras, who died last year at age 52. The labor movement and its political allies -- the mayor and majorities of the school board, City Council and area state legislators -- have embraced the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex as their own and the school’s opening as a milestone for unions in Los Angeles.

The county labor federation, a collection of more than 300 local unions that is now headed by Durazo, has made backpacks for students, distributed a DVD about Contreras and the labor movement and will offer union-sponsored apprenticeship programs.


On Wednesday, teachers at the school received a lesson plan put together by the federation. It includes suggestions for making the labor movement part of classes on world history, U.S. history, government and economics, as well as an exercise handout called “What Are Your Rights on the Job?” and an hourlong lesson with sentences such as “People in the labor movement around the country look to Los Angeles as a leader.”

The $160-million campus, which opened last week, has space for 1,800 students and academies for social justice and business tourism.

“You name high schools after very important people,” said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who was among those who pushed for the naming. “It’s a point of pride to know that a high school is named after a labor leader who fought to improve the rights of working families and poor people in Los Angeles.”

Contreras, the son of farmworkers, was raised in the Central Valley town of Dinuba and became a protege of labor leader Cesar Chavez. As the top official of the county labor federation from 1996 until his death, he merged Latino activism, union clout and immigrant outreach into a potent force for winning elections and organizing workers. During his tenure, the ranks of workers represented by federation members grew by 125,000, to more than 800,000.

Shortly after his death, his successor, Martin Ludlow, asked school board President Marlene Canter about the possibility of putting Contreras’ name on a school being built on the site of the hall, which was torn down after the union sold the building to the Los Angeles Unified School District. A competing group preferred to name the school for the late Rep. Edward R. Roybal.

“I really wanted to resolve this between the two groups,” Canter said. “I didn’t want to argue about the legacies of two great men.”

But by early this year, there was a heated, behind-the-scenes contest between partisans of the two leaders. The Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, which has its headquarters across the street, supported naming the campus for Roybal.

“There were two independent inspirations, both of which were worthy,” said David Rattray, vice president of education and workforce development for the chamber, which obtained a grant to help the school and provided offices to school staff members.

The labor federation, which Durazo took over after Ludlow pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his use of labor resources in his own campaign for City Council, threw itself into a movement to name the school after Contreras. Letters poured in to the school district from unions, politicians and various community organizations. The school board chose Contreras in April, voting 5 to 0 with one abstention.

School board members say they want to name another school for Roybal and revisit the process for choosing school names.

“The process was truncated and unclear,” said school board member David Tokofsky, who supported naming the school after Contreras, although he has one regret. “I think the funniest part is that it ended up being called the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex. It sounds like a disorder.”

Today’s ceremony, which brings together members of the school board and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who last month successfully managed to strip them of some of their power over the district, promises both intrigue and spectacle.

Durazo, for her part, says the school is a fitting tribute to someone who barely graduated from high school.

“He always looked out for young people,” she said, recalling Contreras’ early days with the farmworkers and his development of young political talent such as Nunez.

She spoke this week from the same office in the labor federation’s headquarters where Contreras worked, not far from the new school.

Durazo talked about her desire to revive his idea for a ballot initiative to pay for the books and school supplies of community college students. And she said she missed him not only as a wife but also as a labor leader; his strategic ability is irreplaceable, she said.

“This week is really a hard week. This week is very emotional,” she said in discussing the school and her work. “I don’t ever want to cut myself off from the best memories. This has got to be my thing, but I’ve gotta build off of what he did.”