Maria Elena Durazo: Labor of love

With about 92% of private-sector jobs non-unionized, the old “union movement” has become the new “labor movement,” one of outreach as much as contract negotiating. In Los Angeles, some of that work falls to Maria Elena Durazo. She succeeded her husband as head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, a year after he died, at 53, in 2005. On Labor Day weekend, she considers the state of the labor movement and her role in it.

What led you to the labor movement?

There were six girls in our family and five boys, and we worked out in the fields -- no toilets, no drinking water, no shade. My father had to really watch out for us [girls] to make sure we weren’t victims of sexual favors that the foremen were always demanding. When we had to go to the bathroom, we had to go with another girl but, because there were no bathrooms, you took your shirt off to hide the other so she could relieve. That to me was a workplace issue and a women’s issue. I was maybe 5 years old and remember a small white casket being taken down the aisle in a church. It was my baby brother. My mom told me he had died because she couldn’t get him medical attention. It was not a serious illness; she just couldn’t get him to a doctor. And the thing that really clinched it -- I was the first one to graduate from high school and college. I’m ready to go to St. Mary’s College, and my dad says to me, “I want to tell you how sorry I am for not being able to pay for your college out of my pocket. So you don’t have to get a job while you’re in college, get loans and ask for assistance.” And it just blew me away. My dad wasn’t a rabble-rouser; he just worked hard, and he expected that the boss was going to give him what he deserved. It never happened. And he’s apologizing to me?

There are not many high-profile women in the labor movement; I’m thinking Dolores Huerta and Norma Rae -- and you. Why so few?


In this upcoming generation there are hundreds of women taking formal positions. We skipped a generation in which there were very, very few women. When you don’t have enough organizing activity, your pool of leaders is very small. When you have a lot of organizing activity, you can pull in a more diverse group of workers, which leads to more [diverse] leaders.

There’s a pro-labor president in the White House; what have you got to show for that?

We have a seat at the table. For the first time in eight years, labor leaders were invited to the White House. I’ve been invited twice now. President Obama reinstitute[d] project labor agreements where federal funding is concerned. He has said the labor movement is part of the solution in this country. That wasn’t even said by Clinton!

It seems that there’s old labor and new labor -- the autoworkers and the hotel workers -- and that each has different priorities. How do you assess that?


Labor is starting to adjust to the fact that there’s a new economy. For a long time, it was: Let’s just defend the middle-class jobs in manufacturing. I don’t think that was wrong, but the economy changed. We need to protect and defend manufacturing -- with green technology, it’s coming full circle -- [even] as we have become more of a service-based economy. The other adjustment is no locally based companies or even nationally based companies. When we were negotiating with the hotels, the general manager had to call at 2 o’clock in the morning to the owners’ representative in Singapore to make a decision about one hotel in L.A. GM, GE -- they were American-based. We knew who they were; we had relationships at every level. These changes have made a big difference in how we represent workers.

In news stories from 30 years ago, Cesar Chavez was calling on the Border Patrol not to let people come to work here illegally. Yet protection of immigrant workers, legal or illegal, is part of your mission. Why has that changed?

We can’t allow workers to be pitted against each other regardless of their status. Who’s doing the jobs we all rely on? Immigrants, significant numbers of undocumenteds. And yet we call them these terrible names -- illegals, aliens. We use them, we profit from them, so we all have to have a different attitude, and I hope the labor movement has learned to say that anybody who’s in the workplace deserves the same standard. Does there have to be an immigration policy? Of course. But it should not be brought into the workplace to pit workers against workers.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a great friend of labor, but he has taken on the teachers union on some issues. Is the mayor letting down labor? Or does the teachers union need to make some changes in these areas?


There’s clearly an effort by some to make this an issue of the teachers union versus children. That’s phony. The issue is a failed educational system and how we fix it. However, the teachers union needs to be offering solutions. Otherwise, they will become a convenient scapegoat. At the end of the day, who knows more about solving our educational problems: politicians and bureaucrats, or teachers? I go with teachers.

I hear you and your husband met when you fought over a union issue. It sounds like Tracy and Hepburn.

I was about 33, 34 when I decided to take on the white, racist leadership of the hotel workers union. They wouldn’t translate the contracts into Spanish, wouldn’t allow translation of the membership meetings into Spanish. So we launched a campaign. We caused so much dust -- more than dust -- that the national union asked [Miguel Contreras] to come in and run the local. I was like, “What? We were the ones organizing the membership to take back the union. You ain’t gonna just walk right into this and be the boss here.” What ended up happening was he came in with the same ideas I had, and then I fell in love. We were partners all our lives in helping to change the labor movement in Los Angeles.

What about this job do you love, and what makes you crazy?


What makes it worth it is when I’m on top of that building and sharing stories with ironworkers, or I’m pushing the garbage bin and the sanitation worker tells me how proud he is of that work. The side I don’t look forward to is having to see them suffer when they are fighting for [wages and benefits]. Why do they have to go on strike to protect what they have? When the only thing they want is to be able to raise their families? That part’s the hardest.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: