Maria Elena Durazo — the powerful Los Angeles County labor leader who helped elect politicians, boost wages and push through major development projects — said Wednesday that she is leaving her post to take a national union job promoting civil rights and campaigning for immigration reform.
The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, an umbrella entity representing 600,000 workers, has arguably reached a zenith of its influence under Durazo, its first woman leader. It helped land allies on the Los Angeles City Council and county Board of Supervisors and recently pushed through a minimum wage law requiring large Los Angeles hotels to pay workers at least $15.37 an hour, one of the nation’s highest base wages.
A fierce advocate for the working class, Durazo was comfortable walking on broiling picket lines and negotiating in air-conditioned corporate board rooms. She lifted an already strong Los Angeles labor movement to a preeminent position of influence in civic affairs.
Candidates prized the support of the labor federation and its political action arms. Campaign adversaries feared Durazo’s wrath. And business leaders alternately formed alliances with Durazo and complained that her demands made it untenable to do business in Los Angeles.
“She never left the table empty-handed,” said Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson. “She’s one of the most effective and powerful labor leaders in the country.”
Durazo, 61, will leave the labor organization she has led since 2005 at the end of the year. She will become vice president for immigration, civil rights and diversity at Unite Here, the nationwide union for restaurant, hospitality and casino workers. She previously served as head of that union’s Los Angeles unit, Local 11, for 17 years.
Durazo said she chose to take “the next step in my life’s work,” knowing that the county organization is well positioned to continue making gains on behalf of workers. Among the initiatives she hopes will soon win approval from the Los Angeles City Council is an across-the-board minimum wage hike. One proposal in the works could reach $15.25 by 2019.
“I feel that the Los Angeles labor movement is very strong, very progressive, very proactive,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “Altogether, we have accomplished a lot.”
Looking ahead, she said, “There is a passion I have always had for immigration and civil rights. So I have the opportunity to do this and completely focus on those issues.”
Durazo has made it clear she would like Rusty Hicks, the labor federation’s political director, to succeed her, according to several union activists. Durazo declined to confirm that, citing a vote on the next federation leader scheduled for November.
Hicks, 34, is considered a savvy political hand, steeped in the electoral challenges of Los Angeles. He is credited with raising large sums of money, finding able lieutenants and mobilizing union voters to get to the polls and support their candidates.
Supporters say that the biggest challenge for Hicks, a member of the U.S. Naval Reserve who deployed to Afghanistan in 2012-13, would be in areas where he has little or no experience — organizing unrepresented workers and building coalitions among the federation’s sometimes fractious 300-plus locals.
Tom Walsh, president of Unite Here, Local 11, said Hicks “has demonstrated that he has a deep understanding of all of the issues that are important to the labor movement.”
Like many others who have come to play a central role in the labor movement in California, Durazo got her start among farmworkers. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she spent summers in the Central Valley fields picking peaches, strawberries and grapes. Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farmworkers of America, inspired her.
Durazo started her union activism leading walkouts by maids and janitors and a strike by USC cafeteria workers. Her husband, Miguel Contreras, headed the county labor organization until his death in 2005 at the age of 53. After the brief tenure of another leader, Durazo was elected to the top county federation job.
She gained a reputation for packing City Hall with union members for important votes. She didn’t always win. In the 2013 mayor’s race, unions spent $5.8 million supporting Wendy Greuel, who lost to Eric Garcetti. But often Durazo won the contests she bet on. Last year, six of the seven City Council candidates she backed took seats on the 15-member council.
Looking to expand good-paying jobs in the construction trades, Durazo lobbied heavily for new development in Los Angeles. She has been a driving force behind a massive expansion of the rail system, the $4-billion upgrade of LAX, and subsidies for new downtown hotels.
Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks told The Times in a recent interview that Durazo’s power had become corrosive for the political process. “Very few people will talk publicly because of fear of reprisal,” Parks said. “If they choose to run for public office, they will be in the position of having no support.”
Carol Schatz, president of the pro-business Central City Assn., said Durazo’s power had become too great. She and other business leaders noted that Durazo had criticized a rail car assembly plant in the Antelope Valley, which is now looking to move jobs out of state.
“She was willing to sacrifice jobs ... if they were not union jobs,” Schatz said. “We hope that under her successor, labor and business can work more collaboratively.”
Durazo’s supporters argue that they have waited too long for jobs that pay living wages and say she has been their greatest champion. Lupe Luna recalled meeting Durazo in the 1980s, when she was teaching hotel workers, many of them women, how to fight for better wages and working conditions.
“For me, she was my hero,” said Luna, who became an organizer herself in 2005.
Times staff writers Soumya Karlamangla and Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.