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An L.A. labor leader with a strong worker ethic

Maria Elena Durazo was angry.

As Los Angeles’ reigning labor boss, she had packed the City Council chambers with dozens of union members, expecting action on an initiative that could eventually help large hotels modernize, creating and preserving jobs. Business interests were wary, knowing that as part of the proposal, Durazo also hoped to increase pay for hotel workers.

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Durazo thought she had an ally in Councilman Paul Koretz, who would propose that the city study wage increases. Instead, he told the council he wanted to postpone the discussion. Summoning Koretz to the side of the chamber, Durazo was overheard demanding an explanation. “What the hell is going on, Paul?”

She then moved into a roped-off area reserved for lawmakers and their aides to buttonhole Council President Herb Wesson. After hushed exchanges, Wesson intoned into his microphone that the hotel item was back on the table. “Mr. Koretz would like to hear that item today.”

The council didn’t end up voting on the wage provision that day, but the workers got their chance to address lawmakers directly about their pay, setting the stage for a future legislative drive. It was an apt illustration of how Los Angeles’ most powerful labor leader wields influence. Durazo tenaciously leverages the political clout of her 600,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor to defend union jobs, increase pay and organize more workers.

The “county Fed,” as it is known, coordinates political operations for more than 300 union locals whose members touch virtually every sector of the area’s economy, from hotel waiters and LAX security officers to Hollywood set workers and government building inspectors, nurses and teachers.

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From its headquarters west of downtown, it has an annual operating budget about $3 million and employs just 15 workers directly.

Far more significant is Durazo’s ability to direct millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers into campaigns by tapping individual members, allies and an array of union locals for support.

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Durazo has presided over high-profile losses: Wendy Greuel was defeated in last month’s mayoral contest after labor spent $5.8 million trying to elect her. Greuel was the federation’s pick because she cultivated more “direct relationships” with local union leaders, according to Durazo. She also noted that as council president, Greuel’s opponent, Eric Garcetti, had named Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a union nemesis and budget hawk, to chair the panel’s powerful finance committee.

But Durazo says she doesn’t dwell on losses. She counts her victories — six of the seven City Council candidates she backed this year won seats — and moves forward.

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“She is still probably the single most influential individual in Los Angeles politics,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

A daughter of farmworkers from Mexico, Durazo, 60, combines a street organizer’s intensity with a big, slightly hoarse laugh and easy charm. She deftly works the seams of government and private enterprise, moving between union rallies and talks with city power brokers such as billionaire Eli Broad. She’s comfortable enough in the upper rungs of civic leadership to quip to a reporter that her friend, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, flunked the bar exam four times, but she failed it only once.

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Durazo demands loyalty from the politicians she helps, and is revered by people who clean toilets, clear banquet tables and wash cars. Her greatest legacy, she says, has been to empower the mostly Latino workers in the hotel and restaurant union local she ran for nearly two decades. “It’s a completely different mind-set of these workers taking charge of their own destiny, and not being submissive to their employers or to union bosses not listening to their needs,” she said.

More broadly, Durazo has been a driving force in the region’s signature developments and biggest public policy debates, including the proposed downtown NFL stadium, a massive expansion of the rail system and a $4-billion upgrade at LAX.

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Where beneficial, she’s forged alliances with environmentalists, small businesses and large corporations to amplify labor’s political voice. Those partnerships have yielded, among other victories, a city-enforced boost in wages for employees of L.A. city contractors and hotels around LAX; voter-approved pay hikes at Long Beach hotels; and a Port of Los Angeles mandate that large, mostly unionized shipping and trucking companies hire previously independent truckers.

Durazo remains determined to increase the state’s $8 minimum wage to approximately $15 an hour in Los Angeles. Her next effort on that front will be to push lawmakers to raise the minimum wage at hotels with 100 rooms or more.

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“What’s wrong with making a middle-class living?” she asks. “That’s what we’ve always been proud of in this country.... $100,000? That’s barely middle class...

“There’s more and more CEOs making tens of millions, and billions, of dollars.”

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Critics say Durazo is out to build a political juggernaut. “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.”

They complain that labor’s influence at City Hall is thwarting economic growth and draining city coffers.

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“Maria Elena Durazo has been very effective at using the levers of government to organize different industries,” said Ruben Gonzales, vice president of public policy at the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce. “But the end result actually tends to limit job creation by deterring businesses from expanding or moving to Los Angeles.”

At the same time, her bold use of power has endeared her to loyal union members like Lupe Luna, 60, a hotel worker who recalls how the rising young firebrand took the helm of her local nearly 25 years ago. Hotel managers were humiliating room attendants when Durazo arrived, she said.

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“When she got started, we got respect. They listened more. For me, she is my inspiration.”

A Central Valley childhood

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Durazo’s zeal for the working class can be traced partly to her childhood summers spent following the Central Valley harvest in her family’s flatbed truck.

She was the seventh of 11 children born to immigrants from the Mexican state of Sonora. The family rented homes in Fresno but took off in early summer to pick peaches, strawberries, grapes and cotton. They slept in barns, weedy ravines and tent camps.

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“We would just pack up our truck and go into the wind,” said Durazo’s sister, Dolores Elie, 68.

Maria Elena — “Nana” to her family — would bring her parents and older siblings water in the fields. They were close. Mom cooked on a butane stove. Dad would take on his children in checkers.

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Many memories are painful. An infant brother died when they could not pay a doctor, according to family members. Durazo remembers the small white coffin being carried down the aisle of a church that took up a collection for the burial.

She recalls being rousted from ravines in the middle of the night for trespassing. It all fed a sense of unfairness.

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When they were picking prunes near San Jose, the children watched the farm owner feed his pigs cupcakes, orange juice and candy bars. Dolores and her sisters distracted the pigs so that Maria Elena could slip into the pen and snatch the sweets.

Durazo remembers yearning for that candy. “As a kid back then, it was hogs have something that we can’t have. It’s just that simple. The hogs had something we can’t have. We have to take that away from them.”

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Her father never cast their treatment by growers as exploitation.

“My dad had a work ethic,” Durazo said. “The way he measured his own credibility, his own dignity, was by what he put into it. He didn’t measure it by what they paid us.”

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Her older brother Ben was the first to go to college, attending Fresno State. He took Maria Elena to Chicano Moratorium and anti-Vietnam marches on campus. Maria Elena received a scholarship to St. Mary’s College in Moraga, outside of Oakland, where she joined groups fighting for workers’ rights, immigrant amnesty and Chicano power. Through a network of student activists, she met two UCLA students, Gil Cedillo (whom Durazo helped elect to the City Council in May) and Tony Villar (whom she would help elect mayor, after he changed his name to Antonio Villaraigosa).

After graduating, Durazo got married, had a son, separated and moved to Los Angeles. While studying at People’s College of Law with Cedillo and Villar, she was recruited as an organizer by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11.

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The white male leadership appeared out of touch. Membership meetings were called at the last minute to “make sure people didn’t show up,” and discussions and materials weren’t translated into Spanish, she said.

Durazo ran to take over the local, in an election that devolved into accusations of ballot fraud. An organizer named Miguel Contreras was sent in by the parent union to resolve the conflicts. A son of farmworkers, Contreras had picketed with Cesar Chavez and helped organize the grape boycott that helped define the United Farm Workers Union.

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They were both in their mid-30s, but Durazo saw him as an agent of the old guard and led protests against him. Contreras gradually convinced her they shared the same goals, and in December 1988 they married. The next year, Durazo won 85% of the hotel union vote and took the local on a much more aggressive path.

Just before the 1992 Los Angeles riots, she sent a video around the country called “City on the Edge,” warning that L.A.'s poverty bred violence. Trying to pressure large hotels to settle contracts, she compared the city to South Africa under apartheid. When city and labor leaders excoriated her, Durazo was unapologetic, seeing the video as prophetic.

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When a downtown hotel fired workers, she had maids and janitors act out their jobs in the middle of the office district at rush hour. At USC, she led janitors and cafeteria workers out on strike.

By then, her husband had risen to the top of the county Federation of Labor.

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Like Durazo, Contreras brought new energy to his job, pulling together disparate groups of workers to support one another’s strikes and contract campaigns.

Politicians increasingly courted the grass-roots support and campaign cash the county Fed could deliver. It was a transitional period for Los Angeles organized labor, when leaders stepped away from their reliance on the Democratic Party, said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center. Union bosses began vetting candidates on their own and demanding more from those seeking endorsements. “You can’t just be the Democratic incumbent,” Wong said. “They will recruit their own candidates to run.”

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Contreras’ death in 2005 at the age of 52, apparently of a heart attack, devastated Durazo and their son Michael, who was 14 at the time. Martin Ludlow, a close friend and successor who took over the labor federation, had to resign a year later, pleading guilty to illegally using union funds for his City Council campaign.

Durazo stepped up to lead the organization. Some questioned whether she possessed the political acumen to manage an organization with so many competing interests.

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Seven years and many battles later, says USC’s Schnur, “she has proved her doubters wrong by every conceivable measure.”

Campaigning for president in 2008, Barack Obama called Durazo’s endorsement “enormous” and described her as “obviously one of the leading labor figures in the country.”

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Durazo, who makes about $158,000 as leader of the federation, now hopes to bring her fight for immigrant and Latino workers to the national level, using her position on the executive council of the AFL-CIO and as chair of the union’s immigration committee. During the presidential election, she crisscrossed the country pushing for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that will be as “quick, broad and inclusive as possible.”

An effective nonprofit

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One of the most effective weapons in Durazo’s political arsenal has been the research and policy nonprofit she and her late husband formed in 1993. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) serves as a research group, policy incubator and vehicle for bringing together environmentalists, unions, businesses and community activists on campaigns of mutual interest.

The union-hiring program at the port and the living-wage victory for hotel workers near LAX were LAANE projects.

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One of the group’s biggest and most controversial initiatives has been to bring Los Angeles’ lucrative commercial trash-hauling industry under tighter city control.

With backing from the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups, LAANE argued that unregulated commercial haulers — who serve businesses and apartment buildings — increased air pollution and traffic on the roads, failed to recycle aggressively and ran dangerous rubbish-processing facilities.

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The organization worked with city public works officials for three years, creating 11 proposed zones where exclusive trash hauling contracts would be issued, with stricter environmental and workplace regulations. Durazo met repeatedly with council members and the mayor’s office to promote the plan.

When it reached the council floor in November, the chambers were again packed. Diverse groups argued the proposal was the only way to effectively regulate the $200-million-a-year industry. Representatives of apartment building owners and businesses warned many smaller trash haulers would go under and consumers would pay higher trash bills. The proposal’s true purpose, they claimed, was to give large, unionized companies control of the L.A. market.

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“It is not your business to help labor organize an industry and put a few thousand people out of work, and reduce the number of companies that are operating,” Carol Schatz, president and chief executive of the Central City Assn. of Los Angeles, told the council.

Durazo struck a defiant tone when she stepped forward to address lawmakers.

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“I’m here today because men and women die on the job,” she said, jabbing a finger in the air. “Make no mistake. They are dangerous jobs. Who is on the other side of this issue? The haulers, the chamber, who says this is a cynical move. Well, it is not cynical when you care about men and women who work hard every single day.”

Applause filled the marbled chamber.

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The council voted 11 to 3 to create exclusive franchises.

Absolute loyalty

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Even some Democrats who support Durazo’s goals express concern about her organization’s outsize influence in L.A. politics, particularly at the City Council. They feared that her aggressive attacks on Garcetti during the campaign, including a mailer that falsely claimed he owned a “company whose oil drilling is believed to cause cancer,” would backfire on labor.

The county Fed has a poor record backing mayoral candidates. But critics worry that Durazo’s sway could increase in county government, where the county Fed directed $8.5 million toward the election of the newest member of the Board of Supervisors, Mark Ridley-Thomas, in 2008. A majority of the powerful panel will turn over in the next few years because of term limits.

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“When you put so much money on these campaigns, they basically want you to be yes people,” said Gloria Molina, a lifelong Democrat who is leaving the county board next year.

She asserts that Durazo and union leaders demand absolute loyalty, even if it threatens budgets and means public employees’ pay and benefits are unaffordable.

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Durazo counters that government power and spending should be harnessed to ensure “certain minimal standards” of living for both public- and private-sector workers. “If all you have are industries where wage theft is prevailing, how does that help the prosperity of the city? That hurts us.

“How do you get the tax revenue to provide services? How do you get our neighborhoods from falling into disarray?”

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Some officials and political observers were predicting a backlash against labor’s influence before union campaign spending became a central issue in the mayoral election — one that hurt Greuel.

“You are beginning to see in the most blue, Democratic city people questioning the role of unions,” said Fernando Guerra, director of the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. “The phrase ‘I’m a supporter of unions, but ...’ That was a Republican phrase. Now I hear all sorts of liberals saying it.

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“This is Maria Elena’s challenge. She has to deal with this new reality.”

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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On Twitter: @joemozingo

Times staff writer Maloy Moore contributed to this report.


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