The Architect 

Miguel Contreras, 1952 – 2005

Thursday, May 12 2005

We are, I know, electing a mayor of Los Angeles, but the real architect of the new Los Angeles died with terrible suddenness on Friday night, leaving behind a city that he more than anyone transformed into the only major American metropolis where working people have some real political power.

When Miguel Contreras became the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in 1996, the city was just beginning to climb back from the worst recession since the Thirties, and politically, it was adrift between regimes. The 20-year tenure of Mayor Tom Bradley had ended three years earlier with the election of Richard Riordan – an election in which labor was a marginal player at best. A whole new population, an entire new working class, had descended on L.A. from Mexico and Central America, but they did not figure in L.A.’s civic life, in its politics, at all.

Today, they figure, and then some – and not as a nationalist force but as the keystone of a new-model labor movement that is at the center of the city’s new, governing regime. Talk about building a new world on the ashes of the old! Los Angeles was both the whitest and most anti-union big American city outside the South for much of the 20th century. That it should become the most dynamic union city in the nation, chiefly through labor’s mobilization of the Latino immigrant workforce, is the most astonishing and significant civic transformation in recent American history – in part because in moving to the left, Los Angeles dragged California leftwards, too.

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And if there was one central figure in this transformation, it was Miguel Contreras. The son of immigrant farm workers, Contreras went to work for Cesar Chavez’s union while still a teenager. In the Eighties, he became an organizer, and then an all-purpose trouble-shooter, for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE), in which capacity he was detailed to Los Angeles. When Jim Wood became head of the L.A. County Fed in the mid-90s, he made Miguel his political director, and in 1996, Contreras succeeded to the top spot when Wood died – tragically young, like Miguel – from lung cancer.

It was a time of transition throughout the labor movement. In Washington, John Sweeney had just ousted Lane Kirkland as the president of the national AFL-CIO. In California, Art Pulaski had just succeeded John Henning, who’d headed the state AFL-CIO for a quarter-century. And in L.A., Contreras took over a labor movement clearly in decline. Almost every one of the great unionized auto, tire and aerospace factories that had employed hundreds of thousands of Angelenos since World War II had been shuttered over the previous 20 years. Construction was increasingly handled by non-union crews. Unionized employees in such service occupations as janitorial work had been let go, to be replaced by low-wage immigrant workers. The city had a Republican mayor and the state had a Republican Assembly and a governor, Pete Wilson, who’d won re-election by exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment. The only silver lining to be glimpsed in 1996 was the possibility of a Latino backlash against Wilson and the Republicans for their support for the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 two years previous. The conventional wisdom, th4ough, was that it would be years, if not decades, before Latinos would vote in sufficient numbers to reverse the state’s nativist and conservative drift.

That was a piece of wisdom that Contreras was soon to blow to smithereens. In the 1996 state legislative elections, Democrats swept back to power in the Assembly by winning a range of districts around L.A. County – in Long Beach, the South Bay, Burbank and Pasadena – that had been Republican for decades, as a result of voter registration and union mobilization efforts coordinated by the County Fed and the Service Employees International Union. The following year, in a special election to fill an Assembly vacancy in an immigrant-heavy district near downtown, the old guard Latino establishment, headed by State Sen. Richard Polanco, backed a centrist candidate widely favored to win. The Fed, however, backed Contreras’ friend and former labor leader Gil Cedillo, and devised a special campaign targeted not just at union members but also new immigrant voters in the district. Cedillo scored a decisive upset, winning the backing of voters that hardly any political pros expected to turn out. The Fed had found a formula for bringing a new constituency to the polls – and with that, a new political power was born.

Part of Contreras’ secret was the oldest political weapon in the book: shoe leather. Under his leadership, the Fed developed a get-out-the-vote program in which a number of the city’s more activist locals took part – and none more heavily than the two unions most dominated by immigrant workers, SEIU’s janitors local, and HERE’s hotel workers local, headed by Contreras’ wife, Maria Elena Durazo. In the 70s, 80s and early 90s, nobody walked during L.A. elections; politics in Los Angeles had been reduced to raising money to fund TV and radio ads and mailings. Unions participated in campaigns largely by writing checks to candidates, and the most powerful locals were often building trades unions that were close to such behind-the-scenes power brokers as Riordan consigliere Bill Wardlaw.

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