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The Architect 

Miguel Contreras, 1952 – 2005

Thursday, May 12 2005
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Contreras changed all that. Hundreds, then thousands of union activists mobilized to walk swing districts during election season, targeting not just their fellow members but the newly naturalized immigrant working class as well. Within Democratic primaries (of which, through the miracle of term limits, there were scads), the Fed backed and elected a new generation of pro-labor progressives – Cedillo, Antonio Villaraigosa, Jackie Goldberg, Hilda Solis. In outlying areas formerly represented by Republicans, Democrats such as Alan Lowenthal, Jenny Oropeza, Adam Schiff and Jane Harman won by virtue of labor support. So effective was the labor operation that immigrant Latino voters backed such Fed-endorsed candidates as Goldberg (a lesbian Jew) and the African-American Jerome Horton over their mainstream Latino opponents.

The net effect of all this was that Los Angeles County moved decisively leftward, so that by the 2000 election, its level of support for the Democratic presidential and senatorial candidates was identical to that of the San Francisco Bay Area. A lot of demographic factors went into the transformation of California from the homeland of Nixon and Reagan to the bluest of states, but demography was measurably sped up by the political shift in L.A. County that Contreras put on fast-forward.

Politics wasn’t an end in itself for Contreras. The political clout that labor amassed in L.A. was a floating asset that workers involved in bargaining or organizing could and did call upon. The organization of 74,000 home care workers in L.A. by SEIU – the largest single organizing victory of any kind since the ‘30s – was in large part the result of the election victories of 1998, which, by making Gray Davis governor, led to statutory changes enabling those workers to organize.

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During the epochal 2000 janitors strike, virtually every elected official in town marched with, spoke for, or sat alongside the janitors at the bargaining table. That was only partly because the janitors occupied the moral high ground. It was also a consequence of labor’s smashing successes in the Democratic primaries that immediately preceded the strike – most particularly, the successful campaign to unseat longtime lump-like Democratic Congressman Marty Martinez with pro-labor firebrand Hilda Solis. There were limits to this kind of clout, of course: There was little Contreras could do to turn the tables during the disastrous strike/lockout of supermarket workers a couple of years back. He did, however, lead the subsequent campaign that persuaded Inglewood voters to keep Wal-Mart out of their city.

Under  Contreras’ leadership, labor’s political power was also used to push the envelope on public policy. The enactment and extension of living wage and worker retention ordinances in cities throughout the county were the result of hard-fought, strategically savvy campaigns, but underpinning all of them was the power of the Fed. I recall one particular, and not all that earthshaking, campaign to win more job security for the unionized food servers at USC. After an impasse of many months, Madeline Janis-Aparicio of the living wage coalition drafted a proposed city ordinance that would have threatened USC’s municipal community development funding unless it agreed to the workers’ demands. There was, again, a kind of Dickensian purity to the workers’ struggle, but Dickensian purity hasn’t always prevailed at the L.A. City Council. In this instance, however, despite intense lobbying from USC – the civic institution that perhaps most epitomized the old L.A. establishment – the Council voted unanimously for the ordinance, forcing the university to meet the union’s demands. More than anything else, the vote reflected the new civic political reality – that in at least nine of the city’s 15 council districts, labor could make or break a candidate.

Like all labor leaders, of course, Contreras cut his deals with power when he had to. In 1997, with incumbent Mayor Riordan facing only symbolic opposition from Tom Hayden, the Fed backed Riordan. This year, though Contreras tried to engineer a dual-endorsement of Mayor Jim Hahn and challenger Antonio Villaraigosa, Hahn’s ability to deliver for labor, and for specific unions, proved too great for Contreras to convince his fellow labor leaders that they should go both ways.

Miguel, be it very clear, loved deal-making, though not as an end in itself. The intrigues of politics and some of the trappings of power delighted him; he reveled in his ability to put together improbable coalitions or pull off daring endorsements. He would skate on the edge sometimes: I recall one instance in which he heavily favored one candidate in a field of good candidates, but kept coming up a couple of votes short when the Fed’s political committee was considering its endorsement. Finally, he asked a friend to withhold his negative votes on the next ballot; the endorsement just had to go through, he said, because he’d already had the campaign literature printed. Suffice it to say, he got his way.

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