Arguably the most powerful unelected official in Los Angeles – Maria Elena Durazo – is stepping down as head of the L.A. County Federation of Labor and taking a job as vice president for immigration, civil rights and diversity at UNITE HERE, a union for hotel, restaurant and casino workers.
To union members, Durazo has been a godsend, a tiny (five-foot-two) dynamo, fearlessly advocating for workers. Others see her as the ultimate insider, a shadowy establishment figure and the leader of an organization with enormous influence at both the state and local level, able to intimidate almost any elected Los Angeles or Sacramento Democrat.
Sources say that the County Fed's political director, Rusty Hicks, who recently returned from a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy in Afghanistan, is heir-apparent to Durazo.
Rumors of Durazo's departure surfaced in 2013 but she brushed them off, and in May she was re-elected to her third four-year term as Secretary Treasurer (i.e., head). Now, only one-half year into the term, she's resigning.
“Maria Elena Durazo is a powerful fighter for workers and is especially passionate about those most in need and our immigrant community,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. “She has made the L.A. County Federation of Labor an even stronger force for change, and I know she will have a similar impact in her new role.”
Durazo released this statement:
“I have proudly led a movement that has extended the hand of labor to those who need us the most—those workers whose access to the American Dream have been blocked by poverty and callous employers. Today, I am announcing that I have decided to take the next step in my life’s work.”
Born in the San Joaquin Valley, she worked with her family in the fields as a small child, picking fruits and vegetables. She has long been an advocate for immigration reform.
She came to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, where she worked as an organizer for the Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. After an aborted attempt at law school (where her classmates were Gil Cedillo and Tony Villar — later to be known as Antonio Villaraigosa), she took a job organizing HERE Local 11, which represented L.A.'s hotel and restaurant workers. Before long, she would lead an insurrection against Local 11's entrenched – and white – leaders.
To sort things out, HERE International sent a man by the name of Miguel Contreras to town. Contreras, who had studied at the feet of Cesar Chavez, initially clashed with Durazo, but eventually the two formed a partnership – professional and romantic. Durazo took over Local 11, while Contreras took over the County Fed (essentially, a union of unions).
Contreras transformed the County Fed from a struggling labor council to a formidable political machine by fusing organized labor with a growing Latino electorate. Previously, labor unions had simply given their money to Democratic candidates. Instead, Contreras ran a year-round political organization, registering voters, recruiting candidates, running campaigns and tapping union members as his force of volunteers.
His wife, Durazo, played a key — and at the time, underrated — role in that effort, by recruiting the area's burgeoning Latino workforce to join her Local 11 union.
Then, under mysterious circumstances, Miguel Contreras died in 2005. Contreras was replaced by Martin Ludlow, but Ludlow was found guilty of illegally diverting school employee-union funds to his successful 2003 campaign for Los Angeles City Council. Ludlow was sentenced by a federal judge to five years' probation and 2,000 hours of community service and ordered to pay back $36,400 to the school union. After less than a year in the County Fed top job, he was forced to resign.
Durazo took over, tasked with consolidating the empire her late husband had built. She did a tremendous job by all accounts, keeping a sprawling alliance of disparate labor organizations united under one umbrella, even as its national equivalent, the AFL-CIO, split in two.
Although the County Fed has somehow managed to bet its time and money on the losing mayoral candidate in every competitive Los Angeles mayor's race in the last 60 years (including the last one, when they backed Wendy Greuel), labor unions get nearly everything they ask for from the 15-member Los Angeles City Council.
The County Fed's only real enemy at L.A. City Hall, Councilman Bernard Parks — who sometimes criticizes, or seeks to reduce the cost of, city-employee wage or benefit deals — is termed out of office next year.
Durazo played a key role in the 2007 living wage ordinance, in which the City Council raised the minimum wage for non-unionized employees at 12 hotels near LAX to $10 an hour. Then earlier this month, the City Council gave final approval to, and Garcetti signed into law, a plan that raises the minimum wage for hotel workers throughout L.A. to $15.37 per hour.
The council's ordinance is awaiting Garcetti's signature, but the plan is being denounced by the business community as a jobs killer and bald-faced effort to unionize workers by government fiat.
“Whether you agreed with her or disagreed with her, and I did a lot of both, very few people have had the impact on Los Angeles and beyond over the last decade than Maria Elena has,” said Ruben Gonzalez, vice president of public policy and political affairs at the L.A. Chamber of Commerce.
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