Death takes a little piece from all of us. And in the case of Los Angeles labor leader Miguel Contreras, who died suddenly at age 52 last Friday, it takes a key player off the city’s chessboard.

Contreras will be missed. As leader of the County Federation of Labor for most of the last decade, he established an admirable record of change and progress.

But let’s not go overboard. Contreras was far too important an actor in local politics to have his record mythologized and misunderstood. So I have come to praise neither Contreras “the architect of the new Los Angeles” nor Contreras “the warrior for workers,” as he has been variously dubbed the last few days (fortunately, no one went so far as to bless him as Dear Leader or Great Helmsman). I come, rather, to evaluate Miguel Contreras the man.

Among the rather sad and pathetic gaggle of local and national union leaders who have kept American labor in its current, declining state, Contreras stood out as a bold exception. When he took over the County Fed from his previous post in the Hotel Workers union in the mid-’90s, L.A. labor was flat on its fanny. Since then its membership has zoomed sixfold to more than 800,000. Some of the largest successful organizing drives in recent history have been concluded under his watch: Thousands of low-wage home health-care workers and mostly immigrant janitors have been brought under the union umbrella. On the political front, as my colleague Harold Meyerson details elsewhere on this page, labor has become the ground infantry (and often the behind-the-scenes bank) for a benchful of often very progressive (and often not so progressive) Democratic elected officials.

But the totality of this record might be less than the sum of its parts. Contreras’ tenure overlapped with the greatest immigrant influx of our times. Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, among others, came to dominate the local service industries. Contreras knew how to capitalize on this new reality, but he had no monopoly on the strategy. A full 40 percent of the city’s unionized work force finds itself in the Service Employees International Union, which, for some years before Contreras’ arrival, had successfully pioneered the organizing of the new work force — both the home health-care workers and the janitors are SEIU, for example. Not to say Contreras and the Fed didn’t have an important role in winning those fights. But credit has to be amply shared with those organizers and leaders other than Contreras who did much of the hard work and took a lot of the risks. Would Contreras, for example, have had most of his successes here in L.A. if the visionary Andy Stern were not running the national SEIU?

Which brings us to the second level of review. Contreras remained anonymous to most of the city of L.A. Sure, the power brokers, the pols, the journos and other Mothers Courage who trailed behind the political elite knew Miguel intimately. He made no secret that — as a son of farm workers — he relished the attention that the powerful had to pay him. And like Chazz Palminteri’s Sonny in A Bronx Tale, Contreras was much happier being feared than loved. Contreras, however, was not a household name, though he commanded almost a million troops. He could — to use an antiseptic phrase — “mobilize” the rank and file. It was no problem to regiment them and march them out to canvass or phone-bank for whichever pols had gotten the County Fed’s nod. Nor was it much of a trick for Miguel to conjure their presence figuratively — as some sort of phantom army standing behind him — as he tirelessly huddled with the city’s elite.

Contreras was not, however, a charismatic populist who could actually inspire his troops — not even a remote descendant of, say, the mineworkers’ fiery John L. Lewis, who could charge up his rank and file to march straight into hell with him. Perhaps that’s an unfair yardstick for me to employ, a flight into romantic fancy. But I don’t think so. The measurable progress that Contreras made in putting the unions onto the grid of city power politics didn’t extend to actually making those unions a real presence in the lives of most Angelenos.

This failing is, to a great degree, a symptom of our times, in which unions in general continue slowly and alarmingly to recede and to seem ever more irrelevant to everyday lives.

Contreras’ County Fed was in the throes of taking another small, significant step in widening the breach between leadership and ordinary members when he died. No need to rehash all the well-known details of Contreras and the Fed endorsing Jimmy Hahn and not Contreras’ old pal Antonio Villaraigosa in next week’s mayoral vote. Spin this any way you please, but the cold facts remain the same: The County Fed, the supposed motor force of the Latino-labor alliance that Contreras has been crafting, put itself on the wrong side this time. Labor money and muscle are getting funneled into a sinking campaign aimed at beating not only the Latino candidate for mayor, but the candidate who is probably the most pro-labor pol west of the Mississippi.

This is no small slip-up. Classify it more in the category of a tragic error. An error that derives in many ways from Contreras’ greater passion for dominating a closed-door conference table than for walking the streets with his members. It was not an accident that in the March primary, a full 75 percent of union families ignored Contreras’ endorsement and voted for a candidate other than Jimmy Hahn.

Miguel won’t be with us next week for what would have certainly been for him the bittersweet moment of seeing Villaraigosa elected — elected finally. And finally without and in spite of labor’s endorsement.

Much speculation now bubbles over who will be Contreras’ successor, or if anyone can. I claim no clairvoyance on this, but there better damn well be one. The next generation of L.A. labor’s leadership must take Contreras’ work to the next level. Not only to be feared by the powerful but also to be loved by the rest of the city.

LA Weekly