She has given Mayor Tom Bradley heartburn by comparing Los Angeles to South Africa under apartheid. She has earned the enmity of hotel operators and convention planners with her tactics--they've accused her of trying to drive away the very business that feeds her members. But to thousands of waiters, busboys, dishwashers and hotel maids across the city, Maria Elena Durazo is a tireless crusader for dignity. Not yet 40, she has emerged as one of the city's most powerful, innovative and controversial labor leaders.
The daughter of Mexican farm workers, Durazo has spent her adult life battling for the rights of this country's lowest-paid workers--Latino immigrants. During the 1970s, she worked in sweatshops as an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers. In 1989, after a six-year campaign, Durazo became the first Latino, and the first woman, elected to head the Los Angeles Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 11.
Durazo hides a tough determination behind a bright smile and an open personality. She shocked and infuriated many in the city's political Establishment when, during a bitter contract dispute with a group of big hotels, her union produced a sharp-edged videotape called "City on the Edge." The tape contrasts positive images of Los Angeles--wide beaches, beautiful shops and luxurious hotels--with scenes of violence, poverty and desperation. In June, the union mailed 2,500 copies to chambers of commerce and convention planners throughout the country. Bradley, who supported Durazo's union in the past, condemned the tactic--his spokesman called the tape "inaccurate" and "a negotiating ploy." Tourism officials howled, claiming the video further damaged their industry--already reeling from the civil unrest of last spring.
But Durazo's rough methods seem to have worked. Shortly after the tape went out, her union settled their contract with the hotel owners. And Durazo continues to innovate. When new South Korean owners of the Wilshire Plaza Hotel recently refused to rehire most of the employees who worked there, Durazo successfully appealed to members of the Korean-American community to join her workers on the picket lines.
Her members--two-thirds male and predominately Latino--call her by her first names, Maria Elena. They recently reelected her to a second term by a wide majority. And while Durazo is aware of the dangers of alienating local leaders, she predicts her militant style of action will become more common in labor disputes if American unions are to survive.
Question: \o7 Many unions seem to be trying non-traditional tactics to replace strikes. Your union distributed a videotape that blames poor wages in the tourism business for aggravating the city's problems. The tactic seems to have worked for you. Is this kind of action going to replace traditional union tactics?\f7
Answer: The reality of what the tape was saying is that things aren't going to work for the tourism industry unless it pays attention to the people who work in it. We have to get that message out to as many people as possible. And this tape did that, on a national, even an international level. That may not be the last video that we produce.
It used to be we'd have a dispute with a particular corporation, and we would go out on strike and see what happened. We're not going to do that any more. We're going to find out what hurts that employer. We find out where they make their money and how they make their money, and we go to those points. Sometimes, it means going, not to the operator of a hotel, but to the owner who never gets involved. They say, "Leave me alone, I've got nothing to do with this; your contract is with the operator." But we say, "No, you are the owner of this property and you can tell your operator to give us a fair shake."
So we find out things about the owner and apply pressure there. We also have some friends who are political leaders and, if they stand with us, that can be helpful. We just figure out who has the most influence over the operator, and if we can get to those folks, we've got it made.
Q: \o7 Your tape angered a number of local officials, including Mayor Tom Bradley. Could that be a problem--alienating elected officials who might be able to help you in a labor dispute?\f7
A: I believe that anyone, including the mayor, who respects the right of our union to fight for our members should understand that there will be times when we disagree on a tactic. We didn't disagree on the objective, only on one of the tactics that was used. We have to be bold. Look what bold, destructive tactics had to be taken by the people in South-Central. That's not something that anybody wants--but they weren't worried that some leader would be upset--because they had to express their anger at the poverty and the desperation going on in their community.