Reflecting the growing influence of Latinos in Southern California's labor movement and signaling what could be greater militancy by the area's unions, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor for the first time will elect a Latino as its leader.
Miguel Contreras, a longtime labor activist and currently the federation's political director, clinched the victory Thursday after his sole challenger withdrew from the race. Upon his official election Monday, Contreras will become the first non-Anglo to head the 102-year-old union council.
The 43-year-old Contreras said his first goal is to enlist voter support for labor-friendly candidates by "ending checkbook politics at the federation."
Instead, he said, "We're going to focus our resources--financial and people resources--on building grass-roots organizing in targeted communities."
For instance, Contreras said the federation and its roughly 325 member union locals will increasingly team up in political efforts with community and religious groups around the county.
Contreras--echoing the militant leaders who took the helm of the AFL-CIO national leadership last fall--also vowed to put more focus on recruiting new union members. In addition, he said that under his leadership the federation will "confront" profitable companies that demand concessions from their unions.
Already under way is one of Contreras' other main challenges: overcoming the divisions fostered by the battle for the executive secretary-treasurer's post, the first contested election ever for the job.
A conciliatory tone was sounded both by Contreras and his opponent, Michael A. Straeter, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1442 in Santa Monica. Straeter announced his withdrawal from the race Thursday afternoon with a news release saying he was pulling out "based solely on what is best for the working men and women of this county."
Straeter, who conceded in an interview that he no longer had any chance of winning, said that "with the many challenges that lie ahead, organized labor must channel all of its efforts into one cohesive front."
But early on, the contest between Contreras and Straeter sharply divided county union leaders, largely along ethnic lines. Contreras announced his candidacy shortly after his mentor and predecessor, James M. Wood, died of lung cancer in February at age of 51.
Contreras, who will fill the remaining two years of what was to be Wood's four-year term, initially relied heavily on the support of the county's increasingly powerful Latino labor leaders.
At the same time, even before Straeter announced his last-second candidacy in April, Contreras was criticized by some white and black union leaders. Several said he lacked the experience and organizational skills for the $82,000-a-year job.
His critics included Bill Robertson, who was head of the county federation for 18 years until retiring in 1993 and who has served as interim chief since Wood's death.
Eventually, however, Contreras managed to broaden the base of his support and soften the criticism of his opponents.
Robertson, referring to Straeter's decision to withdraw, said Thursday he was "happy to see it happen. It certainly eases any tensions that might have been out there."
Contreras got his start in the union movement in his teens when his family, all of whom picked grapes in the San Joaquin Valley, joined the United Farm Workers.
He eventually moved through the ranks at both the UFW and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union. That was followed by a stint as deputy campaign manager for Kathleen Brown's unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in 1994 and then joining the county federation as political director.
Contreras is married to another prominent labor leader, Maria Elena Durazo, president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 11.
While generally low-key and soft-spoken, the bespectacled Contreras has gained a reputation as a union militant. "We're deep believers in aggressive civil disobedience in defense of workers' rights," said Contreras, adding that he has been arrested about 25 times in connection with labor protests.
As head of the nation's second-largest metropolitan union council, representing unions with more than 600,000 members, Contreras will be propelled into the ranks of the nation's most prominent minority labor leaders.