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THE SUNDAY PROFILE

Labor of Love

On the Job and at Home, Marriage Is a Real Union for Work Force Organizers Maria Elena Durazo and Miguel Contreras

March 09, 1997|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Controversial . . , " Miguel Contreras says, introducing Maria Elena Durazo with adjectives culled from press clips. "Confrontational . . . agitational. . . ."

Los Angeles' top union leader, Contreras wears a gray suit and dignified, gentle demeanor. Durazo has a presence more like the raised-fist graphics on her yellow T-shirt.

When the two meet onstage at this UCLA "teach-in," their body language--a slight, self-deprecating bow from Durazo, faint mutual smiles--is an intricate study in the dynamics of power.

Both, after all, are critical players at a critical moment in Los Angeles' labor history. It's the third week in February, and the national AFL-CIO has come to town to declare that this polyglot megalopolis will demonstrate that unions can defend "working families" in the new global economy. As Contreras says, "From tortillas to tourism, it's here in L.A."

And here in L.A., where largely minority janitors and hotel workers are the latest to organize what they see as a fight for dignity in an era of mega-mergers and disposable employees, Contreras and Durazo work against the same sort of resistance that has opposed labor activists since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

This day, there's something else going on in the handshake that links Contreras, the secretary-treasurer of the powerful County Federation of Labor, and Durazo, who heads the high-profile hotel and restaurant employees' union.

Perceiving an ever-so-slight linger in the leaders' touch, one activist whispers to another: "They're married, you know." Before they can explore that bit of gossip, though, Durazo steps behind the mike.

"We've got to loosen up a bit!" she yelps.

When she finishes her swaying, sloganeering, bilingual spiel with the debatable promise "We're going to make L.A. a union town," the 200 or so people in the audience give her one of those rhythmic, all-fired-up, clap-clap-clap ovations.

Then, when the applause finally fades to silence, an old bald guy with a white beard stands up like the ghost of Joe Hill and startles the room with a bellow: "Organize! Turn it around! Make L.A. a union town!" And darned if the crowd doesn't pick up the chant and get the place rockin' all over again.

Onstage, Contreras watches Durazo with a smile that is personal and political--that suggests both affection and respect. It's a respect he learned the hard way.

*

Contreras and Durazo were born one year and 75 miles apart, in the sort of dusty San Joaquin Valley towns that feed America.

A middle child among six sons, Contreras grew up in a shack on a grower's 400-acre grape and tree fruit ranch near Dinuba.

Durazo's father, like Contreras', came to the U.S. in the 1940s, when growers and other employers pushed through the bracero program to help assure a steady labor force. But unlike the Contrerases, the Durazo family never stayed put.

"Depending on where the crop was and where my mom was pregnant, that's where we were born," says Durazo, who entered the world in 1953 in Madera, the seventh child, with four more to follow.

Contreras and Durazo tell their stories on a Sunday morning, in their pleasant home on a tree-shaded Los Angeles street that has already sprouted several pink and green nylon Easter Bunny flags on front porches.

Like much in their lives, the interview is the result of negotiation. Contreras had wanted to put it off. Durazo preferred doing it promptly. After the teach-in, she approached her husband. He blanched. Then he smiled. "OK," he said, "but I get to skip church."

So here they sit, a platter of pan dulce set on a child's plastic table before them, in a room with white carpet, well-stocked bookcases and walls displaying the obligatory Angeleno earthquake cracks.

From time to time as the couple talk, 6-year-old Michael roars in like a missile, lodging himself headfirst in the white couch on which his parents sit side by side, telling their parallel tales.

At 5, Durazo began hauling pails of water to the workers. Soon she joined them, picking grapes, nectarines, peaches, plums, olives, tomatoes and string beans.

"Here's my crew," Durazo's father would tell growers as his family jumped from the old flatbed truck that carried them up and down the California-Oregon agricultural corridors.

"My dad took a lot of pride in his work," Durazo says. "He loved working in the fields. He really believed in nature and the land and the harvest."

Durazo's mother, who often worked in canneries, took a more business-minded approach: "You've got to argue! You've got to get more," she'd tell her husband. "She was feisty," Durazo says.

Durazo paints her childhood more as a lark than a hardship. She smiles fondly in recalling the wailing guitars and accordions of the open-air community dances her parents still love; she giggles at an old photograph of herself and her sisters dressed up to entertain the family as the Supremes or Shirelles.

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