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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON LABOR

Fasting to Right Worker Injustices

They're following in Chavez's footsteps to call attention to conditions and pay at USC and elsewhere.

May 25, 1999|MARIA ELENA DURAZO | Maria Elena Durazo is president of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, Local 11, which represents 7,000 members in Los Angeles

I began fasting on May 10 along with workers, clergy and community allies. By the end of the first week, more than 40 people had participated, some for a day, others for as long as five days. We had a common purpose: to show USC we were willing to make a physical sacrifice in our quest for justice for the 350 men and women who cook, serve and clean at the university.

Fasting nourishes the soul, even as it weakens the body. The memory of the sacrifices of my parents, immigrants who worked in the fields to see that their children would have a better life, returned to inspire me. Conversations with Dolores Huerta, co-founder of United Farm Workers, brought to life again the work and teaching of Cesar Chavez, which give me strength. How could I ask others to work harder in the labor movement, to take even greater risks for their children and their co-workers, unless I was willing to fast side by side with them?

On May 14, the general fast was coming to an end. The Rev. James Lawson and other religious leaders were present at the United University Church, on the edge of the USC campus, to bless us and lead us in prayer. I told my colleagues at that time that I would continue. And I did, for another six days. Last Thursday, I passed on a wooden cross worn by Chavez, which the Chavez family allowed us to use as a symbol of sacrifice and commitment, to Assemblyman Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who fasted for three days. On Sunday, Cedillo passed on the wooden cross to my husband, Miguel Contreras, head of the County Federation of Labor, who in turn will give it to actor Martin Sheen in a ceremony at noon today at USC. Others who are expected to take up the cause include Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) and Los Angeles City Council members Jackie Goldberg and Richard Alatorre.

I've been asked: Why did you choose to do this now? What is so urgent? What is so critical? In struggle after struggle over the last few years, I have seen immensely powerful corporations and institutions come into conflict with ordinary working men and women in our union and in our city. They act as if time is on their side. They have resources that make them believe they can outlast us.

At USC, for example, an issue over job security that is within the university's capacity to resolve immediately and fairly--that the workers should not get fired if the university subcontracts their current jobs--has been used to keep workers and their families on edge for more than four years.

This is injustice. This is arrogance and cruelty. This is the rich man excluding Lazarus, outside the gate. This is business as usual for many, although certainly not for all in Los Angeles.

What is an appropriate response? From ordinary men and women, time and again, I have seen acts of strength and common courage. At USC, workers told me they were punished after they went on strike a year ago. Cooks and servers said they were assigned to clean toilets, work they don't generally do, for several dollars an hour less than they usually earned. Yet these same workers bravely fasted or participated in civil disobedience actions just a few days ago.

These are matters of urgency. They affect, first and foremost, the workers themselves. But they also concern the communities in which they live. That is why Goldberg and other City Council members Laura Chick, Mike Hernandez and Joel Wachs dropped what they were doing last week to seek an urgent meeting with USC's president, Steven Sample.

Who else will take the risk, as many of us have done in the last two weeks, to depart from the familiar, to endure discomfort, to move to new ground in the search for community and the strength that comes from goals pursued together? That is the message of our fast at USC, and it goes out to everyone concerned about the quality of life in our city.

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