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Leader Who Restored Labor's Clout in L.A. Dies

May 07, 2005|Matea Gold and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

Miguel Contreras, the son of migrant farmworkers who grew to be one of Los Angeles' most powerful labor leaders and a dominant force in city politics, died late Friday evening of an apparent heart attack. He was 52.

Contreras, who worked the arid fields of the Central Valley as a boy, re-energized a sputtering Southern California labor movement struggling to regain relevancy.

As head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, an association of 345 local unions, Contreras built a formidable coalition, in part by pulling diverse unions together through strikes and contract campaigns.

Actors walked picket lines with supermarket strikers, janitors supported locked-out port workers at rallies, and Los Angeles politicians courted union workers largely because of behind-the-scenes work by Contreras.

"The Los Angeles labor movement, like labor movements everywhere in the country, was waning in power and visibility," said labor writer and friend Harold Meyerson. "Miguel managed to turn that around by harnessing the rise of immigrant labor. And by so doing he changed the politics of Los Angeles."

News of Contreras' death stunned labor activists and city politicians, who said he appeared to be in good health and at the top of his political form during a bruising mayoral race.

Mayor James K. Hahn, who had been endorsed by the labor federation, said news of the death was "real sudden, unexpected."

"The working men and women of Los Angeles have had no greater champion than Miguel Contreras," Hahn said in a statement. "Today, I lost a friend, and our nation lost a remarkable leader."

Kam Kuwata, a senior political advisor to Hahn and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said he had spoken to Contreras by telephone Friday afternoon. Contreras was in his Los Angeles office at the time.

"He sounded great," Kuwata said. "He needed to get some information to Sen. Feinstein, and I set that up. Plus, I just wanted to talk to him about what was going on" with the mayor's reelection campaign.

Speaking from Daniel Freeman Hospital in Inglewood, where Contreras died, federation President Rick Icaza said he was appointing Charles Lester, current political director of the group, to temporarily take the reins as secretary-treasurer.

Before Contreras took the helm in 1996, the unions were considered "old school" and somewhat cautious in their approach. Contreras pushed labor to embrace Latino activism despite some resistance, a move that proved crucial to some politicians, including mayoral candidate and City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa and Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles).

Contreras had close ties to Hahn and to Villaraigosa, who was a personal friend. But in the mayor's race, the federation decided to endorse Hahn over the challenger.

"Miguel was personally very close to Antonio," said Parke Skelton, a senior campaign strategist for Villaraigosa who worked closely with Contreras for years. "On the other hand, he had Jimmy Hahn, who his unions had endorsed. Labor, generally speaking, doesn't break with incumbents who tend to be supportive."

Contreras and the movement he helped build was not without critics. Some politicians feared that the growing power of unions in Los Angeles -- and some of their initiatives, like the city's living wage ordinance -- would make it more difficult to do business in the city.

Contreras was raised working in the fields of the Central Valley, where at the age of 5 he carried water to his father and older brothers as they picked raisin grapes. Both of his parents were farmworkers -- his father came from Mexico in his 20s as part of the bracero guest-worker program.

After meeting Cesar Chavez at a rally for Robert F. Kennedy, the Contreras family became active in the United Farm Workers in the late 1960s. By the time he was 17, Contreras and his brothers were driving to San Jose on weekends to hand out grape boycott leaflets at grocery stores.

"Mexican farmworkers were seen as nothing more than agricultural implements, to be used and discarded like you would discard an old shovel or an old hoe," Contreras said in an interview with The Times earlier this year. "He gave us a feeling of real self-worth and a feeling of breaking away those imaginary shackles you had to the grower and standing up for yourself."

After stints in Toronto, Canada, working on the grape boycott, in Salinas organizing lettuce workers and in San Francisco, where he helped lead local hotel workers in a monthlong strike, Contreras was recruited as a national organizer for the international Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. The job brought him to Los Angeles in the late 1980s.

The hotel workers' Local 11 was embroiled in a power struggle, and Contreras was charged with sorting out allegations of ballot fraud. Organizer Maria Elena Durazo, who was challenging the local's leadership, led her supporters in rowdy picketing, protesting Contreras' involvement.

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