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Laborers, Leaders Mourn 'the Real Miguel Contreras'

Among thousands at the union chief's funeral, many wear the attire of their trades. He 'fought for each worker,' his widow tells the crowd.

May 13, 2005|Monte Morin and Carla Hall | Times Staff Writers

California's most powerful politicians and some of its least empowered laborers crowded elbow to elbow in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Thursday to bid farewell to Miguel Contreras, the son of migrant farmworkers who grew up to be one of the nation's strongest labor leaders and a dominant force in Los Angeles politics.

Dressed in brightly colored T-shirts with union logos or in the togs of their trades -- chef's toques and hardhats -- workers filled the pews of the cathedral and applauded as Contreras' shrouded casket arrived at the back of the church to the skirl of bagpipes and the thrumming of helicopters.

The ceremony began with "Amazing Grace" and ended with a mariachi version of "De Colores," punctuated by respectful, then rousing, applause for a man credited with reviving a moribund union movement at a time of rapid demographic change.

The standing room-only crowd, estimated at 4,500, included many of the most prominent politicians and labor leaders in the state and nation. From Congress came U.S. Reps. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) and Loretta Sanchez (D-Anaheim). From Sacramento, State Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres and Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles).

From Los Angeles, Mayor James K. Hahn, former Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre and filmmaker-activist Rob Reiner mixed with all 15 members of the City Council and three of five county supervisors.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, came with his two top lieutenants, Richard Trumka and Linda Chavez-Thompson. Four national union presidents joined them: Andrew Stern of the 1.8-million-member Service Employees International Union, Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm of the recently merged union Unite Here and Arturo Rodriguez of the United Farm Workers, who was a pallbearer.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, speaking alternately in English and Spanish, presided over the funeral Mass. But it was Maria Elena Durazo, Contreras' widow, who offered the most stirring eulogy.

In a strong voice that quavered at moments, Durazo told mourners that since her husband's death, she had heard Miguel Contreras described as "a kingmaker, a man of great influence, a consummate behind-the-scenes dealmaker."

"These views miss the real Miguel Contreras," Durazo said. "They ignore why he was able to do what he did. While he reveled in the game of politics, he succeeded because his constituency, the people he was trying to help, knew he was the real thing....

"Miguel was as passionate about the struggles of electricians and actors and longshoremen as he was about homecare workers and janitors and nurses and hotel housekeepers," she said. "He fought for each worker with the same heart and the same soul."

Billionaire businessman Ron Burkle and Los Angeles Avengers owner Casey Wasserman were among the four who performed ceremonial tasks during the Mass, taking offertory gifts to Mahony.

But Contreras' constituency dominated an event that was exactly the type he most relished -- an opportunity to press a laborer face to face with politicians whose decisions affect their lives. It also was clear that even in death, Contreras' influence in this year's bruising mayoral campaign was far from over.

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. His death of a heart attack May 6, at 52, has left an enormous vacuum, some say.

"He was always fighting for those who were at the bottom, always fighting for the little guy," Hahn told a reporter as he entered the cathedral. "Obviously, there's only one Miguel Contreras. We don't have anybody to replace him, but I think we've got the structure in place to continue the struggle.... There really have been many great labor leaders in Los Angeles, but I think Miguel Contreras took it to a whole new level. It made him a national figure."

Contreras had endorsed Hahn in the mayor's race before his death. But it was mayoral challenger and Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, a close friend of Contreras, who was conspicuous throughout the event, from his position with the family following the casket into the cathedral to a lingering goodbye with union members milling about afterward.

During her eulogy, Durazo, who also is a labor organizer and president of Unite Here Local 11, exhorted those present to fully realize Contreras' legacy.

"With the example of Miguel's life and work as our guide -- with the sacrifice and suffering of ordinary workers who organize, march and walk a precinct every day -- let us continue the fight to grow this movement, seeking divine assistance and inspiration yet recognizing that ultimate success or failure rests in our own hands."

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