When Sen. Barack Obama campaigned in Nevada two weeks ago, he scored what his campaign described as a political coup: the backing of Maria Elena Durazo, the head of the powerful 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
But while the endorsement gave a psychological boost to Obama, it created some blowback for Durazo, considered Southern California's leading voice on labor issues.
Durazo described her endorsement as a personal one, going so far as to take time off from her job to campaign for Obama. Yet some in the federation have openly questioned her handling of the matter, saying it showed a lack of commitment to the federation's differing factions.
Officials with Service Employees International Union in California, which backed former Sen. John Edwards (D-North Carolina) months ago, learned of Durazo's decision by reading the newspaper. And Tyrone Freeman, the head of SEIU Local 6434, accused Durazo of using the federation's hard-won clout to advance her own political agenda.
"It's become part of a pattern, and it raises questions about her ability to lead, to make the decisions that make the labor unions united," said Freeman, who called Durazo's handling of the matter "slick and undignified."
The federation has enormous pull in Los Angeles County, helping to elect federal, state and local politicians at a time when unions in other parts of the country are struggling to regain influence. The federation has already vowed to make its candidate for county supervisor, state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, (D-Los Angeles), the winner in this year's election to replace Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, who is stepping down. Freeman's union represents 190,000 long-term healthcare workers across the state, many of them based in Los Angeles County. And in recent weeks, complaints about Durazo also have come from the building trade unions, which represent just over 10% of the labor coalition.
In labor circles, Durazo broke with tradition by endorsing Obama, side-stepping established rules that require county and state labor councils to back only those candidates chosen by the national AFL-CIO. Those leaders have yet to make endorsements in the presidential race.
Asked about the complaints Tuesday, federation spokeswoman Mary Gutierrez described the accusations as an internal matter. But earlier this month, Durazo acknowledged that some union members felt her endorsement left the mistaken impression that the county federation had lined up behind Obama.
"I did my best to assure them that in everything I do, I am not going to insert the name of the L.A. County Federation of Labor," she said.
Durazo won the county's top labor job in 2006, after having established herself as a strong advocate for Unite Here, the hotel and restaurant workers union. The El Sereno resident took the job one year after the death of her husband, Miguel Contreras, a gifted tactician who had run the federation during its rise to prominence.
To backers of Durazo, the discussions surrounding her endorsement are overblown. Mike Garcia, president of Service Employees International Union, Local 1877, said Durazo resolved most of the complaints by addressing the federation's executive board last week.
During that meeting, Durazo presented a legal opinion that showed that her time off did not violate the federation's rules.
"The vast majority of the people in the room recognized that she has every right to take personal time and go on vacation, as long as she separates herself from . . . the federation in her effort to support Obama," said Garcia, whose union represents janitorial workers, security guards and airport workers.
Still, the Obama endorsement is not the only controversy to touch the federation's leader. Last year, Durazo infuriated members of the building trade unions by siding with another union in a fight over the planned expansion of Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills.
While the construction trades pushed the Los Angeles City Council to approve the hospital expansion, Durazo sided with the nurses union, which sought more environmental review of the project -- a gambit designed to gain leverage in the campaign to organize private healthcare workers on the West Coast.
The Los Angeles/Orange County Building and Construction Trades Council responded last week by drafting a resolution demanding that the federation's top official stay neutral when there is a disagreement between unions, unless two-thirds of the federation's delegates are in agreement.
The resolution was presented to the federation's delegates Monday. And in a letter accompanying the resolution, Richard Slawson, executive secretary of the building trade council, implied that Durazo had ignored the needs of his members by lobbying council members to push for an 18-month delay of the hospital project.