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An L.A. labor leader with a strong worker ethic

Maria Elena Durazo, 60, the daughter of immigrant farmworkers, tenaciously leverages the clout of her L.A. County Federation of Labor to defend union jobs, increase pay and organize more workers.

June 22, 2013|By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times
  • Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, greets marchers with her characteristic easy smile before the start of this year's May Day parade along Broadway in downtown L.A. Durazo, 60, is a tireless promoter of union causes.
Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor,… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

Maria Elena Durazo was angry.

As Los Angeles' reigning labor boss, she had packed the City Council chambers with dozens of union members, expecting action on an initiative that could eventually help large hotels modernize, creating and preserving jobs. Business interests were wary, knowing that as part of the proposal, Durazo also hoped to increase pay for hotel workers.

Durazo thought she had an ally in Councilman Paul Koretz, who would propose that the city study wage increases. Instead, he told the council he wanted to postpone the discussion. Summoning Koretz to the side of the chamber, Durazo was overheard demanding an explanation. "What the hell is going on, Paul?"

She then moved into a roped-off area reserved for lawmakers and their aides to buttonhole Council President Herb Wesson. After hushed exchanges, Wesson intoned into his microphone that the hotel item was back on the table. "Mr. Koretz would like to hear that item today."

The council didn't end up voting on the wage provision that day, but the workers got their chance to address lawmakers directly about their pay, setting the stage for a future legislative drive. It was an apt illustration of how Los Angeles' most powerful labor leader wields influence. Durazo tenaciously leverages the political clout of her 600,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor to defend union jobs, increase pay and organize more workers.

The "county Fed," as it is known, coordinates political operations for more than 300 union locals whose members touch virtually every sector of the area's economy, from hotel waiters and LAX security officers to Hollywood set workers and government building inspectors, nurses and teachers.

From its headquarters west of downtown, it has an annual operating budget about $3 million and employs just 15 workers directly.

Far more significant is Durazo's ability to direct millions of dollars and thousands of volunteers into campaigns by tapping individual members, allies and an array of union locals for support.

Durazo has presided over high-profile losses: Wendy Greuel was defeated in last month's mayoral contest after labor spent $5.8 million trying to elect her. Greuel was the federation's pick because she cultivated more "direct relationships" with local union leaders, according to Durazo. She also noted that as council president, Greuel's opponent, Eric Garcetti, had named Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a union nemesis and budget hawk, to chair the panel's powerful finance committee.

But Durazo says she doesn't dwell on losses. She counts her victories — six of the seven City Council candidates she backed this year won seats — and moves forward.

"She is still probably the single most influential individual in Los Angeles politics," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

A daughter of farmworkers from Mexico, Durazo, 60, combines a street organizer's intensity with a big, slightly hoarse laugh and easy charm. She deftly works the seams of government and private enterprise, moving between union rallies and talks with city power brokers such as billionaire Eli Broad. She's comfortable enough in the upper rungs of civic leadership to quip to a reporter that her friend, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, flunked the bar exam four times, but she failed it only once.

Durazo demands loyalty from the politicians she helps, and is revered by people who clean toilets, clear banquet tables and wash cars. Her greatest legacy, she says, has been to empower the mostly Latino workers in the hotel and restaurant union local she ran for nearly two decades. "It's a completely different mind-set of these workers taking charge of their own destiny, and not being submissive to their employers or to union bosses not listening to their needs," she said.

More broadly, Durazo has been a driving force in the region's signature developments and biggest public policy debates, including the proposed downtown NFL stadium, a massive expansion of the rail system and a $4-billion upgrade at LAX.

Where beneficial, she's forged alliances with environmentalists, small businesses and large corporations to amplify labor's political voice. Those partnerships have yielded, among other victories, a city-enforced boost in wages for employees of L.A. city contractors and hotels around LAX; voter-approved pay hikes at Long Beach hotels; and a Port of Los Angeles mandate that large, mostly unionized shipping and trucking companies hire previously independent truckers.

Durazo remains determined to increase the state's $8 minimum wage to approximately $15 an hour in Los Angeles. Her next effort on that front will be to push lawmakers to raise the minimum wage at hotels with 100 rooms or more.

"What's wrong with making a middle-class living?" she asks. "That's what we've always been proud of in this country.... $100,000? That's barely middle class...

"There's more and more CEOs making tens of millions, and billions, of dollars."

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