Sunday, June 28, 2009

Durazo, fighting for union workers

Recession No Time to Retreat, Says LA Labor Leader

by Patrick J. McDonnell,0,2422482.story

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Maria Elena Durazo makes no apologies for continuing to push her cause: fighting for union workers.

The state may be going broke, jobs may be vanishing like the morning mist, and the nation may be enduring its worst economic stretch in decades. But Southern California's top labor leader says this is not the time for unions to beat a retreat. On the contrary.

"It's more important for workers to have a voice in an economic crisis than it is when times are at their best," said Maria Elena Durazo, chief of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

Durazo, who rose to prominence as an outspoken advocate for immigrant hotel workers, has now completed three years atop the powerful federation, representing more than 350 affiliated locals and 800,000 workers, including janitors, teachers, government staffers and others. She assumed the post a year after the death of her husband, Miguel Contreras, an astute strategist who guided the federation during its surge to prominence atop a resurgent Southern California labor movement.

Durazo's rise underscored the ascendance of a Latino-labor alliance that now dominates much of regional and state politics. The federation's endorsement can swing an election, doom a bill or guarantee its passage. But the deep recession poses new challenges for labor and its allies at City Hall, in Sacramento and in Washington.

"Unions have to walk a fine line," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "They want to push to get as much as they can, but if they take too much and undermine the entities that employ them - be it private employers or local government - that could negatively affect unions and everyone else."

Unlike her late husband's comparatively reserved style, Durazo, 56, had long been known as a firebrand with a flair for the dramatic: On one occasion her former local organized a noisy protest in which low-wage hotel maids embroiled in a labor dispute made up beds - in the middle of rush-hour traffic on Figueroa Street.

Early last year she caused a stir when she publicly endorsed Barack Obama, at the time a long-shot contender, in the Democratic presidential race against Hillary Clinton, then the favorite of much of organized labor. Her close ally, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, another ex-union organizer, was national co-chairman of Clinton's campaign.

Now Durazo rides atop a Southern California labor movement that some critics deride as obsolete in the midst of a crisis economy, a guardian of bloated pensions and arcane workplace rules.

"Public-sector unions are beggaring the state," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

Not so, says Durazo, one of 11 children of Mexican immigrant farmworkers. Today's economic crisis, she argues, underscores the urgent need for more union jobs. Rebuilding the middle class is her often-repeated mantra. "We have to make sure that as many of our decent-paying jobs are protected as possible," she said.

Despite criticism as being intransigent, public-employee unions, she says, are ready to work "responsibly" with government to reduce budget deficits - while resisting "unilateral, draconian cuts." In the private sector, she says, workers must be prepared to stand up to corporate "greed," a management failing she cites in recent labor disputes.

Though union membership in California grew last year, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, union members represent just 18.4% of wage and salary workers - fewer than 1 in 5 employees. Nationally, the figure is 12.4 %.

Organized labor's top national priority is congressional passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposed law that would ease union organization drives. Labor and big business have spent fortunes on conflicting propaganda campaigns.

"As we look forward to rebuilding the economy, we have to ask: Are we going to rebuild it with poverty jobs?" said Durazo, arguing, for instance, that coming jobs in solar and wind power and weatherization should be union.

"If we do not have new rules about union organizing," she said, "I can guarantee you that these new 'green' jobs, these new technology jobs are going to be low-end, poverty-level jobs."

Like others in labor, Durazo sees the era of Obama, once a community organizer, as a singular opportunity. But she also bemoans the labor movement's deep divisions, including splits in her own union, Unite-Here, now in the midst of a fierce factional battle.

Durazo exudes pride over the Southern California labor movement's trajectory of growth: From "an ATM for politicians" into what she now calls a dynamic, truly rank-and-file movement, with substantial support of low-wage, new-immigrant workers, a group that organized labor once viewed with wariness, even hostility. The push for immigrant rights and expanded legal status is at the top of her agenda.

"We now do have the ability to make sure that our point of view is taken into consideration," Durazo said. "We've changed the political landscape."

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