Miguel Contreras

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Miguel Contreras


Miguel Contreras, 1952-2005, was a California labor activist. He was married to Maria Elena Durazo.

Head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor from 1996 until his death in 2005, Contreras was responsible for transforming the Los Angeles labor movement into a political force by mobilizing the immigrant workforce. Born into a family of farm workers, he started his career in labor as an activist and organizer for the United Farm Workers union. [1]

Miguel Contreras' funeral took place on May 12, 2005, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels with Cardinal Roger M. Mahony as Principal Celebrant. Pall Bearers were Mario Salazar, Alex Contreras, Antonio Contreras, David Contreras, Juan Contreras, Pablo Contreras, Charles Lester, and Arturo Rodriguez.

Union career

Contreras as a young UFW activist

After meeting Cesar Chavez at a rally for Robert Kennedy, the Contreras family because active in 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.

After stints working on the grape boycott in Toronto, Canada, organizing lettuce workers in Salinas and helping lead local hotel workers in a month-long strike in San Francisco, 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. She eventually was elected president of the local, and her views on Contreras changed the two married in 1988.

In 1994, he was tapped as the Federation's political director and immediately sought to reshape the unions' role. Contreras applied himself to winning over the often-quarreling local union leaders and insinuating himself into the city's power structure.

Since Contreras was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the Federation in 1996, becoming the first nonwhite to win the seat, the unions' ranks have grown by 125,000 to more than 800,000, an increase fueled mostly by the city's burgeoning Latino immigrant population.

In 2000, Contreras helped lead a strike by janitors, many of them poor immigrants, against building owners in Los Angeles. The work stoppage ended with a new contract for the janitors that was touted as a model for blue-collar labor organizations across the country. Union members celebrated with a march through the city.[2]

Fred Ross influence

Fred Ross conceived the voter outreach strategy that not only elected Ed Roybal as Los Angeles’ first Latino Councilmember in 1949, but also laid the groundwork for the Obama campaign’s Latino voter outreach campaign in 2008. Ross trained UFW organizers Marshall Ganz, Miguel Contreras and Eliseo Medina in voter outreach strategies to reach “occasional” voting Latinos, and these three took what they learned to California politics. Ganz and Medina then brought this voter outreach model to the Obama campaign.[3]

Medina, Contreras friendship

Eliseo Medina was a close friend and ally, of the late, Los Angeles labor leader Miguel Contreras. [4]

Changing Demographics, and Voting in California

Beginning in 1994, California began to change. The numbers of immigrants who became citizens grew exponentially each year. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s statistics, prior to Proposition 187, the number of new citizens in California each year had been a steady 50,000 to 60,000. In 1994, the number jumped to 118,567. In 1995, it was 171,285. In 1996, 378,014.

Also in 1994, a husband and wife team, Miguel Contreras the leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and Maria Elena Durazo, then the leader of the Hotel Workers in Los Angeles (later Miguel’s successor at the Labor Fed) began something new: they linked organizing immigrant workers to organizing immigrant voters. And they hired a young immigrant-rights firebrand, Fabian Nunez, as he protested Proposition 187 by carrying the Mexican flag down Broadway in Los Angeles.

Nunez served as L.A. Labor’s political director and eventually became the Speaker of the Assembly.

The campaigns Durazo, Contreras and consultant Richie Ross, developed broke new ground, organized new union workers, and increased the political impact Latino voters had on California politics – simultaneously tripling their number of registered voters, increasing the Democratic share of that vote by 50%, and doubling the percentage of the total votes cast in California from Latinos.

Through the rest of the 1990′s our campaigns focused on legislative races in Los Angeles. We succeeded. But it was all small.[5]

Electing Schiff and Harman

In early 2000, labor led a coalition of immigrants’ rights organizations in an amnesty campaign that filled the L.A. Sports Arena with sixteen thousand supporters inside and over four thousand more cheering outside. Miguel Contreras, along with Maria Elena Durazo and SEIU international vice president Eliseo Medina, set about to harness this power politically. They set up the Organization of Los Angeles Workers (OLAW) to develop a cadre of skilled union members who would be paid their regular salary to work with the union on political campaigns (these are known as lost-timers). In addition to HERE Local 11, SEIU Local 1877 (Justice for Janitors), and UNITE members, full-time walkers came initially from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, Clinica Romero (a Salvadoran immigrant solidarity organization), and a number of Mexican and Guatemalan hometown associations.

OLAW's first outing in 2000 focused sixty fulltime walkers on two Republican-occupied congressional districts. In a parallel effort the UFW took on a third congressional race in L.A. Operating outside traditionally acknowledged Latino communities, OLAW targeted fortythousand Latinos in these previously Republican districts for turnout, using candidate comparisons, a pledge card, and a “stand up and be counted” message to move these voters to the polls. Two of these three Republican seats became Democratic with the election of Adam Schiff and Jane Harman in the November election.[6]

Los Angeles Martinez Jobs Bill support rally

On October 18 1997, Matthew Martinez, State senators Hilda Solis and Diane Watson, City Councilman Richard Alarcon, Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles Federation of Labor and Geraldine Washington, president of the Los Angeles NAACP addressed a Los Angeles "show us the living wage jobs" rally, as part of a national day of action, calling on Congress to pass the Martinez Jobs Bill. there were concurrent rallies in nearly 20 cities, organized by the Communist Party USA dominated National Labor-Community Coalition For Public Works Jobs. Pastor Cecil Murray of the First AME Church in South Los Angeles sponsored the rally.[7]

Socialists organize to "challenge for power" in Los Angeles

Trevor email 1 (3).jpg

On March 11, 1998, Los Angeles Democratic Socialists of America leader Steve Tarzynski wrote an email to another Los Angeles DSA leader Harold Meyerson.

Tarzynski listed 25 people he thought should be on an "A-list" of "25 or so leaders/activists/intellectuals and/or "eminent persons" who would gather periodically to theorize/strategize about how to rebuild a progressive movement in our metropolitan area that could challenge for power."

Tarzynski listed himself, Harold Meyerson, Karen Bass, Sylvia Castillo, Gary Phillips, Joe Hicks, Richard Rothstein, Steve Cancian, Larry Frank, Torie Osborn, Rudy Acuna, Aris Anagnos, Abby Arnold, Carl Boggs, Blase Bonpane, Rick Brown, Stanley Sheinbaum, Alice Callahan, Jim Conn, Peter Dreier, Maria Elena Durazo, Miguel Contreras, Mike Davis, Bill Gallegos, Bob Gottlieb, Kent Wong, Russell Jacoby, Bong Hwan Kim, Paula Litt (and Barry Litt, with a question mark), Peter Olney, Derek Shearer, Clancy Sigal and Anthony Thigpenn.

Included in a suggested elected officials sub-group were Mark Ridley-Thomas, Gloria Romero, Jackie Goldberg, Gil Cedillo, Tom Hayden, Antonio Villaraigosa, Paul Rosenstein and Congressmen Xavier Becerra, Henry Waxman and Maxine Waters.

Tarzynski went on to write "I think we should limit the group to 25 max, otherwise group dynamics begins to break down....As i said, I would like this to take place in a nice place with good food and drink...it should properly be an all day event."

Cesar Chavez rally

On November 6 1999, a rally was held in Los Angeles, at Placita Olvera kiosk, calling for a holiday to mark the birth of Cesar Chavez. Contact for the rally was Evelina Alarcon of the United Farm Workers and the Communist Party USA.

Speakers included Dolores Huerta of the UFW, and Majority leader of the California State Senate, Richard Alarcon, who introduced Senate Bill-984, which would make March 31, Chavez's birthday a paid public holiday.

Also speaking were Los Angeles Board of Supervisors member Gloria Molina, who introduced a similar measure at county level, Art Pulaski, of the California State Federation of Labor executive, Los Angeles City Council member Jackie Goldberg, Los Angeles Federation of Labor executive member Miguel Contreras, and Paul Chavez, son of Cesar, and president of the National Farm Worker Service Center.[8]

The Next Agenda Conference

Progressive LA: The Next Agenda Conference was held On October 20, 2001 in Los Angeles at the California Science Center.

The Progressive Los Angeles Network (PLAN) and the Institute for America’s Future "will co-sponsor an important conference -- the Next Agenda Conference -- designed to celebrate recent victories, build upon Los Angeles’ progressive momentum, and link local issues with a national progressive agenda. The conference will also help solidify a more strategic and integrated progressive movement in Los Angeles".

Speakers included Assemblywoman Miguel Contreras, LA Federation of Labor[9]

Supporting the ILWU

The Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jr. joined elected officials, labor leaders and more than 300 unionists Sept. 5, 2002, at a press conference at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor headquarters, to send a powerful message to the Bush Administration in solidarity with the ILWU.

“Bush, stay off the docks!” roared Rev. Jackson with ILWU longshore Local 13 President Ramon Ponce De Leon and a stage full of prominent leaders by his side.

“The ILWU is not alone. Labor in Los Angeles is with you and we have a lot of friends in the City Council, state legislature and Congress,” said Miguel Contreras, Executive Secretary Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who chaired the press conference. “If we need to be down on the docks, we will be there with you!”

Los Angeles City Council member Janice Hahn (San Pedro) rocked the press conference when she shouted, “If the federal government insists on waging war, then the brothers and sisters of labor and the city of Los Angeles will stand behind the ILWU.”

Harry Bridges fought for the right to strike and no one can take that away, and we have 3.8 million residents behind us,” chimed in Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti (Echo Park), a co-initiator with Hahn of a resolution unanimously passed by the City Council. Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn has also sent a letter to Bush calling on him not to intervene.

Assembly member Alan Lowenthal (D-San Pedro), joined on stage by many legislators, upped that ante, announcing that the state legislature also just passed a resolution calling on Bush to butt out. “We represent 34 million people and this is our line to Bush—stay out of California!” Lowenthal demanded.[10]

Supporting Villaraigosa

Former Speaker of the State Assembly Antonio Villaraigosa made history on March 4 2003, when he won an East Los Angeles seat in the 14th council district of the nation’s second largest city.

Villaraigosa, a former organizer for the United Teachers of Los Angeles, ascended with 56 percent of the vote, taking the seat away from Councilman Nick Pacheco, and, for the first time in the city’s history, defeating an incumbent councilman in a primary election.

“We are going to organize families and work together to elevate the quality of life of this district,” said an emotional Antonio Villaraigosa to hundreds of labor union and community supporters who filled the Plaza del Sol hall in Boyle Heights, a working class, Mexican American and immigrant community. “This victory clearly says that we will not be forgotten. We are human beings and we deserve respect,” he continued as volunteers cheered, cried, and chanted, “Si se puede!”

“This is just the beginning,” said the jubilant Miguel Contreras, executive secretary treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who chaired the election night celebration.[11]

References