Politics

Maria Elena Durazo to leave powerful county Federation of Labor

Maria Elena Durazo will leave the county Federation of Labor to work on immigration issues for Unite Here.
Maria Elena Durazo will leave the county Federation of Labor to work on immigration issues for Unite Here.
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The head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, widely considered to be one of the most powerful figures in city and county politics, will leave her post to work on organizing immigrants for a national hotel workers' union. 

Maria Elena Durazo, who is also the widow of labor leader Miguel Contreras, will start her job as the vice president of Immigration, Civil Rights and Diversity for Unite Here on Jan. 1.

The move comes just a month after labor scored a major victory in getting the city of Los Angeles to require a $15.37 an hour wage for non-unionized hotel workers. It expanded a similar living wage law which the city passed for LAX-area hotels in 2007. Unite Here Local 11 was able to organize workers at five hotels in the airport area after the 2007 ordinance passed. 

"I have proudly led a movement that has extended the hand of labor to those who need us the most—those workers whose access to the American Dream have been blocked by poverty and callous employers," Durazo said in a statement. 

The county fed is an umbrella group that includes 300 unions and 600,000 workers. It has tremendous power in both L.A. city and county politics in part because of its ability to turn out voters - and raise money.  Six years ago, the labor group spent $8 million to get Mark Ridley-Thomas elected to the board. During last year's election for mayor, city council and school board, the county Fed spent $1.8 million, according to the Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

"From the minimum wage to immigration reform, our city is on the vanguard of so many critical issues," Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement, "and I'm confident that my friend Maria Elena will take what we're doing here in L.A. and successfully move the needle nationally."

The fed is endorsing Sheila Kuehl for Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in next week's elections. Unions affiliated with the county fed have spent about $1 million to get Kuehl elected.

Council President Herb Wesson called Durazo "an effective and dynamic leader" and "a master of strategy and tactics for improving the lives of workers across the nation."

"She’s one of the foremost power brokers in the city—there’s no question about that," Jaime Regalado, formerly of the Pat Brown Institute, told Los Angeles Mazagine in 2013.

Durazo led Unite Here's Local 11 Chapter prior to taking the reins of the fed in 2006. She called the decision to join Unite Here "the next step in my life’s work."

"I campaigned to become the leader of Local 11 at a time when immigrant hotel workers were not entitled to participate in their union if they didn’t understand English," she said. "My late husband, Miguel Contreras and I worked to empower immigrants and non-immigrants at the ballot box, bargaining table and workplace."

Contreras was the son of San Joaquin Valley farm workers and had worked under one of the heroes of the labor movement Cesar E. Chavez, the late co-founded of the United Farm Workers union. He was the executive secretary–treasurer of the county fed from 1996 until his death in 2005.