Maria Elena Durazo | Samanta Helou Hernandez for "187"

Maria Elena Durazo and the Generation That Changed Unions

Maria Elena Durazo: My name is Maria Elena Durazo, and I was elected one year ago in 2018 to the California State Senate, representing District 24 in Los Angeles. In the early '90s, I had just gotten elected as president of the hotel and restaurant workers union, Local 11. When I was elected, it was around some very contentious issues. We were in the process of rebuilding a local union that really needed to be restructured and re-activated with new leaders, and negotiating new contracts with employers in this industry. This was our new mission, from what had existed prior to my election.

Well, what changed the labor movement was that there were a few unions in Los Angeles, starting with the change in my union, a change in our leadership in 1988. We started to change the labor movement around the issue of low-income workers and immigrant workers, that in order for the labor movement in this generation to be strengthened, in order for the labor movement to get stronger and grow and represent so many hundreds of thousands of workers in Los Angeles that were working at very low wages, we had to invite the immigrant workers, invite low-income workers to join the labor movement.

We had to connect as a labor movement with the broader community. We had to see the low-income workers, immigrant workers as part and parcel of an entire community, not just their workplace, but rather, what was their life like? What was it like to raise a family on what they were earning? How were they being treated in their workplaces? What was the level of exploitation that was taking place? We had to make that all part of a single movement. Not "Well, here's a group of workers in this particular workplace. What do they need, and let's try to change that with the employer, do battle with the employer to change it." It had to be a whole different way of looking at our community.

What we tried to do with a few unions, starting with us and the hotel and restaurant workers, a few years later, the janitors with our beloved late president of that union, Mike Garcia, the Justice for Janitors moment, that strike. We also started a homecare workers campaign for those workers. There were the drywall workers in the construction industry that were immigrant. We really tried to make a much bigger movement than a single workplace by workplace. We would never be able to bring justice to those workers if it was a single small workplace by workplace.

Well, 1986 was fairly early in the transformation of the labor movement, the low-income workers, and immigrant workers. In 1986, I believe we were about the only union that had really committed leadership to inviting immigrants into the labor movement, inviting their families to be part of the labor movement. We took full advantage of reaching out to immigrant workers with services in order to help them take advantage of the 1986 Orca.

It was really important to develop this trust, to show that we're willing to help them change their lives, even if they weren't a member of a union. In our union, we received a significant grant from my National Union to do this service. We hired attorneys, we hired paralegals, we went to workplaces after workplace amongst our own membership. We provided this service so that they could see we cared about the whole family, not only, again, their workplace, the shift at their workplace. Although this was a big opportunity, some of the unions took advantage of it, many didn't really understand what kind of connection and opportunity it was.

Also, there was an organization, for example, started that connected labor and the community to try to provide these services. It was really an extraordinary opportunity, which if you thought just a few years ahead, the law provided that you could become a citizen within five years with this amnesty that we had just won. I had been involved with immigration issues for 15 years before that. It was a significant victory for our community overall. We tried to take advantage of this, again, to make that connection. If you looked ahead, within only five years of applying for the amnesty, you could actually become a citizen of this country.

Not only was it helping to stabilize undocumented immigrants, it was also creating a stronger foundation for political involvement and political leverage and political strength, just five years away. Five years, that's all. We would begin to see the growth in the number of legal residents, the growth in the number of citizens, the growth in the number of voters from these communities. This was 1994. In my union, my particular union of hotel and restaurant workers, we had already begun this as this transformation within our union, a very significant change that got the attention of other unions and the labor movement to see that we could make a change in the union that also had a much, much bigger impact.

I was president of my union, of the hotel and restaurant workers union. We were engaged already for a few years in some battles with employers. This was a very significant cultural change in the industry. They had gotten used to, unfortunately, because of prior union leadership, the employers had gotten used to paying whatever minimal increases in wages, they treated the workers badly, but it still wasn't as bad as being non-union. They still had a union contract that they could use. We wanted more. For too many years, the employers had taken full advantage of this situation in the union.

We were engaged in some real battles. I had met, for example, Reverend James Lawson, who was an internationally known strategist on nonviolent direct action philosophy. We had connected with other organizers of other unions. We're in a move-- growing the beginnings, we were in the beginnings of a movement. It was both extremely difficult because we had not done that before, but at the same time, it was very exciting. Those immigrant workers saw that this was a chance for them to make a change in their lives, to make a change in their family's lives.

Again, because this is the beginnings of a movement in our union, when Prop 187 happened, we were ready for the fight. We were ready to fight back, and we were ready to do it in an organized way, in a way that wasn't just anger and out on the streets, but in a way that was going to have a much bigger, permanent impact in our community. Not just be angry about Prop 187 and overturning Prop 187, but rather, what was a bigger vision that we could incorporate into these battles?

Prop 187 was one of those battles. It was extremely offensive. We were outraged. I was outraged. Workers were outraged that they would be treated that way with this Prop 187. Basically being told, "You're nothing, you're worthless. You don't deserve public education, you don't deserve services. Everybody around you should be looking out for you and reporting you." That kind of-- I'm sure there was a mix of fear as well, but more than anything, it was, "How dare you? We work hard in this country. We came to work hard. We’re sacrificing with our families to help these industries and this economy, and you're going to tell us that we're not worthy of public education for our children?" It was outrageous.

Well, at best, there were some electeds, including Democrats, there were some who saw the injustice of Prop 187 and saw that it was wrong. They were slow to respond, to come around but there was a handful who eventually came around. What it communicated was a hesitancy, a hesitancy towards our community. A hesitancy to take risk and to stand strong with hardworking men and women and families who were under attack. That hesitancy really upset us, was really upsetting but we're grownups, we know we have to deal with the reality of that time. While we pushed the electeds, we also knew that ultimately, either they weren't going to become stronger representatives of our community or we were going to have to unelect them and elect a new generation of elected officials.

We knew we had to create a bottom-up movement to show that not only could we march in the streets and pick it in the streets, but that we also were training real troops, a real army of men and women who were going to go knock on those doors, who were going to go on the phones, who were going to be spokespersons for either a candidate, a good candidate, or for an issue like Prop 187. We had to show them. To give them a backbone, we had to build a bottom-up stronger movement. We had to invest both in the moment as well as longer-term.

Now, this was not very well-understood. Seriously, this was not understood by most elected officials. They were so used to-- Although we had won many victories since Roy ball was elected to the city council, there were victories in our past up until this moment, but to have a significant change in the political landscape was going to take more than what we had seen in the past, more on our side. That was the only way that we were going to change the attitude of electeds of being so weak when it came to our issues and the immigration issue.

There was enormous racism that was being expressed through Prop 187. You can imagine just like we're facing today with President Trump, that Pete Wilson and Prop 187 had the effect of stirring up that racism. There were all these electeds. The Republicans reacted the worst because they joined the Democrats. A couple of them were really good and strong, but mostly it was a weak reaction. Our response had to be-- We knew that after the November election, whatever happened with Prop 187, here was an opportunity to grow something much bigger and stronger and more permanent.

I could say very comfortably that through our outreach with our own members, housekeepers and cooks and dishwashers, I could say that through outreach to them, hopefully, there was also the influence over their sons and daughters. It wasn't a direct outreach to the students in the schools as much as it was an outreach to them through their parents because we know that they cared about their parents. When they saw their parents being actively involved, I believe that had a big influence.

I think what labor brought was a really critical role of, one, resources. Labor movement had resources. Now, my union, in particular, we weren't a wealthy union. However, our union was an institution that was consistently contributing resources to this organizing of our community. We were investing resources, the kind of money it takes to do organizing, to have full-time organizers, to do this kind of work. We had the resources to organize marches. We had the resources, the kind of resources that many nonprofit small organizations don't have. We were able to pull that together and do it in such a way that it really allowed for a consistency, and it allowed for a strength that you could rely on, very much the role of labor-- That was part of the role of labor, providing the resources to be able to move in the right direction.

We also provided resources of training leaders. Recruiting leaders in our hotels and restaurants, the other unions within their members, and training them. Training them about how to be leaders, training them how to be organizers, how to talk to their co-workers. When people are afraid, what do you say? It's a similar skill when they want to go knock on the doors for a particular candidate that we really wanted to elect or against or for a particular issue that was on the ballot measure. What do you do when you knock on those doors? You show your strength, you show your passion. That kind of training led to hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women able to contribute to this movement that had not existed before, that had never been tapped.

What we contributed was maybe something that had been used in a small way in the past. Usually, there were checks unions wrote out to a candidate running for office, or they might get a handful of volunteers here and there. That was so different from investing in our own movement, not just sending the check to a candidate for office. Well, there were electeds like Pete Wilson, candidates like Pete Wilson who just didn't have their ear on the ground. They didn't know what was going on as far as immigrants organizing the changes in the labor movement. Frankly, they felt like if they could win by stirring up racism and discrimination, they felt they were going to win.

They turned out to be right in the sense of they won the immediate elections. They won many times through the various cycles that came after that, but they didn't understand what was going on on the ground. They didn't understand that there were union leaders who were committed, who had strong relationships with community leaders. There weren't that many of us both in the labor movement and in the community, but there were enough that we had these strong relationships.

Pete Wilson didn't understand that. He didn't know that what was going to come as a result of Prop 187 was a much stronger California and a much more pro-immigrant California. He just wanted to win that election. I don't think he was concerned about how far down the road this was going to help him or help Republicans. I think because they didn't have their ear to the ground, they were so confident that the racism that they were stirring up was going to last for a really long time or forever.

Well, I remember vividly the beginning of the match, where people had started to gather. I had never been in a match that big before in my whole life. I had never been in a gathering that big in my whole life. I had been to the Chicano Moratorium in Fresno, California, and that was probably a thousand people, but this was all-- I could see the growth in the number of people gathering and it was quite inspiring. I could see that it was families that were gathering. It wasn't limited to a stereotype of an activist with their fist raised up in the air. It really was working-class families of various generations, from parents pushing their kids and strollers to the older generation and everywhere in between.

It was really just a very-- You could tell it was a really special moment for our community to be able to express our outrage at propone 87. That made me feel like this was something that wasn't just going to go away, and it was up to us to figure out how to keep it going, how to make sure that it just didn't fizzle away. I was both excited, I was so happy, and at the same time beginning to think, how could this become something that continues on? I don't remember all the people speaking on the stage or anything, but I remember there was a stage. I remember we marched from the beginning down to downtown. It was big. It was just really big. That's what I remember the most.

Well, the issue of carrying Mexican flags or not continued on for several years. It wasn't something that just came up for that one march and then went away. It became something that we continue to debate within organizations and in the movement. There were those of us frankly, personally, I didn't think there was anything wrong with showing pride of our history and our culture and our roots. I didn't think there was anything wrong. I'd been to the Irish parade. It's a very natural thing, especially in this country, to show pride of your roots, your immigrant roots, but it was getting to the point where, because the media and electeds were attacking and attacking that to me, it wasn't worth the battle to distract us from what was the real issue.

Slowly I became an advocate for let's show others that, yes, we care about our roots, but we're in the US where many of us are citizens or born here or naturalized, and we care about this country and we love this country. For those that are attacking us, and because it's not a violation of a principle to carry an American flag, it really does relate to who we are, what we're about, what we have been for generations and generations. I transformed to let's not use the Mexican flags, let's take that off the table as an issue to be used against us, and let's focus on the real issue. The real issue is respecting the hard work of our communities, regardless of where they're born and what language they speak.

Well, the political landscape changed enormously from 1994 to today. It's changed because we took on a very different approach to what I think might've happened in other parts of the country whenever there are attacks on people of color or immigrants or women. We wanted to build something lasting. Part of that was to build organization of trained, skilled organizers, meaning those men and women learning how to reach out to our communities. It really made a difference.

When we went out to work to elect Gil Cedillo to be assembly member, the community, the immigrant citizens, those immigrants who had become citizens, had never been talked to. Nobody had ever reached out to them. When they saw that people like themselves, immigrants like themselves were knocking on their doors, asking them to please exercise your right to vote, go vote this day, they were pretty surprised that anybody cared. It was a good introduction to the political system. Some of them were recent citizens because of the amnesty bill. Some had been citizens prior to that but had never really been approached.

They were treated as this other group of the not-likely voters. They were put in that category, and because they were poor, they didn't have money, so why would anybody reach out to them? The labor movement started to reach out to them in a continuous way, and I use Gil Cedillo's election as an example of that. It brought out voters that nobody expected. They were not on the radar. They weren't supposed to vote. Nobody even knew that they existed. When we did that work of paying attention to them, inviting them to vote, in fact, saying to them, it was their responsibility to vote, that was a whole different change in the political landscape, and I would say it was because of the Labor movement we were able to build that and use that to transform Los Angeles' political landscape.

Maybe the fear of a demographic changes another way of saying we're stoking up racism in our communities. It's a age-old tactic that's used to pit us against each other. Changes in demographics. When? When the Italians came? When the Irish came? Yes, that's a tactic that's used by those who are-- "Fear" of demographic change is code word for "use racism to pit people against each other."

I think it's done with a sole purpose of creating an economy that works for those who are wealthy and big companies, and it works against working people because when you have a native-born, whether he's white or Mexican-American, being afraid of an immigrant to take his job, again, that's just code word for, "I should have that and you shouldn't," but it's really meant to create an underclass of workers. It's meant to create an exploitable class of workers. It's meant to create different tiers of workers, so some could feel better than others, but in reality, we're all in the same boat.

I see this fear of the change in demographics has a very deliberate intention to it, and that intention is to create the kind of economy where we're all getting a whole lot less than what we deserve because there's fewer and fewer people who are making the profits. I've seen this over and over and over again. When I started with garment workers, it was the same thing. It wasn't because native-born citizens wanted to go work in a sweatshop, that wasn't it, but it was used as an excuse to keep them divided. That was a very common thing that happened in the overall labor movement is they were convinced that somehow they were going to be better off without all these immigrants here. That's not true.

We changed the National Labor movement through Los Angeles, through California so that workers in industries all over the country could see that we had to defend immigrant workers, we had to fight for them. We had to have equality for them when it came to wages and enforcement of laws and labor laws and health and safety laws. That as long as there was that group that was so exploitable, everybody was going to be held down, and we were all going to be in a bigger mess. It's a tactic or it's a strategy that's very successfully used, unfortunately, to deprive us, to deprive all workers of what we deserve.

In Sacramento, no doubt that we're in a different place politically from the time of 1994. However, I had a bill, just to use as an example, to expand Medi-Cal, which is for very low-income people. To expand it from zero to 18 years of age, undocumented, to everybody. That we should make no distinctions. We are all Californians. There are men and women who come from families who work and contribute so much to this economy. Yet, I still hear arguments about, "Oh, no, they're undocumented. They're illegals." We can't do that.

We moved the needle forward a bit to now, and there were more young adults covered. Why aren't our seniors covered? Why aren't others covered, who are undocumented if they are really going to be treated as Californians equal to everybody else? We got a ways to go. We have a ways to go. We had other legislation that would apply if you had a working person's credit and for your taxes but that didn't apply to undocumented. They work hard. We have a way to go. I'm proud of how far we've gotten. I think all Californians should be proud of how far we've gotten, but we have a ways to go.

Well, I would say that some of the challenges that are still ahead for us is that there are those on the Prop 187 who saw it as a model for the rest of the country. They won. They passed the ballot measure, they stirred up the racism, they elected Pete Wilson. As far as they're concerned, they won that election. They continued their Republican Party and those who thought like them about what Prop 187-- They continued to use that in the rest of the state. It's not something that just changed overnight. Our political landscape didn't change overnight but they continued to use that in the state. They continued to elect for several cycles, but it gradually changed. They continued to elect people who are anti-immigrant.

They then went beyond California and took it to other states. Years later, you have SB 1070 in Arizona. You have, in Arizona, also, the legislation that was passed to stop ethnic studies, to not allow ethnic studies in public education. There are a number of examples of how they continue to use this. In our own California, there was the affirmative action, a ballot measure that was passed. There were a number of ways in which they continue to use that racism and those attacks against communities of color and pit us against each other.

Then, like I said, they used it in other states. There's probably states still today where the anti-immigrant hysteria is used to try to elect. Now, the good side is that we learned that we could deal with that. We could beat back that racism. Voters changed in California. Not only did immigrant citizens begin to vote in larger numbers and those numbers grew, but the electorate changed in California. They began to understand with all the ways in which we showed housekeepers just fighting for a living wage or janitors just fighting for a living wage. We showed the electorate that we're much better off as a state, our economy is better off when they're included and when they're paid good wages.

We changed the electorate in a number-- That was part of it. It took us all these years, but we're now at the point where being an immigrant is held up in a more respectful way in the state. I still think we have a lot more to do to show the respect but nonetheless, it's a very different state from back then. The lessons are, one, you don't run away from the racism, you call it what it is. It was racism that was used to pass Prop 187. You don't run away from it, you face it. You challenge voters, you talk to voters. You talk to voters one by one, you go into communities. If there's tension between African Americans and immigrants, what is that tension? Bring leaders together.

We did something that grew years later in the year 2003. We did the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, a national movement to take us out of the environment. After the September 11 attacks, it became a very anti-immigrant environment in this country. To take us out of that, we did a national march and bus ride of 900 people from all over the country landing in Washington, DC, and then New York City. That changed because we did real organizing on the ground in small communities, getting law enforcement to come out, clergy to come out.

These lessons of building coalition, the lesson of talking to not the usual suspects to join the movement, to stand up for what are real human values, all of that grew out of what we started to do around Prop 187, grew it to another scale, grew it statewide. I think we grew it nationally as well.

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Samanta Helou Hernandez. 

Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.

From the fields of California as a child with her farmworker parents to leadership in the transformation of the union movement and now, a seat in the California Senate, Maria Elena Durazo has been at the forefront of major issues in the state.

She was born the seventh child in a family of eleven children to migrant workers. Growing up, she traveled with her family, following the crops throughout California and Oregon, an experience that marked her and set the stage for who she was to become.

The family experience what most migrant workers do and have for generations: they moved from crop to crop, were poorly paid and had no benefits. Durazo lost a baby brother due to the lack of medical care in the field.

Despite difficult beginnings, she went to St. Mary's College in Moraga, California. She graduated in 1975 and got involved in the Chicano Movement, marching with the Chicano Moratorium in Fresno.

Shortly after, she was hired as an organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (later called UNITE, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees).

This started Maria Elena Durazo on decades of work as a union organizer and leader. It also placed her smack in the middle of the moment of potential transformation in the union movement.

At the time, unions in the United States were facing a choice: to continue seeing every immigrant worker as a threat to American ones or to grow by incorporating the latter.

In 1983, Maria Elena joined the Hotel and Restaurant Worker's Union Local 11 as an organizer, and two years later, she earned a law degree at the People's College of Law. 

In 1989, she was elected President of HERE Local 11. She led a change in how workers were being organized to join the union and how the organization sought to influence policy around them. The previous year she had married fellow union activist Miguel Contreras.

She would preside over HERE Local 11 until 2006, leading campaign after high-profile campaign, which made her a familiar face to many in Southern California. But in 1994, when Proposition 187 came about, her union was one of the few engaged in recruiting and training leaders among the immigrant workers.

“We were not a rich union, but we were provided resources to organize our community, training housekeepers and cooks and dishwashers to be leaders, what to say when you knock on doors. That kind of training led to hundreds if not thousands of men and women able to contribute to this movement that had not existed before,” she says.

Although 187 passed, she says, it had unintended consequences for those who pushed it. “Many of these electeds like Pete Wilson did not have their ear to the ground….he didn't know that what was going to come out as a result of Prop 187 was a much stronger and pro-immigrant California; he just wanted to win the election.”

The aftermath of the initiative changed the political landscape, and Durazo believes that labor had much to do with it, by reaching out to immigrant voters, using other immigrants. “We started to reach out in a continuous way; it brought out voters that nobody expected.” In 1996, she became the first Latina elected to the Executive Board of HERE International Union.

After the terrorist attacks of 911, the anti-immigrant wave crested again, and Durazo helped organize the "immigrant workers freedom ride," which was a national movement to raise the profile of immigrant workers at the time.  In 2004, she became the Executive Vice President of UNITE-HERE International.

After her husband died in 2005, Durazo was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, a position he held before her.  She and Contreras have two children, Mario and Michael.

In 2008, she served as Vice-Chair of the Democratic National Committee and national co-chair of the Barack Obama Presidential Campaign. She has also served on many commissions and boards.

In 2018, she entered the fray for elected office for the first time and won a seat in the California State Senate, representing District 24 in Los Angeles.

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