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    Heart of Dixie

    Immigrant Workers Give New Direction to Los Angeles Unions

    Immigrant Workers Give New Direction to Los Angeles Unions

    Monica Almeida/The New York Times
    Maria Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, at a rally on Tuesday to thwart a sale of The Los Angeles Times to conservative billionaires.


    Published: May 17, 2013
    LOS ANGELES — As the head of the hotel workers’ union here in the 1990s, Maria Elena Durazo negotiated a contract with provisions rarely seen by labor unions: The jobs of workers who were deported or lost authorization to work in the United States would be held open for two years, with the same pay.

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    Monica Almeida/The New York Times
    Maria Elena Durazo attended a rally on Friday to get out the vote for a candidate in the Los Angeles mayoral race.

    It was remarkable protection for the immigrant workers who made up the bulk of the union’s membership and it implicitly acknowledged that many of those immigrants were working without legal papers.

    In the years since, Ms. Durazo, 60, has become one of the most prominent labor leaders advocating an overhaul of the country’s immigration policies. As the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, she presides over what is widely perceived as the most successful group of unions in the country. While union membership is declining nationally, it is growing in California, and much of that growth can be attributed to Latino immigrants.

    And many believe immigrants offer the best potential for growth in a movement that is often viewed as foundering.

    “You look around at who has the most difficult jobs, at who is doing the work we rely on every day, and it is immigrants,” Ms. Durazo said in an interview here. “If we look at what we can do for them, what we can do together, we see that there can be very important rewards that will improve their lives. We cannot fix the prosperity of the rest of the country without improving the prosperity of immigrants.”

    It is impossible to know just how many of the roughly 800,000 union members in Los Angeles are in the country illegally, often using fake Social Security numbers or other forged papers. But the county has an estimated 900,000 illegal immigrants, more than any other in the country, and according to the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California they make up about 9 percent of the state’s work force.

    The power of the heavily immigrant unions can be seen in huge protests in Los Angeles, as well as in the extensive voter outreach operations across the city. And while Ms. Durazo remains focused on the immigration debate in Congress, she is simultaneously marshaling her troops to help elect a new mayor here and prevent the sale of The Los Angeles Timesto the conservative billionaires Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch.

    In the mayoral race, the unions have backed Wendy Greuel, the city controller, against Eric M. Garcetti, a city councilman, and have spent millions helping her. This week, the union mailed fliers suggesting that if Ms. Greuel was elected, the minimum wage would be raised to $15. Ms. Greuel has said she would support raising wages at the city’s largest hotels to $15, but has not backed a citywide increase.

    Ms. Durazo has often enraged local business leaders, but successful campaigns to require a living wage in some of the city’s hotels and to unionize carwash workers have earned her respect and devotion among many immigrants, who often line up to see her as she travels around the country.

    “As the immigrant population starts to spread to other cities, you are going to see more and more attempts to recreate the kind of victories the unions have had here,” said Peter Dreier, a professor at Occidental College who has studied unions at the local and national levels. He pointed to the successful campaigns by janitors in Texas and Florida as recent examples. “We see clearly that immigrants are willing to play a significant role in politics and that they are used to being part of a movement.”

    “Los Angeles became the model and now Maria Elena is spreading the gospel,” Dr. Dreier said.

    But critics of immigration reform take a far less charitable view, saying that the unions have failed to save jobs for American-born workers.

    “They are simply searching for ways to make themselves relevant again,” said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group opposed to the immigration bill being discussed in the Senate. “Particularly in the large service industries, they are coming along to protect the people working in these jobs illegally.”

    Ms. Durazo grew up as one of 11 children of Mexican immigrant farmworkers who traveled all over Central California to find jobs picking crops. She went to college and began work with unions and later got a law degree.

    In 1989, she took over as the head of the local chapter of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union after local leaders fought against providing Spanish translations of information for their members. At the time, some viewed her victory as a coup, while others saw it as an inevitable change because of the shifting demographics.

    Much of labor’s success in Los Angeles is attributed to Ms. Durazo’s husband, Miguel Contreras, who as the head of the county labor federation built a coalition of elected officials, clergy and civil rights advocates. In 2006, a year after his death, Ms. Durazo was elected to his post of executive secretary-treasurer, overseeing 350 unions, including government workers, teachers, janitors and security guards.

    Mr. Contreras, with help from Ms. Durazo and other labor leaders, had successfully begun recruiting new candidates for political office, including several Latinos who had long supported immigrant rights and labor unions, said Madeline Janis, the national policy director of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which she helped found with the support of Ms. Durazo in the 1990s.

    “Unlike almost any other place, the leadership here realized that immigrants could get out and knock on doors and convince people to vote, even if they themselves were not eligible to do so,” Ms. Janis said. “That really transformed California politics and was a precursor to what is happening nationally today.”

    Many say Ms. Durazo helped make immigration a priority for unions nationally by framing the issue as an extension of the civil rights struggle. In 2003, she entered the national stage with the “Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride,” stopping across the country to draw attention to the plight of illegal immigrants.

    “There is now a collective understanding that what is happening to immigrant workers — the kinds of abuse and theft they experience every day — is just wrong,” said Angelica Salas, the executive director of the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. Ms. Salas said that workers’ immigration status frequently thwarts the unions’ efforts to organize new employees or improve conditions. “We hear all the time that people fear speaking out because they will be fired or deported.”

    Eliseo Medina, the international secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, said unions’ attitudes toward illegal immigrants had changed over the decades in part because more Latinos like him and Ms. Durazo have climbed through the ranks.

    “Most of us are only one or two steps removed from a friend or a relative who is undocumented,” Mr. Medina said. “We all understand that this is a much more of an entire community issue. When people started equating illegal with Latinos, it forced us to come together.”

    While many say that immigration status often stops workers from unionizing, Mr. Medina said the efforts to organize low-wage workers here showed that many immigrants were “fearless.”

    “Immigration and labor has become so integrated, because in order to organize workers you are going to have to deal with immigrant rights,” said Victor Narro of the Labor Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Immigrants are really the source of optimism for the labor movement.”

    Last edited by Jean; 08-17-2013 at 04:27 PM.

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