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Interview with Miguel Contreras, by Ruth Milkman and Kent Wong

This article was originally featured in Issue #10 of the New Labor Forum back in June 2002. We regret to inform our readers that Miguel Contreras passed away in 2005. 


Miguel Contreras is the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the second largest central labor council in the country, which represents over 800,000 union members.  In recent years, Los Angeles has emerged as a focal point of the new labor movement and was recognized at the November 2001 AFL-CIO Convention as a “Union City.”

The Los Angeles labor movement has won significant victories in both organizing and in politics.  More than 100,000 new members have been recruited by Los Angeles unions in recent years, including 74,000 home care workers who were successfully organized in 1999.  In 2000, the janitors’ strike in Los Angeles gained national attention and resulted in a major victory for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).  A few months later, the L.A. labor movement organized an unprecedented “town hall” for immigrant rights, attracting 20,000 participants.  Los Angeles has the biggest concentration of foreign-born workers of any city in the United States, and the labor movement there has played a key role in organizing immigrants and in helping to position the AFL-CIO nationally to be a leader in the struggle for immigrant rights.

Under Miguel’s leadership, the L.A. County Fed has also been a major force in city politics, mobilizing voters, among them the burgeoning ranks of the city’s Latino citizens, at the polls as well as on the picket lines.    Most of the candidates whom the Fed has supported in recent years in races for local, statewide, and even national office have been successfully elected.  In Spring 2001, the Los Angeles labor movement aggressively supported the mayoral candidacy of Antonio Villaraigosa, who came in first place during the primaries and then narrowly lost in the runoff against another prolabor Democrat, James Hahn, now the city’s mayor.

Miguel Contreras has spent his entire adult life in the labor movement.   When he was a seventeen-year-old fruit picker in the San Joaquin Valley, his family first joined the United Farm Workers under the leadership of Cesar Chavez.  His first experience with the union was as a picket line captain during the grape strike, and his work to build support for the union took him from California to Toronto, Canada.

In 1977, he became an organizer for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union, and for ten years worked on campaigns in California and Nevada.  In 1988, he was sent by the International to Los Angeles to help rebuild HERE Local 11 which had been put in trusteeship.  There he worked closely with the dynamic union leader Maria Elena Durazo, who successfully led an insurgency movement to become president of Local 11 and built an activist union of mainly immigrant workers.  Miguel’s assignment to staff the trusteeship also yielded personal benefits, for he subsequently married Maria Elena.

Miguel left HERE to join the staff of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor as the political director under James M. Wood.  When Wood passed away in 1996, Miguel was elected to succeed him for the remaining term of his office.  He became the first Latino to head the federation in its more than one hundred years of history.  In 1998, he was re-elected without opposition.

Miguel Contreras has emerged as an important leader within the new American labor movement.  In September 2001 he was interviewed by Ruth Milkman, director of the University of California’s Institute for Labor and Employment, and Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.

KW:    When you assumed the leadership of the L.A. County Federation of Labor in 1995, what were the key challenges you faced?

MC:    The first challenge came from the national AFL-CIO, with the initial discussions of Union Cities and Sweeney’s “challenge to organize.”  National leaders pushed for the central bodies to take a role that meant something to their affiliates, but there was no blueprint on how to run a successful central labor body.   In the past, the main goal of the central body, at least in Los Angeles, was control over information and access to elected officials.  Now we had to rethink our relationships with both the state and the national AFL-CIO, and develop a clear vision and direction, as well as strategies to get us there.

We took over an operation that was, even then, relatively big on paper.  But I was amazed, more than amazed, I was shocked by the gaps in the relationships among unions.  You know, the teachers not knowing the Teamsters, the building trades not knowing HERE, the SEIU not knowing the harbor unions, the entertainment unions not knowing the Communications Workers of America (CWA).  So I did house visits to all the key leaders of our affiliates, the heads of the major locals.  I asked what they wanted to see in the central body and explained that I needed their help in changing the L.A. County Federation of Labor.

And they clearly said that they needed help on organizing.  We realized we needed an organizing director, a communications director, a research director, and a mobilization team.  Most of all, we needed to change the way we did business.  When I took over in 1995, we had a lot of clerical people here.  We have since shifted resources from clerical to staff who could help our affiliates.  I pruned the existing staff so that new staff could sprout out.  I had to lay off people who were my friends here.  But it wasn’t based on personalities, it was based on program. I bit the bullet and laid off staff and hired new staff.

The other big challenge was figuring out how to use collective bargaining to build up the kind of solidarity and relationships that we need if we’re going to be one labor movement.  We brought together the presidents of the Teamsters Joint Council, SEIU, HERE, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), CWA—all the top leadership in L.A., to discuss L.A.’s economy.   And we said,  “Okay, check your hats and titles at the door.  You come in this room because we want and we value your opinions and advice for the entire labor movement, not just on what’s best for your individual unions.”

We realized we needed to educate these union leaders.  They might know a lot about their own industry but very little about other industries or about the L.A. economy as a whole and what makes it tick.  So with the help of the UCLA Labor Center, we gave them an overview.  Then we looked at what’s organized and what’s not organized, the density situation of the unions.  And we discussed the issue of how unions control their industries, with the idea that we don’t need to cross over jurisdictions, that there’s plenty within everyone’s jurisdiction to organize.  The question is how to organize strategically so that you can have leverage within your industries, as opposed to hot shop organizing.

And so we did all that, but since then we’ve had a bit of a bumpy road. We’ve had experiences with unions who are very aggressive in organizing, who want us to play a supportive role.  That’s particularly with the hotel workers and SEIU who are doing a lot of organizing.  They don’t want to be preached to about what they should be organizing.

We had the experience of IATSE, where the general president was open to organizing, and upon our suggestion he created two positions, organizing director and research director, so they could develop a lot of different kinds of pressure, economic and political.   But then he didn’t think it was working out, so they wanted to go a different direction.

With other unions we helped do the initial research to show them what can be done if they work together in joint organizing projects.  In the case of the food processing industry in Los Angeles, we brought the two main unions together, but in the end they weren’t interested in committing the kind of resources it took.

On the other hand, we’ve had some success in the Respect at LAX campaign, which was a joint campaign between HERE and SEIU.  I was very close to that campaign given that most of that time I’d been on the airport commission.  With the research, the political leverage, and the rank and file activism, these unions have been able to pick up a lot of new members in Los Angeles in the concession industry, but they are also breaking new ground in terms of getting contracts for the security screeners.

Manufacturing is a real challenge for us.  We have the old-timers around here who can remember automobiles being made in Los Angeles.  Tires were made here once, and a lot of aerospace work.  That’s all gone now. We had one lodge out there in Burbank, Machinists, with 32,000 members.  Today it’s just an empty parking lot.  And we lost a lot in heavy manufacturing, a unionized workforce.  We still have a lot of factory workers here, but they’re predominantly in small mom-and-pop operations in such industries as food processing, metal fabrication, plastics, and garment making.  One of the problems is the enormity of organizing all these different industries.  We always get asked, “Give me a list of the nonunion places that have like a thousand or more workers.”  But these big plants, they don’t exist anymore.

In addition, the manufacturing unions aren’t invested in Los Angeles. If this was Pennsylvania, the Steelworkers would be out there in a big way. The United Steelworkers of America do have a desire to organize, but their closest regional headquarters is in Albuquerque.  The United Auto Workers’ closest region is out of St. Louis.  Neither union has a strong presence in Los Angeles.  The largest victory for the auto workers in the Los Angeles area has been the graduate students out at UCLA.  The Machinists have their operation out of Sacramento and, as opposed to some of the unions that we talked about, SEIU has some of their national leadership in Los Angeles.  And also HERE is in Los Angeles.  They’re invested here in Los Angeles, which makes a big difference.   So the question is, how do we get the manufacturing unions to look at Los Angeles for a real future, given that their leadership is somewhere else and given the enormity of the job of tackling all of these manufacturers in question.

RM:    All over the country, people now look to Los Angeles as a beacon of hope for a labor movement that’s in deep trouble nationally.  Despite the mixed picture that you just painted, what makes Los Angeles different from other parts of the United States?

MC:   We’re a beacon of hope and opportunity for the national labor movement for a variety of reasons.  Number one is the synergy of the national AFL-CIO, international unions, local unions, and the central bodies working together.  I think that’s the key to the labor movement in Los Angeles.  Within a period of a few years we had new leadership at the AFL-CIO, SEIU, HERE, and the L.A. County Federation of Labor. In locals in Los Angeles, a lot of unions had new leadership, too.  You had the janitors organizing.  You had the home care organizing. I think it’s a natural evolution and we’ve been the convening point of these different operations.  We have some great organizing commitments in Los Angeles from these national unions.

And we continue to grow.  For the longest time, we had just SEIU and HERE, but now we have commitments from the Union of Needletraders, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE), American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and IATSE.   And we’ve been getting great assistance from the new Laborers’ International Union president.  All of these groups have new leadership.

RM:     Yes, the leadership’s obviously really important.  But the other thing people always point out about Los Angeles is the huge concentration of immigrant workers here. Do you think that’s been a factor, too?

MC:     It’s been a major factor in particular industries.  Of course, the janitors are mostly Latino workers, as are a lot of the HERE, workers, but the home care workers are everybody: Latinos, African-Americans, Asians, Armenians, Russians.  At the airport, the screeners have been predominantly African-American. So it’s all over the lot.

But clearly if we’re going to organize in L.A., we’ve got to organize Latino workers, no question.  We battled for decades in the labor movement against the exploitation of workers, and in particular immigrant workers, by employers who take advantage of either their undocumented status or just the fact that they’re immigrants and therefore really don’t know the proper recourse in terms of ending exploitation.  You know, they’re not familiar with our government laws, or with government agencies that will help protect their health and safety, their wages, the labor commission, etcetera.

L.A.’s always had a lot of immigrant workers, but the phenomenon of immigrants standing up for their rights began in 1994 after Proposition 187, which shook them up.  That was the antiimmigration proposition that passed here in California that meant to do away with public education and access to public health for undocumented people.  Since then, there has been a real backlash in the Latino communities, with more and more immigrants choosing to become residents, to become United States citizens and even more important, to become involved in the political process.

Now, we think the natural next step is do something about your economic livelihood by joining a union.  So we got very involved in the immigrant rights issue.  We’re also involved in affirmative action, and the minimum wage fight in California was led by the labor unions.  A lot of our members make much better than minimum wage, of course, but we knew that this was not about helping a high school kid who’s flipping burgers.  This was helping all those immigrant workers who were making minimum wage, to lift them a little bit out of poverty.

When we helped new Latino citizens with voter participation, we realized that working on immigration issues was the best way to build relationships with the Latino community.  So we spent a lot of time and financial resources in making that bridge in Los Angeles.  We cultivated the new immigrant Latino vote, and today the labor-Latino alliance in Los Angeles is a very powerful mechanism.

In 1999, at the AFL-CIO convention held here, a lot of our locals talked to the nationals about sponsoring a resolution on immigrant reform, and I think it would be safe to say that it caught the national leadership off guard.  They decided that maybe we ought to have some official position that goes way deeper than just passing resolutions.  And, giving credit to the national AFL-CIO, the leadership said, let’s do this right.

KW:    Tell us more about the role the L.A. labor movement played in getting the AFL-CIO to change their position on immigration.

MC:     I give a lot of credit again to the national leadership; they’ve come to Los Angeles many times now.  They had two executive councils here in Los Angeles.  They had the national convention in Los Angeles.  The AFSCME organizing convention was here just last week.  HERE had their national convention here.  A whole host of international unions and the AFL are focusing their activities here in Los Angeles because a lot of them see L. A. as the future of organizing.

We were able to get our locals—and especially those that are predominantly Latino—to consider asking the AFL-CIO to adopt a national immigration policy.  Actually, they had one, but we thought it was a bad one that didn’t fit in this era.  We know that employer sanctions only worked against us in organizing, and we looked at the old policy through the eyes of organizers, not through the eyes of a social worker.   We didn’t want to change just because it was socially wrong; we thought it was bad for organizing.  Because we know that the only time they ever enforce employer sanctions is when they want to punish workers for organizing.

We saw what it meant here in Los Angeles when somebody became a U.S. citizen, that the shadow was lifted.  No longer were they being intimidated, exploited, frightened.  As citizens they were ready to stand up for themselves, whereas if they were undocumented they were afraid to go to the union, afraid to go to the different government agencies.  People were getting screwed every time, not getting their proper paycheck or not getting the proper compensation or health insurance.  These people thought they had no voice.

We want to do everything possible to make sure that they understand that the trade union movement and unions are the vehicle for the voice they can have in fighting for equality and equity on the job.  Part of that is aligning ourselves with the issues that they care about, issues like minimum wage and immigration.

Some of our locals are very influential within their own national unions.  Years ago they might have been known as renegade locals, but because of the changing times and process they’re very influential now.  So they were able to get SEIU, HERE, and other nationals to adopt these policies and then, from the convention floor, to push immigration reform and reform of the AFL-CIO’s immigration policy.

For all these reasons, the impetus to persuade the AFL-CIO to change its immigration policy came out of Los Angeles. The AFL-CIO wasn’t ready yet to adopt it, but they were ready to go down the right path.  They created a national immigration committee of some key national labor leaders.  They hosted a series of immigration meetings across the country.  The one here in L.A. was much, much larger than any of the others, with some twenty thousand workers.  It was just huge.

We could see the kind of appreciation that community groups and immigrants had for the labor movement pushing this forward.  There are immigrants’ rights groups who’ve been fighting this fight for twenty years, God bless ‘em, but they never had any kind of weight until the national labor movement lent its credibility and its influence to this cry for immigration reform.  These national union presidents can get on the phone to talk to congressional leadership, and let them know that this is a big issue for us.  It’s become such a big issue that it was talked about in the last presidential campaign, and now it’s a big issue in the White House.  Not only are members of Congress and the President talking about it, but also the elected leadership in Mexico is meeting with the heads of the unions in the United States, and their foreign minister addressed the convention of the hotel workers union on immigration.  So immigration issues are in the national spotlight because of the labor movement.

KW:    What do you see as the major breakthroughs or contributions over the past five years or so on both the political and organizing fronts from the perspective of the County Fed?

MC:    Number one, we’ve been able to get more and more unionists to take organizing seriously. There is nobody in Los Angeles and I don’t think there is anybody across the country who’s saying we shouldn’t organize.  But between saying we should organize and doing it is a huge step. We’ve shown locals here how they can do it, and that they’re not alone in doing it.

Some key unions have changed, and a few years ago they set up some major efforts to research the corporations they were tackling.  The approach is to find out who has the market share of the industry.  What’s the real money behind it?  That knowledge gives us leverage that we can use on these industries.

We run courses to train organizers.  We convene meetings of organizing directors who teach us what their unions learned by researching their industries.  When we get top union leaders in the same room here in L.A. to talk about what practices they’ve found work best, it’s a real eye opener for a lot of union people here.  People in a lot of unions are amazed to see the kind of research that SEIU, AFSCME, and HERE conduct, and now they want to figure out how they too can research their own industries.

I think our biggest success is building relationships among unions so they can talk about what works best in making labor move forward.  And that turned into solidarity on collective bargaining.  A year ago the janitors struck, and they had unprecedented support from the unions, from building trades to elevator workers.  In the third week of the strike, when things were looking dim, we met and within twenty minutes we collected $130,000 for the strike fund from unions here in Los Angeles.  Every single union, from the port unions to the entertainment unions to the building trades, to tourism, construction, they all said, “How can we help out the janitors? This is our fight.”

RM:    Another thing that was very striking was the role of politicians who, Republicans and Democrats alike, line up in support of the janitors.  That was a reflection of the political work you have done here.  Could you talk about that?

MD:    We are trying the lift the bar of our endorsements so that they mean something.  Term limits here in L.A. and California have given us a great opportunity to show that a strong political operation can deliver.  We’ve been able to really push legislation like a worker retention ordinance and a living wage ordinance. Supporting a candidate is no longer about bringing them into our banquet so they can take a grip-and-grin photograph for our newspaper.  It’s about what you the candidate are going to do to level the playing field of organizing for the workers.

Number one, we want you to be with us on tough legislation, but not just any legislation.  I don’t want them coming to me and saying, “I’m for a higher minimum wage.” I mean, everyone’s for a high minimum wage.  What are you going to do in those committee rooms to push the workers’ right to organize?

It might even involve civil disobedience.  We expect them to be on the line.  In the janitors’ strike we had six or seven of them—city council members, state legislators—being arrested with us to show the plight of the janitors.  And we get that level of support over and over again.

In 1966 we targeted six seats to take away from the Republicans in the state legislature and we took back five for the Democrats, and that gave them back a majority in the state assembly.  Last year we targeted three congressional seats.  Most people only do one, right?  We won two from the Republicans and lost the third by only one percentage point.  Our city council candidates have won over and over in elections.

Last year, we did something that shocked a lot of people.  We opposed Marty Martinez, a Democratic congressman in Democratic primary who maybe had an 80 percent Committee on Political Education (COPE) voting record.  We opposed him for two reasons.  One, he went south on us on NAFTA, which opened our eyes.  The San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County is a very blue-collar district.  We started to ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Although Martinez had a decent COPE voting record, he was never known to be a champion of our cause.  He wasn’t introducing bills or working the committees on our key legislation.

So we opposed him and we helped recruit a state senator and chair of labor in Sacramento who was a great labor vote for us; she helped lead the fight against 226 and fought for a higher minimum wage.  We knew she would not be 80 but 100 percent.  So we endorsed Hilda Solis and all over the state, the Democrats were calling up and saying, “You can’t do this.  Marty’s a nice fellow, 80 percent record . . .”  We had to tell them that 80 percent wasn’t good enough.  We want a warrior for working people and that’s our mantra from now on.  We launched a campaign for Hilda against a Democratic incumbent, and on election day she won two to one.  But even more important than sending Hilda Solis to Congress was sending the message to Democrats that we expect more and we’re going to hold them accountable.

KW:    The other campaign that of course galvanized national attention was Antonio Villaraigosa’s mayoral campaign and particularly labor’s role in it.  What are some of the major lessons from that campaign and how would you evaluate the County Fed’s participation?

MC:    Again it goes back to the question, can we elect warriors for working families?  Although both mayoral candidates were Democrats, only one was a real warrior and a champion.  He also came from a union household and had been a union official.  Antonio Villaraigosa was speaker of the assembly and had a lot of credibility.  So we had a credible candidate who came out of labor’s family.  It was the right message to send to all of the elected officials:  if you are with us, we’ll stand with you.

There’s no question that we were the wings beneath Villaraigosa’s campaign.  Everyone gives us the credit for putting Antonio within a few points of being mayor of Los Angeles, and who would have thought that the labor movement could do that?   Five or six years ago, it was unthinkable that this labor movement could take someone all the way through to nearly winning the mayorship of Los Angeles, but we did.  Our unions turned out more than ever before.  We raised more funds than ever before.  We peaked one day at 2,700 people walking precincts for Antonio Villaraigosa.   We made hundreds of thousands of phone calls.  Everything was humming!   Circumstances out of our control determined the ultimate outcome of the campaign, but everybody will tell you that in Los Angeles there was only one army in the streets of Los Angeles and that was the union army.

RM:    Many people have pointed to the racial division in the voting as one of the reasons that despite the labor movement’s efforts Villaraigosa lost.   Could you talk about the Black-Brown tensions?

MC:     If we dissect this last election, there are some things that you probably won’t see again in our lifetime, most importantly, the African-American vote being so loyal to a white candidate.  And the reason you won’t see it again is because it wasn’t about that white candidate, it was about the father of the Anglo candidate.  I talked to enough leadership in the African-American communities to be convinced that the vote outcome was about loyalty to this candidate’s father, who was for forty years a county supervisor.  He did very great things in that community.  As a matter of fact, a lot of people thought they were voting for the father. But that just shows that his father did a great job, and it’s tough to combat forty years of producing for a community.  So I would not write it off to saying it was about the tensions between these two groups.

KW:     L.A. is a city and county of incredible ethnic and racial diversity and tension among various communities comes out in the political arena, in redistricting, and also within the ranks of the labor movement.  Can you talk about how you envision the County Fed playing a role in building multiracial alliances?

MC:     We have such a huge membership—about 800,000 union members in L.A. County.  We’re the biggest of any group, union or otherwise.  We have the most Latino members of anybody, the most African-American members, the most Jewish members, the most women members, the most gay members, the most—you name it and we’re the biggest of any group.  And our agenda is not geographical or cultural or political.  We’re based on economics.  That’s what ties us together.  That’s what ties the Latino family with the black family who are both on strike together, because they’re not fighting for who has a better job, they’re fighting—both of them—for better economics.

So clearly the labor movement has a role to play in easing the tensions of the different communities in Los Angeles, and that’s a role we want to play more.  People are beginning to see us as an organization that can bridge cultures here in Los Angeles.  Labor Day was a good example.  We had a big African-American clergy group, and we visited six of the biggest African-American churches on Labor Day with a bunch of labor leaders.  Then on Labor Day Monday, we had Cardinal Mahoney giving the Labor Day Mass with a predominantly Latino crowd of 2,000 people.  The labor movement was behind both events and a lot of people went to both. We really can help bridge those tensions.

Our intention is to move forward and build a real community-based organization because these communities shouldn’t be arguing with each other.  When they do, they’re arguing over crumbs.   Instead, they ought to be talking about good employment opportunities for all of them. The reality is they’re not separate, because they live right next to each other.  It’s not like African-Americans are on this side and Latinos are over there—they live right next to each other in South Central.  And time will dilute this separation because there’ll be a lot of intermarriages and interrelationships.  I think that through our struggle for a better economic level, we can unite different neighborhoods.

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