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Maria Elena Durazo and the Generation That Changed Unions

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

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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187: The Rise of the Latino Vote

The fight against Prop 187 awakened Latino political power, dramatically changing California politics.
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