Miguel Contreras Remembered
May 11, 2005
Today we mourn the death of Miguel Contreras, a major figure in the Los Angeles and national trade union movement, who died suddenly last Friday of a heart attack. Miguel was the Secretary-Treasurer of the L.A. County Federation of Labor—that is, its executive director, field general, chief strategist and tactician. I have known and worked with Miguel for more than 10 years, and with Maria Elena Durazo, president of Local 11 of UNITE HERE and Miguel’s wife and partner, for more than 15 years. Miguel was an important historical figure because he revitalized the L.A. AFL-CIO and was great at what he did. We did not always agree, but we were always on good terms and when our interests coincided, on excellent terms. There are many articles and commentaries honoring him. I am choosing to focus on my personal dealings with him and his relationship to the Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union to add another picture to the album.
In 1999, three years after the Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union signed a civil rights Consent Decree with the Los Angeles MTA, the federal courts finally found the MTA in violation of the provisions of the agreement, and ordered the agency to purchase 350 additional CNG buses. This meant the redistribution of a significant amount of public funds to transit dependent working class communities of color—$100 million to purchase the buses, and more than $50 million a year to operate them. This also provided new jobs for bus drivers, mechanics, and maintenance workers. The MTA, instead of complying with the order, defiantly threatened to appeal the case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and eventually the Supreme Court, arguing on the racist and dishonest grounds of “state’s rights.” In short, they had signed the Consent Decree thinking they would hustle us, never intending to comply, and thought their high-priced lawyers could defeat our attorneys at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. But, as it turned out, time and time again, the BRU and LDF defeated the MTA in the courts.
When the courts sided with the BRU the MTA Board went ballistic, wanting to spend all their funds on massively overpriced rail lines that literally stole money from low-income bus riders. Many of the janitors, hotel workers, and service workers, Latino, immigrant, Black, and Asian/Pacific Islander, desperately depended on the bus service, and we tried to build a broad united front to demand that the MTA not appeal our case. But despite our overtures to organized labor and Miguel himself, there had been no response, perhaps because many unions had other irons in the fire with the L.A. County Supervisors, all 5 of whom sat on the MTA board. So, at the final showdown vote, the BRU brought more than 100 members and another 50 key community leaders urging the MTA board to not appeal the case. On a fortuitous note, Miguel was there, on another matter, a fight over union representation and contracts at the MTA. When I saw him there I asked him to testify on our behalf, and Miguel, who rarely liked to mix his issues and knowing that the BRU was very controversial with the MTA, nevertheless agreed on the spot and gave a strong admonition to the MTA. “Buy the buses now. Our members are waiting hours to get to work; they need more buses, not an appeal.” I remember L.A. Mayor and member of the MTA Board Richard Riordan somewhat shocked to see the AFL-CIO supporting the Bus Riders Union. It didn’t change the mind of the board, who voted to appeal the case (and subsequently lost their case every step of the way, and finally did have to buy the buses). But it did increase the influence of the BRU with some board members on subsequent issues, and strengthened the ties between the BRU and the County Fed and Miguel.
Our greatest collaboration was during the 2000 bus drivers’ strike, when Miguel had stepped in to help the drivers of the UTU, the mechanics of the ATU, and the clerical workers of TCU to pull together a strike against the MTA. This was another of the classically employer-driven strikes, in which MTA management, and board member Zev Yaroslavsky and other “liberal” Democrats literally forced the drivers on strike by demanding give-backs and a two-tiered wage system from the union. In reality, the divided MTA unions could not pull off the strike themselves; they were more at each other’s throats than that of their common adversary. It took Miguel to come in to become the lead organizer and campaign tactician, the united front diplomat to keep the warring factions on track. The day the strike began, I had written an op-ed in the L.A. Times supporting the bus drivers, pointing out that the BRU did so despite the historical lack of support by the UTU for our demands for more buses, lower fares, and a civil rights Consent Decree that asked the MTA to stop building rail projects until it built a first class bus system for its majority Black, Latino, and Asian/Pacific Islander ridership. I explained the issues of the strike, and why the drivers should not give in to the union busting concept of “two tiered wage systems” in which the older workers agree that newer workers would come in at lower wage levels, leading to fratricide within already bitterly divided unions.
The next morning we held a press conference in support of the drivers and Miguel showed up at our office, happy to see the support of the BRU, and bringing a dynamism and clarity to the drivers cause. The Times ran a good story saying, “Labor leaders support drivers” with pictures of Miguel and me, despite the very different politics about labor that Miguel and I represented. For 30 days Miguel and I talked every day about the strike, as the BRU was a featured speaker at the many large rallies with Black and Latino community leaders trying to push the MTA to settle and abandon its union busting tactics. Working with him so closely, I saw the painful problems of disunity he had to address in just keeping a strike together and his unique and irreplaceable qualities at union coalition building, putting up with and trying to assuage the petty and destructive qualities of some union leaders, and his strong strategic and tactical drive—from building strong relationships with Black clergy to eventually bringing in Jesse Jackson to mediate a settlement.
Miguel did amazing work to turn the almost moribund County Fed into a dynamic force in city-wide politics, and mobilized the growing Latino immigrant workforce as a driving power to help a multi-racial working class. He and Maria Elena were among the key national leaders who turned the AFL-CIO around from its previous anti-immigrant stance to finally realizing that if they could not organize Latino and immigrant workers in L.A., San Diego, Houston, New York and virtually every major urban center in the U.S., they would be out of business. It is hard to remember that when Maria Elena was elected president less than 20 years ago, the white union leadership (that she effectively overturned) of the already majority Latino immigrant union would not allow the workers to speak Spanish at their own general membership meetings.
Miguel’s dedicated support for the majority Black bus drivers, his alliances with the Black clergy, his aggressive and successful support for the candidacies of city councilman Martin Ludlow and Assemblywoman Karen Bass put his money and his voice behind a strong Black/Latino alliance. At a time when the Right is out-organizing the Democrats and the Left by leaps and bounds, Miguel broke with labor’s past history of big money and weak outreach support for candidates, to develop a powerful on-the-ground machine to turn out the vote.
I had my disagreements with Miguel about strategy and tactics. I wish he would have focused more on a broader social agenda for labor, such as a more active role in challenging the war in Iraq and the establishment-concocted “war on terrorism.” I felt he sometimes nurtured his relationships with the business and Democratic Party political establishment, in a way that led him to sit out some social justice fights that were also in the interests of the working class and organized labor. Having talked to him some about that contradiction, I think he would have replied that his goal was to improve the conditions of the working class through trade union struggles and any deals and agreements he felt would further those goals, arguing that his strategy was winning trade union victories, not social revolution.
But my generally successful relationship with Miguel had to do with an understanding, and appreciation, that the Left is a tiny minority in this country. We at the Strategy Center have our own objectives and our own politics, that include supporting the trade union struggle enthusiastically, but also with a great deal of emphasis on the fight for environmental justice, and against racism and empire. In order to succeed, and to build support for a broader agenda, we must build alliances and united fronts with many forces with whom we do not share full strategic or tactical agreement. We look for the possibilities of major tactical alliances whenever possible, and we try to cultivate relationships in a way that even when people disagree with you, out of mutual respect and their appreciation of your strength and base, they do not go out of their way to hurt you; moreover, they throw support to you behind the scenes whenever they can, and in front of the camera when they feel it is necessary and possible.
On a personal note, to indicate the relationship of equality and comradeship between Maria Elena and Miguel, several years ago, Maria Elena and I had a breakfast meeting set up at Langers deli (a Jewish delicatessen with a predominantly Latino workforce and an amicable and contractual relationship with Local 11 UNITE HERE) to discuss common goals and objectives. As I was on the look-out for Maria Elena, in came Miguel, who said, “Maria Elena had an emergency at the union, but told me, ‘I can’t stand up Eric, you go.’” So the president of Local 11 told the head of the county AFL-CIO to stand in for her, and once he showed up, Miguel did not just go through the motions. We spent more than an hour talking about possible collaborations.
Miguel Contreras was great at what he did. Within his worldview and his own strategy he pushed history forward. The challenge for those of us on the Left is to do as well in our own sphere of work, within our own ideological and strategic perspective, as he did in his.
My deepest condolences to Maria Elena and the entire family. Miguel Contreras. Presente.
Eric Mann, a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers, is the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles. He can be reached at email@example.com