The labor movement is not about one individual or one moment in time. It goes on, regardless. But there are some individuals who rise through the ranks of the movement at the right moment and define it – or, as was the case with Miguel Contreras, redefine it. The tireless chief of Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, whose death Friday from a heart attack at age 52 shocked union activists in California and across the country, transformed a struggling local coalition into a dynamic force for economic justice and political change.
At a time when the national AFL-CIO was only beginning to recognize the need to reach out to the immigrant workers who were fast becoming the backbone of the hotel, restaurant, health care and construction industries, Contreras put the Los Angeles federation in the forefront of campaigns to organize Latino and Asian-American workers. And he turned those newly-organized workers, and their families and neighbors, into a voting bloc with the potential to change not just Los Angeles county but California.
The son of migrant laborers who was drawn into the union movement by Cesar Chavez, Contreras took over the Los Angeles County Federation in 1996, when its member unions had about 650,000 members. Today, they have more than 800,000. The incredible growth of the LA Fed under Contreras's leadership was noticed quickly, and his ideas about organizing immigrants and flexing political muscle inspired activists nationwide. "People across the country look at LA as a model of success," Anna Burger, of the Service Employees International Union, a key ally of Contreras, told the Los Angeles Times.
Contreras took his hits at home – most recently when the LA Fed endorsed Mayor James Hahn, a centrist Democrat, for reelection over City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, a former union organizer and long-time ally of the labor leader. Other politicians objected when Contreras backed a successful challenge by progressive Hilda Solis to incumbent US Representative Marty Martinez in a 2000 Democratic primary. Unions usually back Democratic incumbents, but Martinez had broken with labor on trade issues and Contreras made no apologies. "We're sick and tired of Democrats who come in and tell us they want our endorsement and then go off to Sacramento or Washington and vote against the interests of our members," Contreras told me in 2000. "We've lifted the bar for endorsements. It's not enough to say you're for a minimum-wage increase and expect our backing. We want candidates who make a commitment to be with us on every vote, and to be with us on the picket lines."
Members of Congress who accept labor's backing needed, Contreras said, "to be warriors for workers."
At a time when many Democrats were still voting with the Republican leadership of the House and the corporate lobbies in favor of free-trade legislation, the willingness of Contreras and the LA Fed to punish a veteran House member who did so was important. Equally important was Contreras's willingness to come to Capitol Hill and explain to Democrats and Republicans that Latinos did not want them backing free-trade deals that harmed workers in the US and in Latin American countries. His presence on the hill helped to dispel the corporate spin that suggested Latino workers in the US were enthusiastic about free-trade deals with Mexico and the rest of Latin America.
When US Representative Jane Harmon, a Los Angeles County Democrat whose record on trade issues has sometimes been shaky, announced last month that she would oppose the Central American Free Trade Agreement now being considered by Congress, Contreras was at her side. He explained that the trade deal would hurt workers, family farmers and the environment in the US "while enriching and empowering corporate elites."
Contreras was in the forefront of the campaign against CAFTA, explaining that, "Ten years of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) has proven a complete failure for workers and the LA economy, destroying 30,000 manufacturing jobs here in LA and more than 200,000 jobs statewide. A vote for CAFTA shows contempt for working people and their families. Clearly we must forge ahead with a new approach to international trade."
When the fight over CAFTA is decided by Congress, more than a few of the "no" votes will come from members who were personally lobbied by Miguel Contreras. Indeed, if CAFTA is beaten, as it may well be, that will be one of the many legacies of this "warrior for the workers."