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How Maria Elena Durazo changed the game in L.A.



Maria Elena Durazo will be sharing lessons and inspiration from her decades-long work to transform LA at Progress Summit 2017. Early Bird tickets are available until February 28, 2017.

Durazo is currently running for a Vice-Chair of the Democratic National Committee jointly with Keith Ellison, who was endorsed by Bernie Sanders to be the next chair of the DNC.

Today California - and Los Angeles in particular - stands out as the frontline of resistance to Donald Trump’s regressive agenda and as an incubator of progressive change. But this has not always been the case. It took decades of dedicated hard work by the labour movement and community leaders to raise expectations and create aspirations while scoring real, incremental, wins. At the heart of this transformation and of today’s fortress California, is Maria Elena Durazo, an innovative labour leader from LA.

Twenty-five years ago, Los Angeles suffered from rampant and concentrated poverty, social and economic inequality, and racial tensions between African-Americans and Latinos in schools, in gangs and in jails. Social challenges were enormous and the capacity to respond to them was minimal. At the time, there was little focus on organizing or mobilization.

Today, Los Angeles is one of the most progressive cities in the United States and a model for organizing across North America. What is behind the change? An alliance between the labour movement and local communities that led to a series of hard-fought victories: the US’s first Living Wage Ordinance, the precedent-setting L.A. Live Community Benefits Agreements, and a string of political wins at the city council level, including two successive mayoralties. According to Maria Elena and other leaders, it was the 1992 riots following the acquittal of police officers in the assault on Rodney King, an unarmed African-American man, that pushed them to act and build political power.

Like other North American cities, LA had been marred by economic globalization, deindustrialization and the loss of well paying unionized manufacturing jobs, while the service economy exploded. In the 1980s, automotive and steel factories were replaced by the entertainment business and commercial developments, largely due to fiscal policies at the national level. Union workers, many of whom were African American, were increasingly replaced by contract workers, themselves largely foreign-born Latinos (including undocumented). These economic changes led to a decline in union density, mirroring the same phenomenon elsewhere in the US, and heightened existing tensions.

Diminished in strength, LA’s labour leaders concluded that they needed a new approach. Seeing their local communities also suffering, they decided to form alliances, joining their limited power to that of their communities in order to create the basis for amplified collective power.

Maria Elena Durazo was a central figure behind these community-labour alliances. A long-time local union activist, in 1986 she was elected president of UNITE-HERE as part of a challenge to the old guard. Along with Miguel Contreras, the first person of colour to lead the L.A. Federation of Labor, she developed a progressive labour agenda and worked to empower Latino union members. In 1993 she was at the helm of UNITE-HERE when it formed the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) to advocate for pro-worker public policy and reframe issues of economic development as questions of economic justice. A first of its kind, LAANE has become a model for community-labour alliances emulated in cities across North America. 

An important part of LAANE’s success came from its engagement in the political process. After the City of Los Angeles adopted the first living wage ordinance in the US in 1997, the labour movement, with Maria Elena Durazo in the driver’s seat, helped build a mobilized voting base emphasizing power sharing between Latinos and African-Americans, and specifically targeting immigrants. L.A.’s new progressive leadership laid doubts about electoral organizing among Latinos to rest, transforming an electoral unknown into a source of political power. This hard work of constituency building was rewarded, as the newly mobilized community has become a base not only for successfully electing labour-community champions, but also for organizing between elections.

These organizing efforts let to electoral victories starting in 1994, with the election of Antonio Villarraigosa, a strong ally of Maria Elena Durazo and of the L.A. labour movement, to city council and later as mayor. Today, another ally, Mayor Eric Garcetti, is carrying on the tradition of governing with a progressive agenda and has become a leading spokesperson for American opposition to Trump’s worrisome migration policies.

The L.A. example shows that by joining with the local community, the labour movement was able to transform itself into the most important political force in the city and the county.

Few success stories rival that of Los Angeles’ community-labour alliance. It turned an anti-union city lacking in social infrastructure and organizing capacity into the United States’ most progressive city today. Under the visionary and tireless leadership of Maria Elena Durazo and others, the labour movement transformed itself into the most important political force in the city and the county by joining forces with the local community. 

Image via Facebook.