‘La union hace la fuerza’: Unity makes strength

Miguel Contreras, secretary-treasurer of the 800,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, died of a heart attack May 6 at the age of 52.

Contreras began his tenure as the leader of the County Federation of Labor in 1996 by calling upon union leaders to work with greater unity and commitment in organization and politics. He set the tone working tirelessly day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year to develop maximum unity and participation in successful strikes, negotiations, organizing drives, elections, community and cultural activities of all kinds. He made multiracial, multicultural unity a principled practice. It worked.

“The greatest tribute to Miguel Contreras is continuing his mission and his work of revitalizing the labor movement he loved so much across L.A. and the Americas,” said Charles Lester, who was unanimously elected interim secretary-treasurer of the federation by its executive board. Lester is the first African American to head the labor council. Some 40 local labor leaders, including the board members, stood behind him in a united show of resolve to reinforce and build upon Contreras’ legacy at a press conference at the federation’s Los Angeles headquarters May 10.

With Contreras at the helm, organized labor in Los Angeles County emerged as a political and economic force to be reckoned with. He headed the County Fed’s political action committee from 1994 until his election as secretary-treasurer.

Contreras began his union activism as a teenager when his father became an activist and leader in the United Farm Workers of America. Miguel receiving training as an organizer from UFW founder Cesar Chavez. He went on to become a successful organizer for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) in San Francisco, Nevada and New York.

In the mid 1980s he was assigned to Los Angeles where he joined with and then married another HERE leader and organizer, Maria Elena Durazo. While raising two sons, the couple has shown that “La union hace la fuerza” begins at home, dedicating their lives to raising the living standards and quality of life of working families and communities on a city, state and national level.

Under Contreras’ leadership the federation has helped local unions win major battles in organization, negotiations and strikes. Coalitions have been built with women, youth and minority groups, and in election after election, the federation has put stronger pro-labor politicians in office at all levels. Contreras aimed to elect not just labor supporters but “warriors for the working families.”

At a time when the labor movement nationally is under attack by global corporations and the Bush administration (and in California the Schwarzenegger administration), and at a time when the AFL-CIO is in intense discussion on future strategy, the policies Contreras developed are seen as a unifying model. “By bringing unions and workers together across craft” and income divisions, Contreras had an impact “far beyond the borders of California,” said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.

Led by Contreras, the L.A. federation has begun implementation of steps for a stronger labor movement in the 21st century. Affiliates are raising their per member contributions for greater mobilization of public support for labor initiatives and struggles. An innovative coalition with community college students is being forged to increase labor’s support for and from the coming generations.

Striking Angelica laundry workers here bring candles to the picket lines to honor Miguel Contreras, said Cristina Vasquez, Los Angeles regional manager of UNITE-HERE. Contreras spoke to the April 2 national Angelica bargaining conference in L.A. where the workers voted to strike after his and other pledges of labor solidarity. Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation, said “his unwavering focus on grassroots organizing has set an example for a new crop of union leaders across the country.”

Contreras was a soft-spoken, down-to-earth leader like his mentor Cesar Chavez. He grew in and helped grow the labor movement. His loss is tragic for his family, friends, union brothers and sisters, and community, but his legacy is heroic and sustaining.

¡Miguel Contreras, presente!