The Man Who Changed Los Angeles

Miguel Contreras transformed local politics via labor activism

By Harold Meyerson
Published on LatinoLA: May 11, 2005

The Man Who Changed Los Angeles

When Miguel Contreras became leader of the Los Angeles labor movement back in 1996, he inherited a set of time-honored axioms about life and politics under the Southern California sun.

The first was that nobody actually worked in campaigns -- walking precincts, making phone calls. The state and the city were too big for anyone to mount a significant field operation. Campaigns consisted of fundraising and advertising: money in, message out, no activists need apply. The second was that it would take years, perhaps decades, for the wave of Latino immigrants sweeping the state to have an impact on its politics. Republican governor Pete Wilson's Proposition 187 two years earlier, which denied public services to undocumented immigrants, may have riled the Latino community, but the payback, if any, would be a long time coming. And the third was that the labor movement, in Los Angeles as everywhere else, was shuffling off to Jurassic Park -- a dinosaur incapable of saving itself, much less affecting its environment.

None of this came as news to Miguel, but it somehow never occurred to him that these were realities set in stone. The son of immigrant farmworkers, he had gone to work at 17 for Cesar Chavez's union, where he learned that every so often improbable social transformations were all in a day's, or a decade's, work. Miguel had a decade -- not even, just nine years -- to transform Los Angeles when he died last Friday, at age 52, of a sudden heart attack. The smog and the traffic remain unchanged, but politically the place is unrecognizable.

Chiefly by mobilizing the city's immigrant workforce, Contreras transformed L.A. into a liberal stronghold in which the labor movement is a dominant force. In a city whose deepest belief is in the makeover, Contreras was the ultimate nip-and-tuck man, remolding the onetime home of the open shop into a city where workers have some real political power.

He began, modestly enough, in 1997 with a special state legislative election in an immigrant-heavy district near downtown. The Latino political establishment had anointed its candidate, but Contreras backed an outsider, a dynamic immigrants' rights activist and former leader of a local union, and persuaded hundreds of activists from the janitors' and hotel workers' locals -- themselves chiefly immigrants -- to pound the pavement on his behalf. They knocked on the doors not only of fellow union members but also of new immigrant voters whom nobody but Contreras thought would turn out in a special election. They did turn out, of course, and Contreras found himself not just with a victory but also with a formula for remaking L.A. And remake it he did.

Over the years, hundreds, and at times thousands, of union activists flooded into congressional, legislative and council districts, electing liberals in Democratic primaries and Democrats of all stripes in the swing districts on the county's peripheries. Such long-established Republican bastions as Pasadena began electing Democrats. By 2000 L.A. County -- home to 30 percent of California voters -- voted for Al Gore and Dianne Feinstein at the identical percentage that the San Francisco Bay Area did. Ultimately, it was demographics that were driving California's transformation from the home of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the bluest of blue states. But by making the new-model labor movement the vehicle of mobilization for the state's new Latino voters, Contreras put that transformation on fast-forward.

The politics wasn't an end in itself. During their epochal strike in 2000, the city's janitors were accompanied at every demonstration, and even at the bargaining table, by elected officials cheering them on. The fact that the strike had been preceded by a primary election in which labor had ousted Marty Martinez, a lackluster Democratic congressman, in favor of pro-labor firebrand Hilda Solis had not been lost on L.A.'s political class. Similarly, the unionization of 74,000 Los Angeles home care workers in 1999 resulted from the election of public officials willing to write ordinances enabling those workers to organize. And the living-wage ordinances enacted by cities throughout Southern California are the direct consequence of labor's newfound clout.

Throughout all this, Contreras was the happiest of political warriors, suffused with sheer love of the game, but always subordinating it to his long-range vision for L.A.'s transformation. He knew all too well that racial divisions could thwart the construction of a progressive majority, and he took special pride in labor's role in electing younger African American and Latino pols who eschewed the nationalist impulse.

On Tuesday Los Angeles will elect a mayor, and the polls show Antonio Villaraigosa -- a liberal with a background in labor -- in the lead. The tragedy is that the man who changed L.A. into a city that could elect someone like Villaraigosa will not be there to see it, or to help steer the city through incarnations yet to come.

Details of Miguel Contreras Memorial Services

Wednesday, May 11, 2005
5-7 pm - Visitation
7-8 pm - Rosary/memorial program
8-9 pm - Visitation
St. Vincent?s Catholic Church, 621 W. Adams Blvd. on the corner
of Adams and Figueroa Streets, south of downtown Los Angeles
View a map or get driving directions.

Thursday, May 12, 2005
1 pm - Procession from Grand and Ave. Cesar Chavez to the Cathedral
2 pm - Mass
4 pm - Reception, Cathedral courtyard/Conference Center
Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, 555 W. Temple St.,
between Grand and Hills Streets in downtown Los Angeles
View a map or get driving directions.

About Harold Meyerson:
Originally published in the Washington Post

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