At a leadership seminar this week with 56 Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1245 activists and Los Angeles labor leader María Elena Durazo, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich declared that the U.S. economy is “rigged” in favor of the rich.
Durazo: “What you’re doing is spreading, and that’s what you want!”
Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and a champion for low-wage and immigrant workers’ rights, opened up the seminar by calling the Organizing Stewards “pioneers” and commending them for their hard work.
As an organizing powerhouse in the labor movement, “the name of IBEW Local 1245 is really getting out there,” Durazo said.
She underscored the fact that an organizer’s most powerful tool is his or her personal story, and [Local] 1245 Organizing Stewards are using their experiences to connect and motivate others. “What you’re doing is spreading, and that’s what you want,” Durazo said. “You want it to spread so that other people like yourselves can join.”
Durazo then shared her own personal story. Her parents came to California from Mexico as migrant farm workers, hoping to make a better life for their family.
“Most of the time, we didn’t make enough to keep a roof over our head. We would stay in the labor camps, or the farmer’s barn, or on the flatbed truck, or we would squat in a tent by a river on someone else’s property and stay there as long as we could until we were ran out,” Durazo recalled.
Growing up in poverty shaped Durazo’s life, with two seminal events that she feels moved her to fight for justice: the death of her infant brother due to lack of adequate health care; and her father’s apology for being unable to provide more for her on the day she left for college, when she became the first in her family to do so.
“How could a man who worked so hard, sun up to sun down, six to seven days a week, and refused to take any public assistance, how could a man like that have to apologize?” Durazo said.
Her experiences motivated her to begin organizing garment workers and hotel workers in Los Angeles, and she quickly rose to become the leader of her local, UNITE HERE 11. In 2006, after the premature death of her late husband and labor leader, Miguel Contreras, Durazo was elected the secretary-treasurer of the LA County Federation of Labor, and she has successfully turned LA into the largest labor town in the United States today.
Retiree Rita Weisshaar was struck by Durazo’s conviction that history depends on “common people doing uncommon things.”
“Some people think they don’t have the knowledge or courage to reach out to others and spread the word so to speak. I used to be one of them. [Durazo] encouraged us to find universal values that we all care about and connect with other working people,” Weisshaar said.