Paying respects to hero of labor: Miguel Contreras
Published Jun 10, 2005 11:15 PM
Miguel Contreras accomplished so much in his 52
years. Schooled in the California fields by Cesar Chavez in the 1970s, Contreras
took those lessons about courage and self-worth and applied them to all workers
after he was elected political director of the Los Angeles County Federation of
Labor, AFL-CIO, in 1996.
No wonder workers wearing union T-shirts as well
as symbols of their trades—from hardhats to chef’s
toques—filled the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels on May 12 to honor a
hero of labor who was cut down in his prime by a heart attack six days earlier.
But it wasn’t just workers who showed their respects. AFL-CIO
President John Sweeney and presidents of four national unions, politicians from
all levels of government, community leaders and clergy joined with working
people of all trades, nationalities and ages to commemorate Contreras’s
enormous contributions to the struggle of workers and the oppressed for justice,
dignity and everything that enriches life.
The May 13 Los Angeles Times
credited this son of migrant farmworkers “with reviving a moribund union
movement [in Los Angeles] at a time of rapid demographic change.” He built
“a formidable coalition, in part by pulling  diverse unions together
through strikes and contract campaigns.” And he made sure to extend
labor’s hand to immigrants. At the time of his death Contreras was
executive secretary-treasurer of the LA County Federation.
was as passionate about the struggles of electricians and actors and
longshoremen as he was about home-care workers and janitors and nurses and hotel
housekeepers,” said Contreras’s life partner, UNITE HERE Local 11
President Maria Elena Durazo, during her eulogy. “He fought for each
worker with the same heart and the same soul.”
She urged the
workers to fully realize Con treras’s legacy: “With the example of
Miguel’s life and work as our guide—with the sacrifice and suffering
of ordinary workers who organize, march and walk [a picket line]
everyday—let us continue the fight to grow this movement, seeking divine
assistance and inspiration, yet recognizing that ultimate success or failure
rests in our own hands.
“Sisters and brothers, there are certain
things in life that are worth fighting for. For jobs that provide working people
with a decent life—fight! For dignity and
Birth of a union
Contreras traced his labor consciousness to the day in 1973
when the ranch supervisor and crew bosses in Dinuba, Calif., fired the entire
Contreras family of six sons at 4:30 a.m.
“With the headlights from
their pickup trucks glaring in our eyes, they fired us all because, as the
supervisor told my father, ‘Julio, you’re the best worker we ever
had, but we can’t have any more Chavistas’ [followers of Cesar
Chavez],” Contreras told the labor federation’s First Delegates
Congress in September 2004.
He continued: “I’ve been a union
man since that day when being put on the growers’ blacklist was my
dad’s only reward for 24 years of hard labor at that ranch. I’ve
been a union man since my father and I led the strike at L.R. Hamilton Farms,
and I was arrested with my dad 18 times in three months for violating
Contreras concluded his remarks:
“What we do here will set the pace for orga nized labor across the
country. We can create a new vision of what a labor movement can do to make
ourselves more effective and relevant to the people we represent.”
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