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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 [345] 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.

“Miguel 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 respect—fight!”

Birth of a union organizer

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 anti-picketing injunctions.”

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.”