Can Workers Make America Great Again?

Photo: Ann Johansson/AP Images.
Michelle Obama, Caroline Kennedy, Maria Shriver, Oprah Winfrey, and María Elena Durazo on stage at a Get Out The Vote Rally on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles in February 2008.
It’s 2017, and yet women are still fighting for equality. Data suggests it will take until 2152 to close the gender wage gap, but it shouldn’t take a century to get what we want. We want more, and Refinery29 is here to help — because 135 years is too long to wait for what we deserve today.
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One of the most frustrating things about the gender wage gap is how incredibly pervasive it is. Even when controlling for industry (including industries where women are the majority workforce), education, and age or experience (a longer time in the workforce actually exacerbates the difference), there are observable gaps. However, there is one place where this difference shrinks: among unionized workers.
Research from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) indicates that women working in unions are paid 94 cents, on average, for every dollar paid to unionized working men. Researchers Elise Gould and Celine McNicholas also found that “hourly wages for women represented by unions are 23% higher than for non-unionized women.”
Yet despite this, union membership has plummeted in recent decades. Even though about 60% of adults view unions favorably, as noted by NPR, only one in 10 U.S. workers belonged to a union in 2015, compared to “nearly a third of U.S. workers…50 years ago."
Still, not all unions are down for the count. One of the most prominent union leaders today is María Elena Durazo, the general vice president for immigration, civil rights, and diversity at UNITE HERE, which represents 270,000 workers in the United States and Canada. Durazo, who was born in a small agricultural town in California, was a migrant farm worker as a child, picking fruit from town to town until she was 15. She was the second person in her family to attend college; afterwards, she earned her law degree, worked as an organizer, and held a number of leadership roles, including serving as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee since 2013.
Last week, Durazo announced that she is running as a Democrat for California State Senate, campaigning for the seat of Senate Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, whose term ends next year. Refinery29 talked with Durazo by phone about her early childhood, what drives her to union work, what Democrats can do better, and how women can inspire other women to fight for their rights.
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Photo: Courtesy of UNITE HERE.
What was it like working as a migrant farmer when you were a child?
“Many times, in order for us to stretch out the money we were able to make as a family, we worked full-time for most of our summers. I would start school late and leave early to get the most out of the crop season, and when kids talked about what they did during the summer, I would say, ‘Oh, we went to Mexico to visit family. We had a great time.’ Not really! But I remember having to make up a story to talk about what I did. What was I going to say — ‘Oh, we picked crops’?
“I had older sisters, and my dad was very, very strict with us. We all kind of resented it — we thought he was just being tough on us — but there was a lot of sexual abuse and harassment, working in the fields. My dad wasn’t trying to be strict and macho. He was protecting us, in the best sense of the word, from foremen and supervisors who would take advantage of teenage girls. He had to be, I think, overly strict with us, to make sure we didn’t fall into the trap."
What was it like being the second person in your family to go to college?
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“One moment I remember very vividly in my mind is when my dad pulled me aside before he saw me off for college. He had prepared a little care package of tortillas, sweet bread, and other things, and he was so emotional about me going away. He said, in Spanish, ‘I want to apologize to you’ — and I was like, What? I’m 18 years old and my dad’s apologizing to me? He’s never done that before. And he said, ‘I wish I had been able to do more for you... I know that you work hard to get scholarships, and to get money to pay for your school. I wish I was in a better position to do that for you.’
"It really hit me. It really made me think about why someone who never abandoned us, who worked from sunup to sundown and did whatever he could to put food on the table should feel guilty. That moment has always stuck with me... He still felt that he could have, somehow, done more."
Why you were inspired to get involved in labor organizing?
“My brother was the first one to go to college, and [by the time I left home to do the same], there was still a big anti-war movement going on. There was a lot of consciousness around the [Vietnam] war, and about the disproportionate number of men of color going to the war. [I started] connecting what my personal experience was with this idea that, wow, you can actually do something about it. It’s not something that you have to hide, it’s not something you should be ashamed of, it’s not something that’s pre-ordained, or that you’re destined to be poor.
“I was connected to a labor organizer named Bert Corona who was well-known in California and Texas. He took what I felt was being directed to Mexicans and broadened it. It wasn’t just your ethnic group that was going through these abuses, it was a whole system of how workers were treated, and you had the right to collectively fight back. I didn’t think of it as a profession or as a career, but in terms of something I wanted to do to dedicate myself to, one way or another."
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I don’t see it as a matter of starting with strong politics, and then that helps workers; I see it the other way around.

You later earned your law degree and served as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. What do you see as the relationship between labor organizing and politics?
“I don’t see it as a matter of starting with strong politics, and then that helps workers; I see it the other way around. In my experience, workers have to be taught — and they want to be taught — to stand up for themselves and how to take collective action, and then that spills over into their communities and into politics... Now, workers do have to be convinced that it is in their power to do that, because their whole lives they’re told, ‘You’re powerless. Don’t even try it. Your employers have more money and could fire you in two seconds flat.’ So we talk to them: ‘It’s in your power to do this, and we’re going to do this step-by-step. And you can organize your coworkers, step-by-step, one by one.’
"They learn that collective strength, and then they use that to raise their wages, and to have a more humane workload. Like housekeepers [who] used that to say, ‘Hey, I can’t clean 24 rooms a day. It’s killing me; it’s breaking my body.’ They use their collective power to do better for themselves, as housekeepers and as women. You [can] see the results of that over years. Your wages get better. You have real health care that protects you and your family. You have some form of a retirement plan. Those are really concrete things that you could win... And then it extends to other things. It’s not just their boss; it’s the customers, it’s their guests. Again, among housekeepers, in particular, and food servers, sexual harassment by customers is so common. They’re learning [skills] to fight back on that front. I think that’s so powerful, and it’s always nurtured me — they become leaders.
“I think that experience of workers organizing and taking risks — in the case of immigrants, who take the risk of being deported — should inform our politics and our elected officials as to what decisions they make. When our labor movement is weaker, those elected officials begin to pay more attention to what corporations tell them they should be doing. We need a vibrant labor movement to more strongly balance and inform elected officials about the positions they should take on whatever the policy question is of the day. If we don’t — and we’ve seen [what happens] when we don’t have a strong labor movement — elected officials go in the wrong direction. They become weak and give in to corporate power. I think that’s the story of California. We changed California by giving workers themselves a voice, helping them to organize, and then we translated that into political strength, and that made California a much better state, to where we are today... That all started with housekeepers. That all started with janitors."
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Photo: Courtesy of UNITE HERE.
Particularly under the new presidential administration, there are a lot of fears about various protections involving health, compensation, and benefits. What are your most pressing concerns at this current political moment?
“Well for one, I must say that we cannot stop organizing in the workplace. We can’t let the threat of things coming down from this administration paralyze us. So that’s one thing. A second policy or issue would be health care. The taxing...will push a lot of people out from having health care, or they’ll be left with a very, very cheap plan that has more out-of-pocket costs and expenses. To be able to say on paper, ‘Well, this many millions of people have a healthcare plan,' but the plan is so cheap and covers so little that you almost might as well not have it, is just catastrophic. So we’re very concerned about not only the number of people covered by health care, but that it be quality health care that doesn’t leave you making a choice between paying the doctor bill and paying your rent. We saw what [the President] tried to do with the ACA, but we think he may go around and do it in his tax reform [plan] by taxing workers who do have a health plan. It’s like you’re being penalized for having a good health plan.
"The other issue is right to work laws, which are basically anti-union. The very first thing that Republicans do when they take control of the state legislatures and leadership is pass anti-union Right to Work laws."
I know it feels like doomsday whenever the current administration comes up. So on a brighter note, what are some things you’re proud of that you’re working on?
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“A few days ago, I was at an all-day strategy meeting with the Women’s Leadership Forum, which is the women’s organization within the DNC. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., there wasn’t a single word of pessimism! It was great. We talked about what we want to do, are there things we want to do differently, and how do we do them. Getting there and doing them is going to be hard work, but they were very, very optimistic. We just went through the internal election of the DNC. That was a real battle, in a good way, and hard-fought by a lot of candidates."

We changed California by giving workers themselves a voice, helping them to organize, and then we translated that into political strength... That all started with housekeepers.

How do you feel about the outcome?
“I think we still need more women in the DNC leadership, but there will be ways of giving women a top leadership voice. You don’t have to be an officer to have a top leadership voice. There are all these great ideas that came out of the debates and regional forums; now, we have to roll up our sleeves and figure out how to implement them. I think Democratic elected officials have to admit where we have not done well. Not to dwell on it, but to say, ‘Okay, let’s learn from it and move forward.’ I think there are policies that Democrats have supported in the past that they shouldn’t have supported."
Such as?
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“Such as the trade agreements, which caused a lot of people to lose good jobs. We have to figure out how to deal with that. Also, in many places, raising the minimum wage was something that Democrats didn’t do as fast as they should have. Well, the overwhelming majority [of people] on public assistance want to work, but where’s a job that pays more than minimum wage? You’d still have to be on public assistance, even with a job. It’s outrageous, and those are policies that Democrats supported. We’ve got to come to grips with what are good policies that really benefit us and move forward with them."
A lot of people talk about how exhausting organizing and activism is, because it can be emotionally and physically draining. How have you committed yourself to doing this for so long? Especially considering that a lot the time, the impetus for doing this work falls on the same people (women or people of color); what helps you stay energized?
“I think it’s the people that I come across. Their courage gives me the energy to move forward. I mentioned women whose bodies are broken by their hard work; when you see they’re still in it, you can’t be around those kinds of courageous people and not have the energy to do your part. I try to connect myself as much as possible with those courageous men and women on a real-life basis, and when I see what they do, I’m like, I love this work. Seeing their families are better off as a result of this work.
"Women who are involved and active in organizing should not underestimate the impact we have on other women. I’ve done that — I didn’t understand how important it was that I do this kind of work until other women told me, ‘Look, when you said this or did that the other day, it really helped me.’ We’re passing that on to the next generation. Sometimes we don’t understand how influential we can be in getting other women to stand up for themselves."
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