MaríaElena Durazo is a California State Senator representing Westside LA and South Bay regions of LA County. She has been involved in the labor movement since the 1980s, working in the garment and then hospitality industries.
She is a former President of UNITE HERE Local 11 and has worked closely with Rev. Lawson for decades, putting the tactics of nonviolent organizing to work to improve the lives of countless thousands of workers and immigrants.
Reverend James Lawson is a personal hero and inspiration to me. He has guided me through my career as a union leader and has become a close friend of mine. I met Reverend Lawson after becoming president of the Unite Here Local 11.
At that time, he had successfully challenged Jim Crow laws and trained youth to be strategists and organizers in the nonviolent movement, including training his good friend Congressman John Lewis.
Reverend Lawson taught us about the power of nonviolence. He believes that all work has dignity, and work is not primarily for wages, but we ought to be able to benefit from our work.
I worked with him to transform the lives of housekeepers and dishwashers and cooks who had been invisible. He helped transform our union. And he inspired a new generation of workers to stand up for themselves, organize, and demand to be treated like human beings.
When we started to use a tactic of civil disobedience, he taught us to keep our eyes on the prize and even win over the very police officers that arrested us. He trained others like Victor Narro to become teachers.
He trained many to prepare for the immigrant workers Freedom ride across the country in 2003. We were stopped and interrogated by the Border Patrol, but our response was to sing freedom songs. And we sang and we sang and we sang for hours. We didn’t give up. Reverend Lawson’s spirit was with us then. He taught us to do something we never imagined.
Later I was elected to lead the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Reverend Lawson was always my advisor, my teacher in building one of the most dynamic labor movements in the country. Latina housekeepers and janitors, African-American security officers, undocumented dreamers all share the experience of learning from Reverend Lawson.
He says most of his arrests have been with me and the workers fighting for labor rights. For decades, he has conducted monthly workshops at Holman Methodist Church and I always learn something new.
He’s conducted workshops for union organizers who come in from all over the country. He helped thousands of people in many generations to understand that love is power.
He said that when you look at the use of violence to achieve a goal, there is never a good outcome. You can try crushing people’s spirit through violence, but it fails because violence is a misuse of power. He has taught us that we cannot claim equality if we hate. We must use our minds, our wit, and our courage.
The only victory we can claim is through love and justice.
One of my proudest accomplishments was securing $15 million to establish a permanent home for the UCLA Labor Center. It was named in his honor. It happens to be in my Senate district right across from MacArthur Park, known as the UCLA, James Lawson Junior Worker Justice Center.
This is the building where I got my start as a union organizer, and it was Reverend Lawson who taught me the power of nonviolence, worked with me to transform the union and the entire Los Angeles labor movement.
Happy Birthday, Reverend Lawson!