Miguel Contreras was a labor union leader who became known as a “king-maker” for both local and state politicians. Contreras was born in 1952 in Dinuba, in California's agricultural Central Valley, to farmworker parents who had immigrated from Mexico during the 1920s under the Bracero Program. By the age of 5, he was laboring in the fields of Dinuba picking grapes. By his teenage years, he was organizing alongside his father and siblings, along with Cesar Chavez. After meeting Chavez at a rally for Robert Kennedy in the late 1960s, Contreras became an activist for the United Farm Workers. He promoted the Delano Grape Boycott in Toronto and organized lettuce workers in Salinas. Later, he led San Francisco hotel workers on a month-long strike. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) then recruited him to be a national organizer in Los Angeles. Contreras is credited with expanding the influence of the labor movement while working with local communities to include previously excluded workers—in particular, workers of color and immigrants—in the labor movement.
In 1994, Contreras became Political Director of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, a central labor council of the American Federation of Labor. In 1996, he was elected Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the County Fed, a post he held until his death. During his tenure as Secretary-Treasurer, Contreras reached out to immigrant workers and strived to firmly integrate his union into the Los Angeles political landscape. In 2000, he led Los Angeles janitors in a strike against building owners that led to their winning a favorable contract. The campaign's success made it a model for the struggles of blue-collar workers nationwide. He was also a major figure in the transportation workers' strike of the same year, enlisting Jesse Jackson as a mediator in negotiations between the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the union. Significantly, Contreras put the County Fed's support behind that union even though it was not a member of the Fed; many saw his action as a way to build bridges between the large Latino membership in the Fed and the transit workers' largely African American membership. He organized one of the largest immigrant-rights rallies in US history, which drew some 20,000 people to the Los Angeles Sports Arena.
Miguel Contreras was married to fellow labor leader and current State Senator María Elena Durazo when he passed away on May 6, 2005, at the age of 53. A high school in Los Angeles, the Miguel Contreras Learning Complex, is named in his honor. The UC Berkeley and UCLA have also recognized him by establishing the Miguel Contreras Labor Program (MCLP) to support labor education