Julio Pérez: Bully of the Bullies

New OC Labor Federation head seeks to marry labor and activism and give voice to the voiceless

Julio Pérez has always known he's "a big dude," as he puts it. At 6-foot-1, with a crew cut, a build that hints at his past life as a nose guard in football, and hands as large as boxing pads, the Anaheim native has loomed over his peers since he was a niño. And it's because of that size that Pérez knew, even from a young age, what his future was going to be.

"I was the bully's bully," he says with a hearty laugh, one that rises over the din of the cumbias blasting from the jukebox at Taquería Zamora in Santa Ana one recent afternoon. "When they'd go up to people, whether in elementary school or in high school, I'd always check them to make sure they didn't mess with the little guy. And if they did, they'd have shit to pay. That's where my sense of defending the voiceless came from—it wasn't from me learning to become a lefty."

The lords of Orange County should take notice of Pérez's sense of self. As the recently elected executive director of the Orange County Labor Federation (OCLF), the group that represents almost a quarter of a million workers from more than 90 unions and can make or break elections, he seeks to use his newfound power to not only fight for better contracts, but also to fundamentally change Orange County into a place where the voiceless can finally be heard. "All day, every day" is how Pérez describes his strategy to turn the county away from its notorious anti-union, anti-liberal ways and help turn it into a progressive paradise. "We're not at where we want to be, but we'll get there."

Ready to fight the power
Dustin Ames
Ready to fight the power

Pérez's life is an apt metaphor for the future of the labor and leftist movements in Orange County: young, working-class and increasingly Latino. Born in Santa Ana in 1978 to immigrant parents from the Mexican state of Jalisco, Pérez's family moved to Anaheim when he was just an infant, into the apartment complexes in a neighborhood commonly called Tijuanita—"on the other side of the wall from the happiest place on Earth," he says with a laugh. His father was a laundry worker at the Disneyland Hotel and a union member; over the years, Pérez's mom took care of dozens of kids of Disneyland workers. "Every service-sector family went through our apartment," he remembers. "That's where I learned that neighbors were also family and friends—that we're all part of something bigger than ourselves."

After graduating from Loara High in 1996, Pérez attended UC Irvine and earned a bachelor's degree in international studies and sociology. He didn't really participate in any activism there, focusing instead on taking classes in conflict resolution and expecting to fulfill his dream of becoming a high school teacher at Loara. All of that changed when he enrolled in the University of Michigan's public policy master's program in 2001, a time when the school was roiled in an affirmative-action battle that would wind its way to the Supreme Court.

"For the first time in my life, I was a person of color," he says. "I was a minority. I saw myself in the struggle and realized others needed help—and if I could do that, I should."

He took the lessons learned as a Wolverine back to Southern California. After trying and failing to find jobs with unions and the city of Anaheim, Pérez became an analyst for Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), an influential think tank that connected unions and politicians with activists in efforts that benefited all of them and led to now-popular urban proposals such as community-benefit agreements and living-wage ordinances. "It was the perfect incubator for me," Pérez says, recounting experiences ranging from organizing African-American security guards in South-Central Los Angeles to writing one-page summaries for legendary Los Angeles County Federation of Labor head Miguel Contreras to one incident in which Raytheon erected a fence outside its headquarters during a picket line Pérez helped to organize.

But Pérez itched to return home. In 2008, he helped Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West organize employees from St. Joseph Hospital in Orange; hospital leaders built planters to keep picketers as far away as possible from the public. "Some people put awards on their walls," Pérez says. "Mine are fences and flowers." That year, he became political director for the OCLF, eventually moving up to staff director; with the exception of an unsuccessful run for state Assembly in 2012, he has been there ever since. Nevertheless, Pérez "could never envision myself as [executive director]. I could've been in my position and be happy for 10, 20 years."

Everything changed in June, when longtime OCLF head Tefere Gebre was nominated to become executive vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, largely on his legacy of connecting community groups with labor in Orange County in a way that LAANE and Contreras had pioneered in Los Angeles. As a result of the promotion, Pérez became interim director. Given his life story, his local roots and his continued activism even as he climbed up the labor ladder (Pérez was arrested along with others in a legendary 2008 protest led by Disneyland workers dressed as Disney characters that shut down traffic on Katella Avenue and Harbor Boulevard), his candidacy for the permanent slot was a shoo-in, and he was unanimously elected earlier this month.

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Jesse T. Chavoya
Jesse T. Chavoya

Hey Mr.Perez let me know of any job openings for a hard working Mexican who is has a hard time finding a job.Jesse Chavoya

whateveryousay topcommenter

Isn't this the guy with a bunch of credit card debt and wasn't he accused of living outside the district in which he was running? 

whateveryousay topcommenter

What does he mean by, "...or if high rents take their gains away?" 

If somebody owns property they are allowed to ask for rents they want to receive. 

sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

Perez is looking to climb the ladder through hard(er) work than others and expects to be rewarded

( he was as you note, a shoo in)

now that has capitalism and ambition written all over it 


why didnt everyone who participated in the Disneyland protest get the job!!??


looks like he is only looking out for himself

sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

So why does he give his mom credit for anything since he "knows" that its not the individual that deserves rewards but everyone

there are only winners according to this "Bully of the bullies"

LETS NOT FORGET that when salaries / benefits rise in a union contract


even though their own wages havent gone up 


THEIR RENTS HAVE NOT gone lower , nor their utility bills, nor their personal needs like taking care of their children or parents etc etc

very hurtful to the middle class is the union

ltpar topcommenter

I like this guy's philosophy on getting results.  It is similar to the philosophy I used many years ago when running our Police Union for seventeen years.  Our Team got pretty good results in those days, just like Perez is doing.   

ltpar topcommenter

tongue, sounds like a little sour grapes from someone who has had an encounter of the fourth kind with the men and women of law enforcement.  Funny thing about attitudes, if you have a good one, a person never has a problem with the Cops.  If your attitude is negative, then bend over and grab you ankles, because an attitude adjustment wll be coming.  Remember that the next time you are stopped and are an ass hole with your local Cops.  

tongue_twister_for_t topcommenter

But isn't bullying against the laws.

The cops don't care because they're bullies too and they're violating the laws while ON DUTY.

sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter


not in leftyville

they have the trickery down to a science

let the poor think you are on their side "protecting" dem from those evil moneymakers 

but in reality those of us who understand economics KNOW that

it actually screws up the poor when you do rent control in any name or fashion

but , lefty will keep playing the angry game as long as there are enough people to be 



@ltpar Police union...protecting the problems and making them hated and more likely to get shot on duty. Ho-ray for the union! 


@ltpar Or, if you hit the sauce and decide to show off no better place than the OC Weekly comment section. If you stand up for your rights, cops don't like that. If you are a servile coward, they love that and let you on your way - I don't think you ever get held up. Happy New Year, to my favorite Government loving  alcoholic! 

sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter


but you avoid his pov for some 5th grade "philosophy" that he must have had a bad attitude etc

come on

take on his pov and defeat him