Julio Pérez: Bully of the Bullies
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."
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."
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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.
As the fourth-largest labor federation in California after Los Angeles, the Inland Empire and San Diego, Pérez sees a lot of potential in Orange County for progressive change and will follow Gebre's strategy in forming alliances.
"We can't do it by ourselves," he says. "We're not where we want to be, and we can't do it alone. We need to cultivate additional organizers—not just union, but community. These people know their lives better than us, and they just need a lift up to improve their communities. Getting more union members is a beautiful thing, but that's not all that's important. What's the point of raising wages for workers if their kids are getting killed by police, or if high rents take their gains away? It's all of us together."
Toward that end, OCLF has forged ties with the Centro Cultural de México, Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development and other groups. "We may have different styles of organizing, but at the end of the day we all want the same thing," he says.
"The American Dream that I was able to plug into isn't as easily available as before—and we're talking just a 15-year gap," he continues. "You have a better shot through the labor movement, where not only you can get a good job, but also we can advocate for good policy."
And he's not talking about getting more Democrats into office necessarily. "I know some people will measure me by how many elections we influence or how we change city councils," he says. "But I don't give a shit about elections. I don't give a shit about how many Democrats we get into office. I do care about people who will enact policy. We have a saying in the movement: 'We have permanent issues, not permanent friends.'
"It's all pie-in-the-sky, my ideas, sure," he concludes. "But I'll make sure Orange County can get there."
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