New York, NY – When late 32BJ SEIU leader Héctor Figueroa was memorialized at Riverside Church in Upper Manhattan earlier this week, the family requested donations made in his name be sent to groups confronting climate change and advocating immigration reform. It was telling. Before his untimely death on July 11, at age 57, Figueroa built newfound union strength organizing the unorganized and fighting for social justice — a multi-pronged mission his surviving union family is now determined to continue.
“Héctor was a man of incredible passion and compassion,” newly installed 32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg told LaborPress just before the start of Wednesday’s filled-to-capacity memorial service. “He believed the strength of the organization had to do with more than just winning strong contracts for our workers — we had to use our organization as a platform to fight for other things that impact our membership off their jobs — at home — in their communities.”
Throughout his tenure as 32BJ president, Figueroa and his members continually took to the streets marching and rallying for safe communities, healthy families, climate justice, immigrant rights and more — all on the way to doubling the size of 32BJ’s property service worker membership and helping to secure a $15 an hour minimum wage for low-income workers most believed was an absolute impossibility.
Ravi Ragbir, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, an advocacy group for immigrant workers subjected to detention and deportation, called Figueroa a strong leader who “recognized and understood injustices and fought for everyone.”
“He helped and supported me in my own struggles to stop my deportation, for which I will always be grateful,” Ragbir told LaborPress. “There are many members of 32BJ whose loved ones are undocumented and [Hector] stood up for them to keep their families together. We were lucky to have known him.”
With Figueroa’s passing, Bragg said 32BJ wants to “make sure we continue with all our allies and friends for a fair and just immigration system for the Untied States.”
“What’s happening now is wrong and it’s led by hate,” Bragg said. “And [Héctor] was anything but hate. He felt that love was the way in order for us to come together and advance this country to a place that it’s meant to be.”
Troy Robertson, a member of 32BJ’s executive board who started working with Figueroa back in 2012, remembered the late union leader as a “sweetheart” of a man.
“His heart, his vision — it’s overwhelming,” Robertson said. “I feel his spirit in me. To understand his way of getting things done…I love this guy. He instilled thoughts and leadership in me like no other. I carry that on now even as a supervisor who works in a building with hundreds of people and a thousand personalities — to know how to understand them as well as they understand me.”
Fast food worker and Fight for $15 veteran Shantel Walker stood across the street from Riverside Church just prior to the start of the memorial service where she was asked about Figueroa’s impact on the working men and women he spent his life championing.
“We’re going to continue on with his legacy,” Walker said. “He instilled so many things in us — we have no choice but to keep moving forward in the right direction because that’s what he wanted us to do — keep on moving forward. Just wait and see.”
Yenny Hernandez, a 32BJ member for the last 13 years, called Figueroa “family,” while still expressing shock that he is actually gone.
“The message is to keep fighting,” Hernandez said. “[Héctor] put the passion and fight in every campaign — the most lovely campaigns. All the time he said, ‘we, the family, united.’ He never said ‘I.’”
For all his accomplishments, not too many know that in addition to being an influential union leader, and a doting husband and father — the Puerto Rican-born Figueroa was also an artist.
“If he was in this church right now, it would be hard for him to resist taking out his pen and pad and just start sketching,” Bragg said. “He was a man of incredible depth and range.”
Bragg began working with Figueroa in 32BJ back in 1999. Observing historic events in Figueroa’s beloved island of Puerto Rico, Bragg lamented not being able to share them with him.
“It’s a shame that he’s not here with us as to see that the governor is stepping down because I would want to be with my brother now celebrating that moment,” Bragg said. “[Héctor] was a proud Boricua.”
In an op-ed he penned just prior to his death, Figueroa wrote, “To make lasting change for American workers, unions cannot focus only on dues paying members. We need a broader movement that helps every family — union or nonunion — win economic security.”
Figueroa was involved in so many campaigns and so many struggles that 32BJ’s new president said, “The world won’t even understand the loss for years to come.”
“His influence has helped so many people: the Fight for $15, paid sick leave, airport workers, fast food workers — Hector was an innovator and incredibly brilliant strategist, and I was incredibly fortunate to work with him side-by-side and learn from him for 20 years.”