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Sudden Death of 32BJ Leader Héctor Figueroa Shocks City

Before his shocking death this week, 32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa, seen here in March, called for real immigration reform and an end to ICE’s “deportation machine”

NEW YORK, N.Y.—32BJ SEIU President Héctor J. Figueroa, an outspoken immigrants-rights advocate whose organizing campaigns dramatically expanded the building-service workers’ union, died suddenly of an apparent heart attack July 11. He was 57. 

“This is a devastating loss,” 32BJ said in a statement. “In his many years of service to our union, to the labor movement, and to our communities, he consistently joined together a clear vision about the empowerment of working people with compassion and energy.” He is survived by his wife, Deirdre, and two children, Eric and Elena. 

In the seven years since Figueroa was elected president of 32BJ in 2012, the union increased its membership by almost half, adding 30,000 new members through organizing—such as the four-year campaign that brought 8,000 workers at Newark, John F. Kennedy, and LaGuardia airports into the union. It now represents more than 163,000 property service workers, including superintendents, doormen, cleaners, airport workers, and security officers, throughout the Northeast and in Florida. The union also helped fast-food workers organize and put together numerous protests defending immigrants.

“He made a lasting impact on the heart and soul of our union, and he will be deeply missed,” SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry said in a statement. 

“Labor has lost a visionary and inspiring leader,” said Teamsters Joint Council 16 President George Miranda. “Hector Figueroa saw the cause of labor stretching far beyond the workplace and he fought alongside immigrants, communities of color, and other social movements. His groundbreaking campaigns and new ways of organizing empowered low-wage workers and brought economic security to many working-class families.”

The New York State AFL-CIO called him “a fierce advocate for working men and women.” “His work to empower New Yorkers, particularly immigrant communities, in the political arena was critical in shaping major debates and ultimately policies,” said New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta. 

Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised Figueroa as “a towering figure in politics and a hero of the labor community” who helped get the state’s $15 minimum wage passed and won “the historic $19 minimum wage for airport workers just last year.” “Héctor was an indefatigable force in our fight against Trump’s un-American assault on immigrant communities and a fierce defender of Puerto Rico,” he added. 

“I don’t have enough words,” said New York Taxi Workers Alliance head Bhairavi Desai. “I’ve never met a more kind, gentle, brave, righteous union leader.”

 “Héctor embodied that word ‘solidarity,’” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “His love of 32BJ SEIU ran deep, but you’d be just as likely to see him on the picket line with fast food workers or taxi drivers as you would with the custodians, service workers, and doormen he represented.”

“His legacy amongst some of the hardest-working, and yet overlooked workers, will live on forever with the countless security officers and service sector workers he helped lift into the middle class,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). 

Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Figueroa was the son of two teachers involved in a 1974 strike that attempted to win union recognition. He moved to the Bronx in 1982. After finishing college, he worked for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (now Workers United), including its early-1990s effort to organize textile workers in North Carolina.

He joined the SEIU in 1995 to work on its Justice for Janitors campaign, and then became the union’s organizing director in Puerto Rico—which, in 1998, finally won collective-bargaining rights for teachers and other public-sector workers. He came to 32BJ in 1999 and was elected its secretary-treasurer in 2000. Over the next decade, he built the union’s research and political departments while also serving as director of New York Metro District, by far its largest branch.

32BJ successfully pushed for legislation in several cities and states to raise the minimum wage, and protect workers when building owners change contractors. It advocated for New York City’s 2017 law that required fast-food and retail employers to give workers advance notice of their schedules. In April 2018, it won a four-year contract for more than 31,000 residential-building workers in the city that raised their pay to more than $50,000 a year, while continuing to have employers pay all of their health-insurance premiums.

The union’s biggest organizing success during Figueroa’s tenure came in December 2016, when, after four years of organizing and seven months of negotiations, it won a first contract for 8,000 workers at the New York metropolitan area’s three airports. The three-year deal covered baggage handlers, customer service agents, airport security officers, wheelchair attendants, cabin cleaners, and terminal cleaners employed by 11 airline subcontractors.

The campaign was complicated by the nature of subcontracting, that the airlines could easily replace contractors who agreed to higher wages with a lower bidder, 32BJ explained at the time. As a result, the contract did not set wages above the state minimum, but it did require subcontractors to give workers a minimum number of hours a week, prohibited them from firing workers without just cause, and mandated that if an airline replaced one contractor with another, the new contractor would have to hire the old one’s employees.

In September 2018, the Port Authority voted to raise wages for workers at all three airports to $19 an hour by 2023, a special bonus for workers at Newark who had been getting New Jersey’s lower minimum. The increase covered 40,000 workers, not just 32BJ’s 14,000 members.

32BJ also organized 1,500 airport workers in Philadelphia, who ratified their first union contract in June 2018, and another 1,500 in the Washington area approved theirs last December.

Figueroa and 32BJ occasionally found themselves on the opposite side of other unions, as when it endorsed the 2018 tax-break deal for Amazon to locate its satellite office in Queens. Amazon, which adamantly resisted letting its own employees unionize, had agreed to hire union contractors for building services, up to 3,000 jobs for 32BJ members. The unions trying to organize Amazon workers opposed the deal, but Figueroa argued that the company being in New York’s union environment and having union contractors would eventually lead to organizing Amazon’s warehouse and shipping facilities in the city.

With close to two-thirds of its members foreign-born (from 64 different countries), 32BJ under Figueroa was a strong advocate for immigrant rights. In January 2017, it helped organize protests against Trump’s executive order barring travelers from seven overwhelmingly Muslim countries from entering the U.S., including some legal resident aliens returning to the country. Figueroa called the ban a “truly cruel act of political posturing.”

A few months later, it helped stop the deportation of Juan Vivares, a 29-year-old Colombian immigrant married to a 32BJ member who was a U.S. citizen. Vivares, then the father of a 14-month-old son, had fled Colombia in 2011 after receiving death threats from right-wing paramilitary groups, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized him two months after his appeal for political asylum was denied. He was released after two weeks of detention pending appeal, and is still in the country.

Just before Figueroa’s untimely death, he and 32BJ were preparing for a rally they cosponsored to protest the Trump administration’s brutal detention camps for immigrants and impending ICE raids intended to deport thousands of others. 

“No matter their status, immigrants are terrified,” he said in his last public statement, released July 11. “As one of the largest majority-immigrant unions in the country, our union stands besides all those across this country who have been subject to demonization and mistreatment under the Trump administration. We raise our voice now to call on the President to cancel these raids, which will only tear apart communities and workplaces, further stress an inhumane detention system, and bring untold suffering to women, men and children.”

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