Additional reporting by Rosa Goldensohn
The sudden death of union leader Héctor Figueroa stunned the New York labor and political worlds, which mourned a crusader who helped put a $15 minimum wage and paid sick leave within workers’ reach.
Figueroa, who died late Thursday at age 57, served as president of 32BJ SEIU, a building workers’ union he helped transform into a powerhouse. Under him, 32BJ fought successfully not only for its own members — but for better pay and working conditions more broadly.
The union represents about 155,000 maintenance workers, cleaners, porters, window cleaners, airport workers, superintendents, doormen and security officers across 11 states and Washington. During Figueroa’s seven-year tenure leading the 32BJ, its ranks swelled by 50,000 members, even as union representation declined nationally
As news of his death emerged Friday, those who’d worked with him reflected on the power and principles that belied Figueroa’s unassuming demeanor and his vast impact.
Figueroa was a “long range thinker” who was “always looking at the long game,” said Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-The Bronx).
“Hector was probably one of the most honest people I’ve ever dealt with in this business. He was always a straight shooter. You always knew where he stood,” Heastie said. “There was always his concern for people. It wasn’t just a concern for his union or members. He was always trying to find a way — particularly for people who were less fortunate — always try to be the voice for them.”
Figueroa mobilized money and members to press relentlessly for a $15 minimum wage, and succeeded after winning over Gov. Andrew Cuomo to the cause in 2016. “We are fighting for low-wage workers,” he told Politico. “We feel that we need to lift the floor in this economy to preserve and have a middle class.”
Maximum Effort on Minimum Wage
It worked. Wages will rise to $15 an hour for all New York City employers by the end of the year, with increases for the rest of the state to follow.
Representing many real estate industry employees, Figueroa advanced pragmatic partnerships increasingly out of favor with progressives in the Democratic Party — but also kept an uncompromising focus on workers, say colleagues.
“Hector was that all too rare labor leader who cared less about access and influence and more about outcomes and results,” said Neal Kwatra, a political strategist and former political director of the New York Hotel Trades Council, which represents hotel employees.
“He wasn’t afraid to push hard for his members, and you couldn’t placate or neutralize him with an invite to Gracie or the Governor’s Mansion,” Kwatra added. “He knew the score in every negotiation he was in and more often than not delivered for his members and working people writ large.”
Breakthroughs for Workers
Figueroa joined 32BJ in 1999, part of a team brought in after the parent union seized control from longtime president Gus Bevona, notorious for his high salary, luxurious lower Manhattan offices and plummeting membership numbers.
As political director/secretary-treasurer and later head of the local, Figueroa worked aggressively to expand the union’s ranks. He saw his role as not only advocating for his members, but also building the broader labor movement in the region and beyond.
When picketing on behalf of workers in one industry, Figueroa took pains to connect the dots between their plight and others in similar situations — as he did while fighting to increase wages for workers at airports run by the Port Authority.
“We have a system that seems to be designed to maintain services while keeping workers in poverty,” Figueroa told the Queens Times Ledger in 2013, while rallying at LaGuardia Airport. “These used to be good-paying jobs, but we see the same problems all across the contracting system, whether it be in health care or property services.”
After several setbacks, that campaign last year culminated in a pay hike for those cleaners, wheelchair attendants, baggage handlers and others, to a minimum of $19 an hour by 2023.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s statement after his death captured the vast sweep of Figueroa’s reach in advocating for workers.
“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,” said de Blasio, who won election with 32BJ’s backing.
Figueroa’s other included a requirement that all real estate developments receiving a widely used tax break pay their workers a prevailing wage and a city law that entitles most workers to up to five paid sick days.
Figueroa also pushed for immigrants’ rights and wanted unions to set ambitious goals for bringing in new members — while recognizing that dues provided a limited supply of funds.
“We have to spend the resources we got,” he said in a 2016 interview. “We’re not a life insurance company.”
Fighting to the Last
Born in Puerto Rico, for which he advocated passionately, Figueroa, a married father of two, lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. After the union sold Bevona’s lavish tower, Figueroa stacked his office in the union headquarters on West 18th Street with books on economics, history and social science.
He studied economics at New York’s New School, but left academia to organize textile workers and never returned.
Figueroa union played a key role in helping turn the state Senate to Democratic control — making about $171,000 campaign contributions in the 2018 cycle, and providing crucial endorsements and get-out-the-vote forces to insurgents.
“I was incredibly shocked to get the 32BJ endorsement,” State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi (D-The Bronx) told THE CITY. “They were one of, if not the reason, we won. They weren’t just an endorsement — put a rubber stamp — they had their members do everything.”
Yet the progressive winds that drove the Senate victory also blew back onto Figueroa — most visibly over his union’s advocacy of Amazon’s plans for a headquarters in Long Island City.
Under an agreement forged with the retail giant, governor and mayor, the company’s New York sites would have been required to hire union building service workers.
After fierce backlash based in part on reports of Amazon’s mistreatment of warehouse employees, the company pulled out of the deal on Feb. 14. Figueroa argued that New York progressives had made a terrible mistake by driving 25,000 or more jobs to states where unions are weak.
He was similarly critical of sweeping changes to the rent laws that passed the Legislature last month, urging lawmakers to listen seriously to landlords’ concerns as well as tenants’.
Though a political fighter, Figueroa was given to public moments of vulnerability.
“For all who ask how I sleep at night its kind of private but since you ask -most often I’m tired, the struggle for justice is hard,” he tweeted last year. “Winning for a huge multi-state union of POC [people of color] is hard too. Supporting a family while at it, exhausting. I sleep a few hours, on my left, like a log.”