Kyle Bragg, the president since 2019 of 32BJ-SEIU, a powerful union representing more than 175,000 airport, building and service workers, announced his retirement effective Wednesday after nearly 40 years in the labor movement.

Formerly a secretary-treasurer of the union, Bragg, 63, became president following the sudden death of Héctor Figueroa, the beloved leader who had helped put 32BJ in the vanguard of organizing and advocating for low-wage workers, including those who are not union members.

Under Bragg’s and Figueroa’s leadership, 32BJ’s ranks nationally grew by more than 50,000 members, even as American union representation continued its 40-year decline. 

Bragg’s nearly three-and-a-half years at the helm, mostly during the COVID era, proved a tumultuous time for 32BJ’s membership.

At the peak of the pandemic, half of the nearly 20,000 building workers in New York City represented by the union were unemployed. (About 180 died from the virus.) But those workers were able to keep their health benefits during office closures, and employers were obligated to recall those union members to jobs when staff was needed again. Though 2,000 positions disappeared between layoffs, turnover and retirements, the vast majority are back at work.

Protecting those workers was Bragg’s proudest achievement in his time at the helm of 32BJ. In an exclusive interview on Tuesday, he said: “The work that we’ve done to protect our members during the course of this pandemic instills a lot of pride in me.”

In that time, the union also proved instrumental in securing legislative achievements such as fast-food worker job protections, while also reaching a settlement in which Chipotle paid $20 million to workers it had allegedly cheated out of fair schedules and sick days. It also obtained a contract this spring securing raises and averting a strike for more than 30,000 residential doormen.

Bragg’s successor, Manny Pastreich, 53, the union’s secretary-treasurer, will be tasked with winning new contracts for the region’s 70,000 unionized office workers and cleaners; the contract that includes roughly 20,000 office building workers in New York expires in just over one year, on Dec. 31, 2023. Pastreich will also continue the union’s decade-long organizing of fast-food workers. 

Work-From-Home Worries

State Sen. Jessica Ramos, who worked alongside Bragg at 32BJ a decade ago when she was a member communications coordinator and he was head of the residential division covering doormen, supers and other workers in apartment buildings, said the labor leader is a “tried and true trade unionist” who cared deeply about doing right by members.

“I think having faced the unspeakable, with Hector’s passing first and then the pandemic, it was his leadership that carried the union throughout both of those watershed moments,” she said. “I think that speaks to his tenacity, his focus and his heart.”

In a joint interview with THE CITY, Bragg and Pastreich discussed the union’s future amid labor’s resurgence in the city and nation — acknowledging that their core membership, building-service workers and cleaners, are in for a tough battle amid rising inflation and the persistence of work-from-home trends.

Average weekday office occupancy in the New York region is at just 50% of pre-pandemic levels. As of September, only 9% of office workers were in the workplace five days a week, a survey from the Partnership for New York City found.

Pastreich said that even as the union looks to build on its momentum from the contract secured for residential building workers in the spring, office and industrial building workers should anticipate a bitter fight.

“We’re going to be facing high inflation, there are signs that there’s a recession on the horizon, remote work has changed the pace of cleaning and the operations of office buildings, and when we sit down to bargain, we’re expecting the owners and the contractors to come in saying that they want to take givebacks, let alone help us move forward at this time of inflation,” he said. 

“Within the world of our membership, that’s the big challenge that we have in front of us.”

Fast Food Sizzle

Pastreich will also be tasked with leading 32BJ’s fast-food worker campaign, which was ushered in by the Fight for $15 that launched a decade ago and to date has led to paid sick leave, fair scheduling and a local “just cause” law forbids firing fast-food workers citywide without warning or cause.

But like the Fight for $15, the fast-food campaign, heavy on Chipotle workers, has not yielded new union members at a time when other low-wage workers — most prominently Starbucks baristas and Amazon warehouse workers — have joined the labor movement in droves.

In August, Chipotle workers at a store in Lansing, MI voted 11-3 to join the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — the first and so far only store of the Tex-Mex fast-casual chain to win union recognition.

“We take great pride in the part we played in that, and we’ve continued to push the envelope for fast food workers,” Pastreich said, noting the $20 million Chipotle paid workers.

Starbucks Workers United, which like 32BJ is an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, has won more than 250 union elections across the country over the past year, but has yet to secure a contract.

“We’re gonna continue to work with those workers about what they think is the best way to win. I mean, ultimately, what we want to do is have the power not only to get recognition to win a good contract,” Pastreich said. “We’re not closed to any single way of going about it.”

SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, in an interview with THE CITY last month, said that the union “is not going to stop until all fast-food workers have a union in this country.”

Having won its Fight for $15 campaign, 32BJ is also leading calls to increase the minimum wage in New York City to $21 by 2025.

In his interview with THE CITY, Bragg said he had originally intended to retire in Feb. 2020, until Figueroa’s passing the previous summer changed his plans. 

The son of a union organizer, Bragg said that he’s made it clear that he’ll be a phone call away for anything the union needs — and that he might do some consulting on the side, too.

“I believe that the timing is perfect to pass the baton on to those leaders who are waiting in the wings to carry the union forward and continue to build on the great work that we’ve accomplished in the past,” Bragg said.