David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

Hector Figueroa, the late president of the Service Employees International Union 32BJ, was smart, fearless and ferocious. He always knew which side to be on and it was always the side of the poor, the powerless, and workers who got paid by the hour. His death this month was a great loss.

He led successful campaigns for better pay and working conditions for 170,000 union members who work as building custodians, superintendents, security guards, doormen and airport workers in New York, as well as 11 other states along the eastern seaboard. He didn’t dodge fights for what he believed was right.

Community Service Society’s (CSS) relationship with 32BJ extends back to our research supporting their efforts to unionize security guards. A 2006 CSS report examining the city’s security industry found that it was comprised of mainly low-paid, minimally trained men of color, which led to high turnover. The result: both the workers and public safety were being shortchanged. In contrast, the better wages, benefits and training received by unionized guards transformed the role into good jobs, with motivated, steady workers able to handle emergencies and ensure the public safety.

More recently, 32BJ provided high-visibility support for CSS-led campaigns for paid sick leave for low-wage workers, and for Fair Fares, the half-priced MetroCard program for the poor. The union’s support was vital to these campaigns, and we were honored to work on them together.

Before Hector’s death, CSS and 32BJ were collaborating on a series of 2020 Presidential candidates’ forums to focus on urban poverty and the working poor. The idea for these forums – which will go on – is to force candidates to go on record with an expansive description of their policies to address income inequity and issues impacting urban communities. Hector was forceful in his belief that putting candidates to the test like this was an essential component of labor organizing: shining a light on topics and employment sectors that most would pass by.

Much of 32BJ’s recent success was the result of Figueroa’s sheer force of personality, media savvy and tactics that took on the hallmark of a social movement. Warm and personable, he built this playbook carefully, grounding it in his decades of experience on labor’s front lines. Born in Puerto Rico, he was also born into the labor movement as the son of teachers who waged a lifelong fight to unionize the profession. Hector spent most of his life in the labor movement, getting his start as a researcher with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union in New York, and later joining the service workers union in Washington.

Figueroa was elected 32BJ president in 2012 and re-elected last year. His leadership was a success on so many levels, among them membership: during his seven years as president, 32BJ SEIU added about 50,000 members while building its political clout.

Boosting the earnings of low-wage workers was a recurring theme for Figueroa. One of 32BJ’s signature efforts was the “Fight for 15” campaign, which helped force Governor Cuomo’s increase in the state minimum wage to $15 an hour this year. This change made a significant difference for workers across the state. Here in New York City, Hector achieved even more. In 2017, 32BJ demanded higher wages for the 40,000 workers at the region’s three main airports. Hector insisted on a minimum wage of $17.98 per hour, higher than the $15 per hour in the group’s national campaign, because the cost of living in this city is so extreme. Last year, after several brief picket lines and intense negotiations, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey agreed to raise the minimum wage to $19 per hour to be phased in by 2023. Figueroa was rightly celebrated as hero.

The union leader also had a fierce independent streak. He wasn’t afraid to take risks even if it meant a sharp break from the conventional progressive policies he routinely embraced. For instance, he supported Amazon’s aborted plans to create a headquarters in Queens. While elected officials and community activists balked at Amazon’s rich tax breaks, the means by which the almost-deal was brokered, and the tech giant’s resistance to unionization, Figueroa said at the time he wanted Amazon on 32BJ’s “home field,” as he put it, where he could start organizing its workers.

Figueroa wasn’t a coward. And he was not afraid to break ranks when his members’ jobs were at stake. We didn’t always agree, like in the fight for more pro-tenant rent laws, but we always respected him for being a staunch fighter for his members’ interests.

What made him so unique, and such a role model for others, was his keen focus on low-wage workers – it never faltered. He will be very hard to replace. But his important work must continue.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.