I first met Héctor Figueroa in the late 1980s. I was a young labor lawyer based in New York but traveling all over the South working on organizing campaigns (the NLRB kind, if you can remember back that far). Héctor was a young staffer in the Research Department of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers – he was a shy, skinny, bespectacled kid with a thick Spanish accent who had an almost naive enthusiasm for everything about the labor movement. Despite his shyness, I remember that he had a million questions about organizing workers in the South and about the work of a union lawyer.
The empathy and the love of working people that pervaded Héctor’s soul revealed itself to me even more strongly in the Fieldcrest Cannon campaign in North Carolina in 1991. Héctor was on hand that long, hot summer to help organize the Latino workers at Cannon – Mexicans and Guatemalans mostly – who had landed in the Carolinas to work in what was then a booming domestic textile industry. He was diligent and friendly and a true team player in one of the largest campaigns run at that time – 7,000 workers in seven locations in and around Kannapolis, North Carolina. It was close, but we lost that election and it took us two more tries to finally win an election and get a contract at those plants. Only a few years later they had all been closed and the industry had decamped for Asia. By then Héctor was back in Puerto Rico, where the legend began to unfold.
Héctor and I next crossed paths in a serious way in 2017, when I accepted a position as General Counsel of Local 32BJ. Never would I have dreamed back in 1987 that thirty years later Héctor would be one of the most inspiring, thoughtful, purposeful and personable labor leaders that our movement has produced – and yet he was every bit of that and more. It was one of the great privileges of my life to work with him again.
The Héctor Figueroa I worked with over the past 18 months was the model of what a labor leader should be. He was totally committed to member participation and to a style of collective and collaborative leadership that should be the standard in this country and in this movement. I have often joked since I got to 32BJ that the only drawback to the job has been too many meetings (way too many!), but I recognize now that the other side of that complaint is the reality that Héctor always made time to listen to everyone and to have candid and open discussions in which he showed a total willingness to change his mind and his decisions. I can name on one hand the number of union presidents with the confidence, and frankly the charisma, the humor and the light touch, to carry off that style of leadership.
Héctor and his predecessor Mike Fishman, along with a cadre of other high-level thinkers and doers who took over in 1999, constructed one of the most successful and impressive local union institutions the labor movement has ever seen. It is built on good member services, on confident organizing, on exerting political power, and on – and this is critical – open discussions about honest struggle regarding the inevitable tensions in an incredibly diverse membership.
The monument to Héctor is the union that is 32BJ today because of him; the tragedy is that he had so much more to give and to do. Although I am accused of being prone to exaggeration, I can still say with complete confidence and no overstatement that his passing is a huge loss not only to his own family and to his union family, but to the labor movement, to the United States, and to the world.