Héctor Figueroa died last week at the tragically young age of 57. I had the good fortune to work with Héctor for the past seventeen years, and to watch him grow into a truly inspiring leader. For the past seven years Héctor was President of SEIU Local 32BJ, a union with 175,000 members primarily along the East Coast.
Local 32BJ organized thousands of new workers during each year of Héctor’s Presidency. That should be unremarkable, but unfortunately, it’s not. The sad fact is that most unions in this country have essentially given up on organizing, or have forgotten how to organize successfully. There are many reasons for this, including labor laws that are stacked against workers. But Héctor was not one to wring his hands on the sidelines waiting for labor law reform that may never come. Instead, Héctor committed the resources of our Union to long term campaigns, such as an ongoing multi-year effort to organize airport service workers. And while laws mandating sectoral bargaining would surely increase worker power, Local 32BJ has made sectoral bargaining a reality right now, convincing over twenty airport contractors at JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark Airports to sign on to a master agreement that now covers over 8,000 workers.
Héctor was the embodiment of one of the lessons I learned as a young union organizer – the strongest leader at a worksite is often not the most outspoken person. As the current occupant of the White House reminds us, popular culture has brought us the image of a strong leader as an abrasive, egotistical figure. By contrast, Héctor generated fierce loyalty among the staff and membership of Local 32BJ as a result of his intellect, vision, integrity, sense of humor, compassion, and fundamental decency. Héctor was not just a model of what a labor leader should be, he should also be a role model for any aspiring CEO. Héctor held himself and others at the Union to the highest ethical standards, imposing a code of ethics that, among other things, prohibited staff and officers from accepting even token gifts from employers, vendors, and members. Héctor also welcomed dialogue and criticism, both inside and outside our organization. Even on Twitter, a forum notorious for its toxic exchanges, Héctor was always respectful and engaging. If someone insulted him on Twitter for taking a certain position, he would respond by patiently explaining the reasoning behind his decision. As a result, he often won admirers even when he couldn’t change people’s minds.
Héctor’s death leaves a giant hole in the labor movement. Héctor recognized that Local 32BJ could not continue its successes as an island in a sea of unorganized workers, and he has made sure that all of the Union’s rank-and-file leaders understand this insight. That’s why Local 32BJ has embarked on a campaign to organize fast food workers, and has lent support to efforts to organize dairy workers and app-based drivers. Héctor also tried to place Local 32BJ at the center of efforts to build a progressive political movement. Héctor spoke out eloquently on an a wide range of issues: under Héctor’s leadership, Local 32BJ was one of the first unions in the country to endorse the Green New Deal; after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, he wrote about the need for a Marshall Plan to rebuild the island’s economy; and as the leader of a Union whose members hail from dozens of countries, Héctor often spoke out against the Trump Administration’s cruel and divisive immigration policies. He was a spokesperson for a Union of workers who are often invisible – the people who clean offices, schools, and arenas at night after everyone else has gone home, the security officers who guard lonely posts, and the porters who empty the recycling bins at apartment buildings while residents are at work. And for all the talk of automation and factories moving overseas, Héctor helped remind the public that many millions of service jobs can’t easily be moved or automated. Héctor was remarkably well-informed and well-read – when he spoke, people listened because he would often tell them something they did not already know. This is unfortunately all too rare in an era dominated by sound bites and slogans.
One legacy that Héctor has left behind is a Union of 175,000 members that is poised to fulfill the vision that he articulated. While we will miss his leadership, his wisdom, and his good humor, we will redouble our efforts to make this country live up to its ideals and to build a more just and fair society.