Kyle Bragg, president of Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, was interning at a sales finance company in the early 1980s and preparing to take the Series 7 license exam when it dawned on him: he was miserable.

His father, Eddie, was a union organizer and vice president at SEIU Local 1199, and his childhood consisted of attending labor protests.

Quite a View From Dad’s Shoulders

“I was on picket lines since I was 10 years old,” Mr. Bragg said in his office at 32BJ’s headquarters. “I used to go into Harlem with him and we’d see Malcolm X on the soapbox. I can barely remember what he was talking about but I know I was on my father’s shoulders.” A picture of his father standing next to Martin Luther King, Jr. decorated his office wall.

The second of five children, he was the closest to his father because he admired his activism. So Mr. Bragg made the decision to walk away from the finance industry because it was “everything I was opposed to, what I grew up believing in and being taught,” he said.

That’s when his father introduced him to the late Cecil Ward, the vice-president of 32BJ, which represents building-service employees. “My plan was to come to work for 32BJ, re-design my life, figure out what I wanted to do…and here I am,” he said with a laugh. “I did re-design my life, around principles that really fit who I am and what I believed in.”

Working as an organizer in Harlem, Mr. Bragg became disheartened because 32BJ under its shadowy then-president, Gus Bevona, wasn’t as member-driven as the labor groups he’d witnessed growing up. That all changed in 1999 when SEIU placed the local in trusteeship and a new leader, Mike Fishman, was elected the following year. Héctor Figueroa was elected secretary-treasurer, and Mr. Bragg was tapped to become Mr. Fishman’s assistant.

‘Like Taking Leash Off a Pitbull’

“It was like taking the leash off a pitbull,” Mr. Bragg said. “It was a lot of fun. I got to work with people who believed in the power of the membership, people who believed the strength of the union was grounded in the strength of the membership.”

The union began a widespread organizing campaign, stretching beyond the city into 11 states, and Washington, D.C., and tapping into previously unorganized industries, including airport workers. Under the leadership of Mr. Figueroa, who was elected in 2012—the same year Mr. Bragg became secretary-treasurer—Local 32BJ played a major role in the “Fight for $15” campaign that resulted in the state minimum wage increasing to $15 an hour this year.

The union also began advocating for important social-justice issues, including immigration reform and environmental initiatives.

“The work that we do goes far beyond the borders of our collective-bargaining agreements, it goes to the heart of working people and creating opportunities for people to move into the middle class,” Mr. Bragg said.

After spending 37 years at the union, Mr. Bragg was weighing retirement. But that all changed on July 11, when Mr. Figueroa died of a heart attack at age 57 and Mr. Bragg was elected to serve the rest of his term.

“I never envied Héctor’s position,” he admitted. “I mean, we’re a union of 178,000 members. Running an organization of this size is a massive undertaking.”

‘Tough Shoes to Fill’

What worried him most was that “Héctor was an incredible visionary and leader, so if there’s any anxiety, it’s trying to fill those shoes, to sustain a standard of excellence that he created.”

Mr. Bragg has been focused on securing contracts for members across the country, including for 22,000 office cleaners in the city whose pact is set to expire at the end of December.

Organizing fast-food workers was also on the long list of Mr. Bragg’s goals. “The mission has always been $15 and a union. No one should get up every day and not receive the return on their investment,” he said.

He also has a personal goal: to finish college, since he left York College during his junior year. Mr. Bragg worked as a mentor at the program, Our Brothers Guardian, where he talked to teens about the importance of education, “and I said ‘you know, you should at least follow your own example.’ ”

He considered becoming a Teacher after retirement because he loved working with kids (his wife is a retired Teacher). “I didn’t want to start another career. But I did want to be close to the youth, and I am now through the mentoring program,” he said.

He also used to coach basketball, but now indulges his devotion to the sport (mostly the Knicks) by going to the games with his son and breaking his habit of matching his socks to his tie by wearing Knicks socks on the day of a game. His basement is also dedicated to the team.

Mr. Bragg said that he didn’t see himself staying in the union’s top post beyond the next few years. “I really believe that you have to make space for the next generation. I really think far too often, particularly in the labor movement, that people stay long beyond their usefulness,” he said.


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