figueroa funeral

FOND FAREWELL TO A VISIONARY LEADER: Thousands of members of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union poured into Riverside Church July 25 for a memorial service honoring Hector Figueroa, their president who had died of a heart attack two weeks earlier. His successor, Kyle Bragg, described him as ‘this amazing strategist who learned how to win big for working people.’

During the July 19 funeral service for Hector Figueroa, a longtime friend, Steve Giles, recalled that the building-service-workers-union president had persuaded the president of the New York Yankees to place a plaque of Nelson Mandela commemorating his 1990 visit to Yankee Stadium in Monument Park.

The request seemed a long shot, Mr. Giles told the gathering of family and friends in the Guida Funeral Home in Corona, Queens, since, with the exception of three Popes who had conducted services at the Stadium, the plaques were devoted almost exclusively to people directly connected to the Bronx Bombers, from Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of their early glory years through the eras of Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and longtime owner George Steinbrenner.

Mr. Mandela, like the Popes, had presided over a large rally at the second version of the Stadium, in his case in June 1990, when he visited New York to make his case for ending apartheid in South Africa. When he ended his speech, Mayor David Dinkins placed a Yankee jacket on his shoulders and a team cap on his head, and the recently freed political prisoner and future President of his native country told the crowd with a smile, “You now know who I am. I am a Yankee.”

Not the Easiest Audience

After Mr. Mandela died in 2013, Mr. Figueroa, then in his second year as president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, reached out to Yankee President Randy Levine to ask that the team honor Mr. Mandela with a plaque based on that appearance. Mr. Levine was a former Labor Commissioner and Deputy Mayor, but also arguably more of a Republican than the Mayor he served, Rudy Giuliani, who had unseated Mr. Dinkins in 1993 in the second of their two bitter election battles.

Mr. Figueroa was in his late 20s at the time of the Mandela visit, and while he had developed a reputation as an organizer in his native Puerto Rico, he hadn’t yet made his mark in the labor movement here. But as former 32BJ President Mike Fishman, who worked closely with him on the “Justice for Janitors” national campaign conducted by the SEIU in the mid-1990s, noted in his eulogy, “His mind was academic, but his soul was [that of] a campaigner.”

Whatever he said to Mr. Levine won that particular campaign: in April 2014, at a time when the team was also honoring another non-Yankee who was a pioneer of integration, Jackie Robinson, owner Hal Steinbrenner presented a plaque that would adorn Monument Park to Mr. Mandela’s grandson, Zondwa.

Mr. Giles recalled that when he expressed amazement at his securing that honor for the late South African leader, Mr. Figueroa replied, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

That was a theme echoed by other speakers at the funeral of Mr. Figueroa, who died of a heart attack July 11 at age 57, and those at a far-larger memorial service July 24 that filled the cathedral of Riverside Church in Harlem and spilled into another room two floors below that featured a closed-circuit broadcast of the proceedings.

One old friend who spoke at his funeral, Ricardo Mosquera, described him as “a brilliant, passionate man, committed to his family and his community.” He and others suggested there was little daylight between how the union leader treated those who were closest to him and the employees he represented, devoting long hours to helping them to a better life.

His achievements on their behalf could be seen in concrete terms: Mr. Figueroa was a prime mover in the “Fight for $15” that elevated the state’s minimum wage to that amount by enlisting the support of Governor Cuomo not long after he had dismissed the idea as the fantasy of a group of labor leaders and Democratic legislators. He also organized 40,000 airport workers in New York and New Jersey while winning them a contract that will pay them $19 an hour by 2023.

Ana Maria Archila, the co-executive director of The Center for Popular Democracy, told the gathering at Riverside Church that Local 32BJ’s membership increased by nearly 50,000 during Mr. Figueroa’s seven-plus years in office, building on the gains made under Mr. Fishman, whom he served in several roles including secretary-treasurer when they took power at the union in 2000.

Revitalized Broken Union

What was particularly remarkable about those gains in membership and the rights and benefits they enjoy was where the union had been prior to their grabbing its reins. Local 32BJ had been placed in trusteeship in 1999 after its national leadership had enough of the high-handed, sometimes-shady conduct of longtime President Gus Bevona, who lived in a penthouse at the top of the union’s then-headquarters just north of Canal St. and discouraged participation by his rank and file.

In 1991, when Mr. Bevona called a walkout of the residential-building workers he represented, doormen in three different Manhattan neighborhoods said they were unaware of a strike vote being taken. One city official, asked if he knew the reason for the job action, said that as far as he could tell, it came about solely because “this guy wanted it.”

A reformer named Carlos Guzman tried to challenge Mr. Bevona, and got some ammunition from documents filed with the Federal Government showing that the union leader was being paid $400,000. The union leader responded by having two men follow Mr. Guzman, who became concerned that he had been targeted to be killed; in fact, they were private detectives hired to dig up dirt on this dissident who had embarrassed the union president.

The local’s membership dropped by roughly 15,000 in the late 1990s, even as Mr. Bevona boasted that he had made his rank and file the best-paid building-service workers in the nation. Mr. Fishman and Mr. Figueroa were convinced that the union’s ability not only to survive but to grow depended on engaging members and enlisting them in rallies pushing for the causes they championed.

“Hector dedicated every day of his life to the project of building a just society,” Ms. Archila told the crowd. His contract achievements and membership gains were impressive, she said, “But his legacy extends so far beyond the contracts that he and his members of Local 32BJ were able to win. He helped build organizations of immigrants. He didn’t just talk of his vision per se, he lent the muscle of the union to build it.”

She noted that this was a continuation of his days as an organizer in Puerto Rico, and that he had never forgotten his roots, returning there repeatedly, particularly after the island was wracked by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, to help in whatever way he could.

“He believed fundamentally that we could not be free if we did not understand each other,” Ms. Archila said.

Won Over Landlords, Too

The effusiveness of her tribute was matched by a leading real-estate-industry executive who made clear that they had been able to conclude a pair of four-year contracts ahead of the deadline because of the mutual respect that developed between them.

Eric Rudin, the president of Rudin Management Company and a key player at the industry’s bargaining agent, the Realty Advisory Board, said that when they first met during the2014 contract talks, Mr. Figueroa was “a very different kind of leader than the person I expected: gracious and soft-spoken, self-effacing and charming,” and with a good sense of humor.

“He was a consensus-builder,” he continued. “He viewed the union and the industry as partners…in his eyes, we were all playing on the same team, in a win-win situation.”

Mr. Figueroa leaned distinctly left in his politics; as one speaker at his funeral five days earlier had said, he was “a beacon of light in the progressive community.” He actively involved the union in State Senate races last year aimed at unseating those who had been part of the Independent Democratic Conference, believing their alignment with Senate Republicans had blocked passage of a number of initiatives that would have benefitted his members in their home lives away from their jobs. The changing of the guard that resulted was felt most deeply in the real-estate industry, which had long counted on Republican State Senators to hold the line in the ongoing battle over rent regulations.

But with Democrats holding commanding majorities in both houses of the State Legislature this year, Mr. Figueroa sought to limit some of the changes they sought in that area. His position was based not on altruistic feelings for the landlords he dealt with at the bargaining table but rather the understanding that if he wanted to keep securing decent contracts for his members, those landlords had to be able to make a reasonable profit on their buildings.

Hoped to Organize Amazon

That also explained why he had supported the deal reached by Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo nine months ago to allow Amazon to build a new headquarters in Long Island City, and broke with many progressives who cheered when Amazon walked away from the agreement in February because of intensifying opposition to it within the borough. The notoriously anti-union online giant had promised that the new headquarters would create 25,000 jobs, and as Mr. Rudin noted, Mr. Figueroa “recognized a huge opportunity to represent so many of those workers on his home court.”

That mix of pragmatism and idealism produced an unusual phenomenon: a union leader who seemingly had no critics within the labor community. One veteran journalist privately described him with a comparison to another union president from a quarter-century ago who made great strides in a relatively short period, only “without the neuroses” that eventually limited that leader’s effectiveness at a time when he figured to be peaking.

SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry, who had also spoken at his funeral service, said their frequent “open, honest debates about strategy” was one of the things she would miss most. She said Mr. Figueroa’s ability to lead came from “a deep love and his ferocious courage,” calling him “a working-class intellectual, a proud Puerto Rican.”

Donna Hampton, an airport employee who was among Local 32BJ’s newer members, spoke of her grief over his death, then said, “Hector had a way of being in a room. You didn’t have to see him, but you knew he was there.”

Troy Robertson, an activist in the union’s New Jersey security division, said, “Hector Figueroa was so compassionate, so warm, [he] would talk to anybody at any level,” prompting those in the church pews to begin a call-and-response chant of “32” “BJ!”

Kyle Bragg, who a day earlier had been elected by the union’s board to succeed him after serving as its executive vice president, spoke of the days when Mr. Figueroa oversaw the local’s residential-buildings division while he ran the division covering commercial buildings.

‘Made Human Connections’

“I will miss my president, and I will miss my brother,” he said. Recalling their marching together on issues ranging from climate change to stop-and-frisk, he said, “He was this amazing strategist who learned how to win big for working people. He was always looking to make a human connection with whoever he talked with, whether it was the Governor or a building cleaner.”

Mr. Bragg continued, “Hector came to 32BJ to build a union that was not only about our jobs. He built a union centered around the idea that to succeed, we would love and protect each other. Hector, we are all here with you. We are a strong, beautiful family. We already miss you, my brother, but our tears won’t prevent us from pursuing the path that you set us on.”

Amid all the eloquence of his union colleagues and Mayor de Blasio, who said, “Hector was an example of someone who loved his family first and foremost and brought his love to everyone else,” the speaker who made the strongest impression on me was his son, Eric, who will soon be entering his junior year at Cooper Union.

Hector was married to Deidre McFadyen, a former associate editor of this newspaper who is now the head of internal communications for the United Federation of Teachers. We had remained friendly after she left The Chief in 2004, and our families would get together every summer for an outing at Monmouth Racetrack, where she and Hector spent at least as much time at the events set up for children—their daughter Elena, who’s 10, was particularly fond of the pony rides—as they would making $2 bets on the races, with their selections made in close consultation with the kids.

When I first met Eric, he was a bright-but-shy elementary-school student, not much into sports and still seeming to feel the effects of Hector’s divorce from his mom. By the time he finished high school, he wouldn’t have qualified as a chatterbox, but he’d become more outgoing, more comfortable among adults.

Poised Amid Heartbreak

Watching him give a eulogy for his dad at the funeral service, it was striking how poised he had become, how eloquently he spoke despite a loss that that you knew was as wrenching for him as for his step-mom and younger sister. And as much as the changes in him were attributable to his finding a niche at college and outgrowing adolescent uncertainties, you knew a significant part of that maturity was the result of having grown old enough to round out his relationship with a person one of the eulogists described this way: “artistic, firebrand, warrior, the sweet man who loved his family.”

Because until recently this newspaper devoted little coverage to private-sector unions (Local 32BJ has a few thousand members who work in school buildings, but the great majority of its rank and file doesn’t work for government employers), I had never done an in-depth interview with Hector, and our conversations at the track and other get-togethers were largely confined to friendly chit-chat without much substance. Seeing Eric like that, and listening to the descriptions by those who went way back with Hector that fleshed out the man who had accomplished so much in a relatively short tenure running a growing union, I found myself wishing I had gotten to know him better while he was around.

There was consolation, though, in the memories he left and the appreciation expressed by so many of the speakers for what Ms. Hampton called his “ability to unite.”

Ms. Archila seemed to say it best when she remarked, “Our movement lost a giant who did not behave like a giant. He behaved like a human being who knew he needed all of us to survive and to thrive.”

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