New York City

Hector Figueroa’s left legacy

Hector Figueroa stood apart from most labor leaders because he cared deeply about engaging with broader left movements beyond his union’s immediate interests, writes Ross Barkan.

Hector Figueroa, discussing the New York Fast Food Wage Board's recommendation for a $15 per hour minimum wage in 2015.

Hector Figueroa, discussing the New York Fast Food Wage Board's recommendation for a $15 per hour minimum wage in 2015. a katz/Shutterstock

The tragedy of Hector Figueroa’s untimely death will be felt in New York’s political firmament for years to come. Figueroa, who died of a heart attack on July 11th, was not just the president of a major labor union, 32BJ SEIU, and a power broker, whom various players in the political ecosystem hunted out for advice and favors. Union leaders come and go, and many are forgotten. Figueroa, however, stood apart because he harkened back to a radical labor tradition that has been all but lost today.

Figueroa is probably best known for helping to spearhead the Fight for $15 movement, which began quixotically in 2012 and eventually drew even centrist supporters like Gov. Andrew Cuomo. New York City today has a $15/hour minimum wage and the movement has gone national, with House Democrats backing a bill to make $15/hour the federal wage. Meanwhile, he successfully pressured the Port Authority to start paying airport workers $19 an hour. He would ultimately add 50,000 members to his union over the course of his tenure, turning the predominately nonwhite building cleaners, doormen, security guards and airport workers into a potent political force.

What set Figueroa apart from his labor brethren wasn’t necessarily these victories, though they were consequential. The future obituaries of the current crop of labor leaders in New York will note the sizable gains they made for their own workers in a labor-friendly city.

He stood apart from them because he actually cared about engaging with broader left movements beyond his union’s immediate interests.

This sounds obvious, almost anodyne. The heads of most unions will talk about progressive values. They overwhelmingly back Democrats and they advocate for capturing a greater share of corporate profits for rank-and-file workers. But most are narrowly invested in the gains of their own unions, even at the expense of other working-class people, cutting deals with those in power to maintain their advantage. On one hand, this is rational, and the rank-and-file of transactional unions may see their wages and benefits increased. On the other hand, deeper, longer-lasting gains for the working class and poor are sacrificed for short-term treats. (In one notorious example, some unions have opposed creating a single-payer national health insurance plan because they benefit from the generous health insurance coverage – and the patronage and profiteering opportunities in union-run health insurance plans – that they have negotiated with individual companies or industries.)

Figueroa was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the most prominent anti-capitalist organization New York has seen since the New Deal. For Figueroa, new left movements were never something to be feared. Any successful attempt to radically redistribute income will require the explosive expansion of labor unions and their merger with the millions of people who want to build a movement but know nothing of labor politics. A schism persists between the powerful labor unions of New York and leftist grassroots organizations like DSA that are dominated by college-educated professionals. Of any union boss, Figueroa had by far the greatest interest in bridging the divide.

Figueroa’s desire to build progressive political power manifested in his union’s campaign against the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, a now-defunct group of Democrats in the state Senate who partnered with Republicans to keep them in power. This GOP-IDC alliance, which lasted for half a decade without meaningful opposition from Cuomo, was widely accepted as a permanent feature of New York’s warped political landscape. When I began writing critical coverage of the IDC in 2016, there were very few elected officials and labor unions who would dare utter a cross word about their collusion with conservative Republicans, for fear of alienating potential allies in Albany.

Major labor unions with business before state government, like the United Federation of Teachers and the Transport Workers Union, were outright IDC supporters. Others, like 1199 SEIU, routinely funneled cash to the Senate Republicans, ignoring entreaties to do the same for beleaguered Democrats. The logic was rather simple: the IDC and the Republicans were going to keep power, so why not cater to them to win favorable treatment?

Activists on the left, alarmed by Donald Trump’s election, turned their attention to this betrayal in their own backyard. In the early months, they were on their own, protesting at town halls, passing out leaflets, and organizing however they could. Politicians were polite but distant. Most labor unions shrugged. Cuomo wanted the IDC, the IDC was here to stay, so why bother?

Figueroa bothered. Though he was a Cuomo ally who had rarely bucked him on political or policy matters in the past, he decided to bring his union’s full power to bear on crushing the IDC. His target was their leader, Jeff Klein, who had faced a lonely primary challenger in 2014, Oliver Koppell, dispatching him with relative ease.

Without 32BJ’s hundreds of thousands of dollars, army of volunteers, and general guidance, Alessandra Biaggi, a first-time candidate, probably would not have toppled Klein, who spentnearly $3 million on his race. Figueroa took a tremendous risk, while other labor leaders sat on the sidelines. Klein was a notoriously cunning and vindictive legislative leader. Had Klein survived, he would have found a way to punish Figueroa.

Instead, Klein was vanquished, and the 2019 legislative session saw a raft of historic legislation passed that never had a chance under the old regime.

Figueroa’s record as a leftist was far from blemish-free. His union, after toppling Klein, quietly tried to weaken the proposed rent laws in Albany this year, partnering with real estate developers, with whom he always enjoyed a close relationship, because they employ so many of his members. A wealthy developer was among those who eulogized him last Wednesday, praising him for not veering too far left. 

Figueroa clashed with the left over Amazon’s plan to cite a second headquarters in Queens. While opponents pointed to gentrification fears and the tax subsidies offered by the city and state and Amazon’s record as a virulently anti-union employer, Figueroa saw an opportunity to create good-paying jobs. When I wrote critically of the project, Figueroa, even when we disagreed, was always willing to engage and to argue his side passionately and earnestly.

His stance, from his own perspective, was understandable: Amazon, while refusing to allow its warehouse workers to unionize, cut a deal to recognize 32BJ building workers at its planned second headquarters. Figueroa also argued to me that welcoming a company as hostile to labor as Amazon could soften the tech behemoth’s views in the long run, forcing it to do business in an aggressively pro-union city. I believed he was overly optimistic, even naïve, but he knew far more about organizing people than I ever will.

There are few like Figueroa now, labor leaders who want to break out of silos and refuse to make unsavory concessions to power. He was, to use the trite term, a visionary. His absence looms large over all of us.

Correction: This article previously stated that Figueroa was not a democratic socialiast. In fact, he was a DSA member.