NEW YORK, N.Y. – With overwhelming sadness, 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union mourns the passing of its president, Héctor J. Figueroa, who died suddenly of a heart attack on the evening of Thursday, July 11. He was 57 and is survived by his wife, Deidre, and his children Eric and Elena. Héctor was elected President of 32BJ, the largest property services union in the country, in 2012. Information on memorial services to honor his legacy and contributions will be released when it becomes available.
Héctor’s personal and principled concern for working people, union staff and others will be sorely missed by those who had the opportunity to work at his side. He strived to continually further the well-being of 32BJ members and working people on a national and international level. Many people and organizations released messages, photos and videos grieving the loss of this giant in the labor movement. Notable newspapers including the New York Times, The New York Daily News and the Newark Star-Ledger released heartfelt obituaries for Hector and the New York Times ran a posthumous op-ed from him called, “The Labor Movement Can Rise Again,” that details Hector’s vision for the future of the labor movement with a commitment to organizing workers.
“It’s not too late to rebuild our movement.” Hector writes in his posthumous op-ed, “If labor wants to have a real impact, our movement needs a big and ambitious plan to organize.. It is heartbreaking to witness our movement risk near-irrelevance when workers are ready to take action.”
32BJ members, staff and members of the public alike say they were often struck by Héctor’s humility and his accessibility. Many said he treated everyone like an equal. He consistently encouraged 32BJ and others in the labor movement to move to the vanguard of struggles related to climate change, immigrant rights and racial justice. Héctor believed in fighting to improve the lives of every worker, whether they belong to 32BJ or not. His commitment to fighting for justice for all workers has permanently changed the labor movement in our country.
“It is impossible to overstate the loss of Héctor to our SEIU family. Héctor has made a lasting impact on the heart and soul of our union, and he will be sorely missed,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry said. “Héctor’s leadership made it possible for janitors, doormen (and women), security officers, airport workers and so many other working people across the U.S. and Puerto Rico to join together and lift up their wages and improve their jobs.”
“Héctor Figueroa embodied the word solidarity,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in a tweet. “To the men and women of 32BJ SEIU and people in every corner of this city who looked to him as a leader: his legacy belongs to each of us now.”
“Héctor Figueroa was a champion for working people, minorities, the poor, the voiceless — a hero of the labor community who did untold good for the working people of this state,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a tweet.
“Héctor dedicated his life to fighting for better wages and conditions for all workers. Our working families have lost a fierce advocate. We have all lost a dear friend,” said New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy in a statement.
“This is an unfathomable loss,” said Working Families Party National Director Maurice Mitchell and National Committee Chair Dan Cantor. “Héctor Figueroa was a giant of the American labor movement, and a leader in the broader struggle for economic and social justice”
“We are utterly devastated by the news of the passing of Héctor Figueroa, who has been a lion in our movement,” said Javier H. Valdes, Co-Executive Director of Make the Road New York. “He has been a steadfast ally of community organizations like ours, and he has doggedly pursued justice for all New Yorkers.”
“Héctor Figueroa was a giant who made huge strides for New York, Puerto Rico, and communities across our nation; a champion for working people and a voice for so many,” said U.S. Senator from New York Kirsten Gillibrand in a tweet.
“Héctor’s legacy amongst some of the hardest working, and yet overlooked workers, will live on forever with the countless security officers and service sector workers he helped lift into the middle class,” said U.S. Senator from Vermont and Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders in a tweet.
“Héctor’s leadership as president of 32BJ SEIU deeply inspired me, and I’m honored to have known him,” said U.S. Senator from Massachusetts and Presidential Candidate Elizabeth Warren, in a tweet.
Dozens of other elected officials, organizations, labor and social justice leaders expressed their sadness on Twitter, Héctor’s preferred mode of public communications where he often had direct conversations about 32BJ’s work with activists, workers and others.
Under the union’s constitution, Executive Vice President Kyle Bragg will assume the duties of the Office of the President. 32BJ represents more than 175,000 property service workers – window cleaners, airport workers, superintendents, doormen, maintenance workers, cleaners, porters and security officers – in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Florida, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Under Héctor’s presidency, 32BJ grew by over 50,000 members and passed dozens of local and state policies protecting and lifting working families up and down the East Coast.
Héctor was born into the labor movement in Ponce, Puerto Rico, where his parents, as teachers, were part of a long struggle to win a union at work. His mother and father went on strike in 1974, but it wasn’t until 24 years later under Héctor’s leadership as SEIU Organizing Director for Puerto Rico that the teachers won collective bargaining rights. Under his leadership, teachers, state employees and his own parents were finally able to see the fruit of their many years of struggle for justice.
Héctor came to the United States in 1982 after participating in a student strike. He stayed with an aunt and uncle in the Bronx and completed his college education on a grant to study economics. Driven to continue his activism, Héctor started at the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (now Workers United) in 1990, where he took part in several campaigns including efforts to organize textile workers at Fieldcrest Cannon in North Carolina and protests against NAFTA. Héctor was one of the first leaders in the labor movement to strongly advocate for comprehensive immigration reform and played an active role in ACTWU’s international solidarity and global organizing work.
In 1995, he joined SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign, followed by his work in Puerto Rico as SEIU Director for the island. In February 1999, he was asked to serve as deputy trustee for 32BJ and was elected as Secretary-Treasurer of 32BJ in 2000. During his time at 32BJ, Héctor built and led the research and political departments, and served as leader for the tri-state and New York Metro areas. As Director of the 32BJ New York Metro District, Héctor led operations and bargained strong contracts for 70,000 members in the metropolitan New York area, including Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Long Island.
Under Héctor’s leadership, the union has become a political powerhouse, fighting for immigrant and worker rights and establishing the American Dream Fund, the union’s voluntary political action fund. In cities and states up and down the East Coast 32BJ has passed legislation that protects and lifts working families and communities; the union has successfully raised the minimum wage in New York state; established prevailing wage; increased minimum hours; protected workers when building owners change contractors; shielded immigrants from targeting by ICE; expanded language access and other immigrant rights; and advocated for the elimination of Puerto Rico’s public debt and defense of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria. 32BJ has also been a leader in the Fight for $15 since the first strike of 200 fast food workers in New York City, and in 2017 passed a package of fair scheduling bills for fast food workers in New York City along with the ground-breaking Fast Food Worker Empowerment Act, which allows fast food workers to more easily form and join their own organization.
Under Héctor’s leadership, the union and its 175,000 members have been at the forefront of national fights to defend and expand voting rights, to fight the root causes and effects of climate change, and is a stalwart champion for racial, social and economic justice.
The union will honor Héctor by carrying on his legacy.