I met Hector Figueroa just once, very briefly. The New York Labor History Association hosted its annual award dinner at 32BJ’s headquarters in Manhattan — which are so substantial and commanding that the first time I visited them, I could not help but feel that the working class would certainly one day run the world. I won an award for a paper I had written about public sector unionism, and, though I was a virtually unnoticeable figure on a night where Juan González and Tom Robbins reminisced about the 1990–91 Daily News strike, he went out of his way to shake my hand and say congratulations. In his passing, I can’t help but think of this moment metaphorically.
The 32BJ that Hector Figueroa led was powerful and, like the whole global labor movement, riddled with contradictions. On the one hand, the union backed the first Fight for Fifteen strikes in 2012, which inspired minimum wage fights in cities and states across the country. Literally, hundreds of millions of dollars have been transferred to the pockets and bank accounts of working people as a result. When given the opportunity, Hector did not hesitate to take aim at root causes. In 2018, he told Harpers that “capital today is resulting in absurd inequalities that are also making the system grow less and less able to sustain itself.”
At the same time, Hector Figueroa’s 32BJ took many positions that generated righteous ire on the Left. Just last month, the union was working for Melinda Katz and not the radical reformer Tiffany Caban in the Queens County District Attorney’s race that is currently undergoing a manual recount.
But even when you disagreed with him, Hector was rare among those in power: humble, transparent, and ethical — publicly wrestling with the tensions he experienced between representing his members and fighting for the whole working class. As Sam Lewis wrote on Facebook yesterday, “If every labor leader in NYC engaged with the Left as seriously as Hector did, even while they are on the opposite side of many fights, we would have a radically different labor movement. . . . The reason [the Left] beefed with Hector was because he cared about building a progressive movement that included the unions and was willing to engage around and defend the (bad!) decisions that the union made in that context.”
The one time I met Hector Figueroa, I saw the same countenance that comes through in virtually every photo of him ever taken: a person who cares about the collective because he cares about each person in it, someone piercingly serious and yet fundamentally gentle. The Left and the labor movement could do well to learn not just from his imperfect political practice, but from him.