By ARIEL HERNANDEZ
As we approach the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Ponce native and 32BJ President Hector Figueroa spoke with the Queens Tribune about how the union has been involved in the recovery efforts.
32BJ is a union concentrated in the Northeast that serves more than 163,000 cleaners, property maintenance workers, doormen, security officers, window cleaners, building engineers, school and food service workers, and railroad and factory workers.
It is an affiliate of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), which represents more than 2.1 million members around the country and is dedicated to making life better for working families and communities.
Figueroa became president of 32BJ in 2012, and went on to grow the union by more than 50,000 members through mergers and organizing.
Figueroa was born into the labor movement in his native Puerto Rico, where he witnessed his parents fight to become unionized and helped them to win collective-bargaining rights when he took on the role of SEIU organizing director for Puerto Rico. To this day, Figueroa has a soft spot for his native island and continues to work closely with it.
During a Q&A with the Queens Tribune, Figueroa discussed union rights, union reform and the anniversary of Hurricane Maria.
The transcript below is edited for space and continuity.
Where was 32BJ before you became president and where is it now? How has it grown? What has changed?
Even in the face of a general trend toward declining union membership since the 1950s, private-sector union membership is now hovering just above 6 percent. For example, we’ve been very aggressive about organizing within building services and similar sectors, like airport workers.
A worker like Camika Lewis is typical of the kinds of workers we are helping to organize. Before joining our union a few years ago, she was making just $7.25 an hour working for a subcontracting company as a customer-service representative at Newark International Airport. Although she worked 40 hours a week at the airport, she had to take on extra hours working as a nursing assistant and cosmetologist to cover her rent, pay her student loans and utility bills. When she became involved with our union, she participated in strikes, marches into management offices, rallies, civil disobedience and demonstrations. Now, Camika and tens of thousands of her co-workers at the airports are on the path to a $19 minimum wage.
What have you done to assist Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria? Is there still a huge need for labor on the Island?
In the past few years, we have been involved with issues related to Puerto Rico for a variety of reasons. First, our parent union, SEIU, has locals on the Island with more than 23,000 members. And in the past few decades, Puerto Rico has been the object of particularly vicious anti-labor attacks. For example, the Island government used Puerto Rico’s $72 billion debt crisis as a pretext to pass a law that would let the governor lower to $4.25 the minimum wage for workers under 25, exactly the workers Puerto Rico most needs to ensure its future.
All the problems that Puerto Rico had before Maria—a weak economy, lack of power over any major economic decision, attacks on workers’ rights and their power, disinvestment in its infrastructure—only became worse after the storm. Puerto Rico has suffered the longest blackout in U.S. history, and Puerto Ricans on the Island have been severely disrespected by the White House and ignored when it comes to getting the aid they need.
That is why we have become very involved in informing and organizing the diaspora and those who care about Puerto Rico, along with tens of thousands of people who were displaced by the storm. That way they can hold federal and state officials accountable for the decisions they make that affect Puerto Ricans in the States and on the Island.
How have labor unions evolved in Puerto Rico since you grew up there?
My parents were members of the teachers’ union; that was my first exposure to labor organizing. But teachers’ unions and unions that cover other workers in the schools, including some of our SEIU members, have been severely weakened. Closing down hundreds of schools as the Puerto Rican government has done in the past few years, even before Hurricane Maria, has hurt the power of unions as an important sector of society that can oppose bad policies.
And, as it has historically, Puerto Rico has been taken as a laboratory for anti-worker policies that conservatives want to push in the rest of the country. We saw that recently, when the governor of Puerto Rico tried to pass a law that would have forced the Island’s public-sector workers to sign up again to have their dues collected.
That is more aggressive than what has happened in even the most conservative states in the United States, and it would have been devastating for labor on the Island, where the vast majority of union members belong to the public sector.
What motivates you?
I am very hopeful that despite all the gloom and doom, there is nothing that can replace the power of collective action, in and out of the workplace—and that organizing people in their workplaces and their communities is not just at the heart of the work of unions, but the best way to create power that can best counter the effects of money concentrated in the hands of a few.
We saw the power of collective action in the teachers’ strikes in North Carolina, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky and Colorado. In many of these states, teacher strikes are illegal. But as teachers saw their salaries, healthcare benefits and classroom budgets cut to the bone, they decided to put it all on the line. And they were able to get the support of parents, fill their state houses and persuade elected official to invest in children’s futures. Those changes are positive and they can be lasting.
What’s the main goal for 32BJ in the coming year?
We will continue to organize, to support the organizing of workers in building services and in other industries, as we have supported the Fight for $15, taxi workers in New York City, and the rights of immigrant workers.
We will also continue to support progressive candidates in all the states where we work, people who will represent working families and our values. And we will continue to communicate with our members so that we can all stand together against any forces that want to reduce our collective power and the power of our members to defend the well-being of their families and their communities.
And we will continue to stand up for our most-vulnerable communities as we have been doing consistently. We will continue to organize immigrant workers and fight for a fair immigration reform, which may have been forgotten by many, but we think is key.