Héctor Figueroa, president of the country’s largest building workers union, 32BJ SEIU, died on Thursday, July 11, at the age of 57.
The union said in a statement that the death was unexpected and that a memorial service would be forthcoming. The Daily News reported Figueroa suffered a fatal heart attack.
A Puerto Rican native, Figueroa was elected president of 32BJ Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in 2012, representing over 163,000 real estate industry service workers on the East Coast.
Those workers include window cleaners, superintendents, doormen, maintenance men, porters and security officers.
Figueroa was credited with turning the union into a political powerhouse, as he fought to raise the minimum wage and for the rights of immigrant workers.
He helped establish the American Dream Fund, the union’s voluntary political action fund to protect workers when building owners changed contractors and shield immigrant workers from targeting by ICE.
More recently, Figueroa grew a politically charged Twitter feed, which identified him as a critic of Trump’s immigration policy as well as a fan of Dr. Who.
A prolific Tweeter until the day he died, Twitter was also where Figueroa shared his feelings matters such as rent regulations, which the union worried would be a job-killer.
In a joint statement, Real Estate Board of New York President James Whelan and chairman William Rudin called his death “a tragic loss for 32BJ and for the City of New York.”
The REBNY leaders said, “Héctor was a respected and valued partner to the real estate industry. Héctor worked tirelessly to champion immigrant and workers’ rights. He fought against economic, social, and racial injustice. Our deepest sympathies and condolences go out to his wife and two children, his friends, and the entire 32BJ community.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio called him “the voice of empathy, of conviction, of principle.”
“Héctor embodied that word ‘solidarity.’ His love of 32BJ SEIU ran deep, but you’d be just as likely to see him on the picket line with fast food workers or taxi drivers as you would with the custodians, service workers and doormen he represented,” said the Mayor.
“He fought just as doggedly for relief for people in Puerto Rico as he did for fair contracts here in New York City. If you were fighting for human dignity, then Héctor fought for you.”
Figueroa lived in Queens with his wife Deidre, and his children, Eric and Elena.
Growing up in Ponce, Puerto Rico, his parents, both teachers, fought for 24 years to unionize in 1974. By then, Figueroa had taken over the leadership of the collective bargaining effort as SEIU organizing director for Puerto Rico.
He came to the United States in 1982, staying with an aunt and uncle in the Bronx. He studied economics in college on a grant, but soon returned to the world of labor activism.
He joined the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (now Workers United) in 1990 and became one of the first leaders in the labor movement to actively call for immigration reform.
n 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 secretary-treasurer in 2000. He served in a number of positions before becoming the union’s president and also served on the board of several organizations.
Under Figueroa’s presidency, 32BJ grew by over 50,000 members, including 18,000 through a merger with Local 615.
Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building & Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, said, “We are deeply saddened and mourn the devastating loss of our brother, Héctor Figueroa, a wonderful person and tireless advocate for working men and women in New York City and across the nation.”