Ernesto Jofre, a union leader influential in East Village politics for close to a decade, died last Monday after a short battle with cancer. He was 63.
Jofre’s work as a progressive in New York was founded in his fight for socialism in his native Chile. His political efforts there landed him in jail following the 1973 coup, where he remained for three years, enduring torture by the nation’s military junta. In 1976, the government allowed him and his family to travel to the United States. He soon found his way to the United Needleworkers Industrial and Textile Employees’ Local 169, where he remained for 23 years until his death.
As president of the local, Jofre transformed the basement of its 14th Street offices into a beehive of political activity: Congressman Jerrold Nadler, state Senator Tom Duane and City Councilmembers Margarita Lopez and Christine Quinn have all made a home there for their own campaigns, and the Working Families Party uses the space for its labor organizing efforts.
Most recently, Jofre spearheaded the campaign to organize immigrant workers at greengrocers in Manhattan which demanded long hours for unlawfully low wages. The story received prominent media coverage, thanks in part to the friends Jofre had made in high places during his years of political work.
Friends remember Jofre as a man of uncompromising integrity, unafraid to stand by his principles and take on established powers. He proved this in 1997, when he supported Margarita Lopez for City Council despite the Democratic organization’s backing of Judy Rapfogel. Chief of staff to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Rapfogel had the support of every labor leader in the city, except Jofre. “He was totally isolated by the labor movement at the time,” said one union insider. Lopez won by 200 votes.