Death of a Radical Boss

Print More

When politicians running for office started fishing for union endorsements last fall, they set up meetings with Ernesto Jofre.

For years, Jofre had been the unacknowledged godfather of Lower East Side politics. Instrumental in getting Margarita Lopez elected to the City Council, he also engineered votes and campaign headquarter space for pols like Tom Duane and Jerry Nadler–and twisted more than a few arms to get endorsements for then-unlikely Senator Chuck Schumer. “If you needed a hall, if you needed a speaker, if you needed some cash, Ernesto was one of the few people you could go to,” says Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party.

“He’s basically been the king–and queenmaker of the neighborhood,” agrees Brooklyn College political science professor Immanuel Ness, who has been involved in Lower East Side labor politics for years.

But when Jofre started canceling meetings last August, pols got worried. One powerful politician called Ness to ask worriedly, “Is Ernesto mad at me?”

He wasn’t mad. He was sick. Jofre, once a bear of a man, was battling stomach cancer. At the end of his four-month illness, he was so weak he couldn’t raise his hand to acknowledge a compliment from Ness, who accompanied another activist on a visit to Jofre. “He lifted the two index fingers of his right hand, and pointed one at each of us,” Ness says. “He then told us that it was us–the community–that had helped the workers, not him. That, for me, sums up the kind of man Ernesto was.” Jofre died March 5.

Unlike many a traditional union political boss, Jofre used his clout as head of UNITE! Local 169 to do something almost nobody would: stand up for low-wage immigrant workers. He organized Dominican meatpackers in upper Manhattan and African-American security guards at the New School. But most of all, Jofre championed the undocumented Mexican workers who toiled for less than minimum wage at Korean-owned greengrocers on the Lower East Side.

The greengrocers’ strike is a popular cause now. It wasn’t when Jofre took it up. Unions are loath to champion small groups of low-paid immigrant workers, who are enormously difficult to organize and bring in very little money. The fact that several other unions felt they had dibs on the Lower East Side groceries didn’t help. “Ernesto had to stand up to his own union, and he had to stand up to other unions,” says one labor insider.

Getting into a messy fight with another union over low-paid workers was not how Jofre’s superiors wanted him to spend his political capital. But Jofre defied his higher-ups, and brought Gerry Dominguez’ Mexican Workers Association under UNITE!’s protection. “He’d organize people who were lowest on the wage scale,” says Ness. “No labor leader would have considered doing what Ernesto did.”

Jofre scoured the Lower East Side for progressive political causes to which he could direct the union’s resources. Under his stewardship since 1993, the first floor of UNITE! Local 169 on West 14th Street hummed with the constant comings and goings of groups like the Lower East Side Community Labor Coalition and the Coalition for a District Alternative. “He made Local 169 a home and a voice for immigrants,” says Nick Unger, who worked with Jofre at UNITE!. “He said ‘Yes’ to organizing Mexican greengrocers when the whole rest of the labor movement said ‘No.’”

But perhaps his most unpopular cause was giving a young, unknown lesbian named Margarita Lopez a home base for her successful 1997 campaign against a powerful opponent backed by the Democratic machine–including all the local unions. For that, Jofre had to muster all his hard-won political clout. “Once he made up his mind, there was no one in the world who could stop him,” says his friend José Matta, from SEIU Local 1199. “And sometimes that got him into a lot of trouble.”

_______

Jofre knew more than any other labor leader the isolation of being in the minority and the price for standing by one’s convictions. He endured three years of torture and imprisonment at the hands of Pinochet’s military junta in his native Chile, before being thrown out of the country in 1976.

Even in exile, he was an operator. It did not always win him admiration. “I had my doubts about Ernesto,” says Geraldo Muñoz, undersecretary of foreign afairs for Chile’s current socialist government. “He was one of the ones we called Los Guatones, the Fat Ones. I thought he was not radical enough, not tough enough.”

But Muñoz later realized Jofre-style electioneering was the best way to oust Pinochet. And when Chile’s current president, Socialist Ricardo Lagos, was running for office, he called on Jofre to help: “You went on house calls to everyone, face to face, in your native Tocopilla, and we all saw the great results there,” Lagos wrote in a letter thanking him.

In the States, Jofre used his get-out-the-vote approach to help those who needed it the most. His labor career began in Local 169 almost as soon as he arrived in New York. He stayed there for 23 years, until his death.

“Ernesto was able to juxtapose the politics as defined by economics in Chile and progressive politics as defined by ideology here in New York,” says Kevin Finnegan, the political director of Local 169. “For instance, he was immediately and completely for gay rights.” This meant a Jofre-run picket line would see the likes of State Senator Tom Duane, City Councilmember Christine Quinn and Lopez, gay politicians who might not have lent support to more traditional labor leaders.

Jofre’s support of Lopez in her 1997 council race against Judy Rapfogel, the chief of staff to Democratic State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, made him an instant pariah. Every union leader in the city endorsed Rapfogel, and Jofre stood against them all.

Jofre was vindicated when Lopez won by a couple of hundred votes. The UNITE! leadership wanted nothing to do with him. But Jofre held on to what he really wanted: complete control of the local’s ample funds. Insiders fear that with his death, UNITE! leadership will seize the opportunity to control the local. The ill feeling between Silver’s office and Local 169 likewise lasted for years. “I am still reminded by Shelly’s people about the Rapfogel race,” says one union insider. As for Lopez, she says simply: “I was invented by Ernesto.”When UNITE! held a memorial service for Jofre, Lopez and a slew of other politicians–including three mayoral hopefuls and countless City Council candidates, along with judges and state assemblymembers–packed into a 15th Street union hall to pay tribute with Chilean exiles sitting next to union bosses who pronounced the country’s name as “Chilly.”

When Lopez spoke, she made a not-so-veiled reference to Jofre’s legacy and the hope–shared by many–that UNITE! would carry on his work of organizing low-wage immigrant workers. “Before he left me, he told me, ‘There is somebody in my union that you can trust,’” recalled a sobbing Lopez. Turning and pointing to Jofre’s colleague, Edgar Romney, she choked: “I’m going to trust you–and you don’t better let me down!”

Now, two months after his death, Lower East Siders and immigrant organizers are waiting to see if UNITE! will continue Jofre’s tradition of leveraging political power for immigrants, for low-wage workers, for the voiceless. “He defended like a lion the autonomy of the local,” Matta says. “Now I fear it will become a traditional union.”