Super Barrio Man

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Squeezed between panelists at a forum on Paul Wellstone, wearing thick glasses, slacks and a sweater-vest–he’s almost always wearing his sweater-vest–Hector Figueroa looks like a bashful intellectual. He speaks quickly and quietly and has an accent so strong that it’s sometimes hard to understand what he’s saying. Looking relieved to be finished speaking, he sits down under the hot lights and wipes his brow. You’d hardly guess this is the same Hector Figueroa who has no problem screaming before a rally of thousands of chanting doormen, janitors and porters from the largest private-sector union in New York City.

During the Q-and-A, moderator Frances Fox Piven directs all the labor-related queries to Figueroa, though he had specifically requested otherwise. And sure enough, the audience’s questions have little to do with the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, the union representing 75,000 building-service workers, of which Figueroa is the secretary-treasurer and political director. Why, he is asked, did the teachers union and the health care workers union, SEIU Local 1199, endorse George Pataki rather than promote solidarity by backing liberal candidates? And what’s up with the Teamsters and Bush?

“I was the only person of color on the panel,” he sighs later. “I was really uncomfortable being the only one. I mentioned health care and immigration in my speech, and no one addressed it.”

Liberal white audience members apparently didn’t bother to distinguish the 41-year-old Figueroa from 1199 president Dennis Rivera. Both men are in leadership positions in different locals within the same international union, SEIU. Both were activists in their native Puerto Rico, and both their unions are highly visible, providing vital services to millions of New Yorkers. But Rivera, arguably the most powerful Latino labor leader in the country, has infuriated labor’s traditional allies by using political power strictly for his members’ gain, instead of leveraging broad improvements in public policy. Figueroa, by contrast, has irritated members of his own union by doing the opposite: trying to push Local 32BJ toward a broader, more grassroots agenda that embraces progressive social goals.

Figueroa’s grand vision is of a local union that serves more than its members’ immediate needs. He wants the union to embed itself in the communities of its members, two-thirds of whom are immigrants, as well as in political parties throughout the region and the left as a whole. Under his watch, the local has begun working with other unions and community-based organizations on campaigns for immigrants’ rights. One piece of legislation they’ve advocated for would give non-English speakers translators for city services; another would grant amnesty to undocumented immigrants. In April, 32BJ was the only local to make a showing at a youth rally for the federal DREAM Act, which would give permanent residency to undocumented students between 12 and 21 years old.

Figueroa is part of the team that SEIU international president Andy Stern charged with cleaning up the local when he placed it in trusteeship in 1999, after Stern ousted former president Gus Bevona. Bevona ran the union as a fiefdom, spending lavishly on his offices and himself, including a salary of $400,000 a year. During his 18-year reign, the union lost as many as 20,000 members. Now, even the local’s most vocal opponents accede that their union has vastly improved since the Bevona era. Current president Mike Fishman, Figueroa and vice-president Kevin Doyle are devoting almost 20 percent of the union’s resources to organizing, and they’ve brought in 9,200 new members.

But some of the members who led the grassroots effort to topple Bevona are now angered by what they see as a hierarchical, top-down unionism, and they have identified Figueroa and other head officers as symptomatic of that trend. SEIU, they say, has habitually placed young activist students and outsiders in paid staff positions that should instead go to rank-and-filers.

These dissenters consider Figueroa, a leftist intellectual who never pushed a broom in the union, to be an outsider. He’s under attack not just for who he is, but for what he’s doing: implementing the union’s program of aggressively organizing immigrants, especially undocumented workers, and boosting the union’s political influence.

One vocal critic, 32BJ assistant secretary Dominick Bentivegna, has posted a Jeopardy game on his 32BJ dissenters web site. One answer reads, “This local 32BJ official promises illegal immigrants jobs and green cards if they agree to strike and rally.” Question? “Who is Hector Figueroa?”

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Born in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce and into its rich political tradition, Figueroa grew up admiring Pedro Albizu Campos, “El Maestro,” who waged his fight for Puerto Rican independence on both theoretical and grassroots grounds. A poor orphan, Albizu Campos received five Harvard degrees in seven years and spoke seven languages. Rather than taking up offers to work in the U.S. Supreme Court or become a diplomat, he chose to return to Puerto Rico to fight for independence. His photo hangs in Figueroa’s office.

In Puerto Rico, says Figueroa, culture, education and politics intertwine. His parents, both teachers, were the first in their large families to make it to college. His mother was politically active, and his older brother was expelled from the University of Puerto Rico for his activism against a five-fold tuition increase. Watching his brother’s campaigns at the university fail, Figueroa decided early on that he wanted to support labor, and more importantly, he wanted to win.

He came to New York in 1982 on a grant to study economics at New York University, then took up a doctoral degree in political economy at New School University under the influential economist David Gordon. Out of all the lefty academics studying at the New School, recalls Matt Noyes of the Association for Union Democracy, who studied there at the same time, Figueroa was one of the few who had concrete plans to put his education to practical use.

In fact, he became so absorbed in research for a textile workers’ union that he never finished his dissertation, cutting short a promising academic career. “Hector’s a very talented young academic economist who made a decision to come to the labor movement,” says Ron Blackwell, an economist who supervised Figueroa’s early union work. He has, says Blackwell, maintained an “uncommon humility” along the way.

Figueroa’s educational background sets him apart from most union members (and most leaders). It doesn’t help that he beat out two rank-and-file challengers to maintain his position in the local’s 2000 election. “He’s part of that whole philosophy that says unions are too important to let workers run them,” says Noyes. “He represents that kind of idea, though he probably doesn’t believe it himself.”

It’s not just Hector. None of the trustees has ever been a janitor or doorman or any other building trades worker. That they run a local full of janitors and doormen and other building trades workers is part of a trend that advocates for union democracy criticize the SEIU for in particular. A union can be “run by very good, smart people committed to the labor movement,” says Steve Early, a representative of the Communication Workers of America who has written extensively about union politics. “But if they’re not from rank and file,” he contends, they become “technocracies.”

When SEIU took over the union, Stern suspended its bylaws so that his handpicked trustee, Mike Fishman, could run for election to remain in power as president–a move that many members are still furious about. The fact that Figueroa and the other trustees even still have their jobs is controversial. The local, says Noyes, “may be quite progressive, but it’s definitely not ahead of the curve on internal democracy.”

Figueroa vigorously disputes the assertion that he’s an outsider, part of a handpicked crowd. “I’ve been in SEIU for eight to nine years, Local 32BJ for four years,” he says. “As a working-class Puerto Rican, I’d say I have more in common with the majority of our members than other members of the union who’ve been here for 20 years.” And he defends the SEIU leadership’s use of trusteeships, which can serve as affirmative action programs, he notes, when people of color are placed in locals where they’re otherwise underrepresented within leadership. (His union is 40 percent Latino.) “Saying everyone must be rank and file is wrong and ill-conceived,” says Figueroa pointedly. “It’s naïve and myopic and very dangerous.”

But to Figueroa’s opponents within the union, it’s not just a question of credentials. Bentivegna, for one, believes that Figueroa also spends too much time and money on political maneuvers that don’t do enough for members. “I’m in favor of having a political department,” explains Bentivegna, “but not at the expense of our treasury.”

But one aspect of the union’s internal conflict has spilled out into the public realm. Union dissenters, most notably Bentivegna, who helped oust Bevona but will run against Fishman later this year, have charged Figueroa with forcing staff to volunteer time to the Mark Green mayoral campaign. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau opened an investigation into the allegations last November, and since then has continued to request information from 32BJ, which the local has provided. Yet the claim has tainted Figueroa’s tenure as the investigation lingers. For example, here’s another answer on the 32BJ Jeopardy game: “Mark Green.” Question? “Who was Hector Figueroa hoping to work for after the mayoral election?” (Green’s campaign manager, Richard Schrader, former New York City commissioner of consumer affairs, is now a 32BJ political strategist who consults for 32BJ.)

“We think all allegations will be found false and we’ll be found innocent,” rebuts Figueroa. “We did a lot of polls. Mark was the candidate that had the broadest level support of the membership,” says Figueroa of the unanimous executive board decision to endorse Green.

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Union staffers refer jokingly to Figueroa as the “Lord of the Rings,” because he coordinates the local’s organizing efforts throughout vast stretches of New York City’s outer-ring suburbs–from Westchester and Connecticut to New Jersey and Long Island. 32BJ annexed several of these areas in 2001. It is as Lord of the Rings that Figueroa is, one evening, trying to figure out which car matches the keys in his hand, so that he can drive to New Jersey to visit two small groups of striking workers. He sees this, more than anything else, as the crux of his work.

“Doo doo doo, here we are!” he hums to himself when he arrives at the first of two stops, the Newark offices of 32BJ. Next door, a porn theater is showing Latin Adventures and Spectacular Babes. “This is not a cultural center, by the way,” jokes Figueroa.

Inside the union offices, he greets the group of mostly Latino workers in Spanish, and relays to them a few details of the local’s other campaigns, reassuring them that they can win. They’re on strike against St. Peter’s College, which is trying to bring in a new cleaning company, a Jesuit business called Clean Sweep. Even though some of these workers have been cleaning St. Peter’s for 17 years, the college wants the 29 workers to cut down from full to part time. One woman, whose son is also on strike with her, talks about how a real estate agent kicked her out of the office after she told the agent how little she earned as a cleaning woman.

The workers seem giddy at Figueroa’s presence. He dispenses organizing advice and urges them to remain active in their union and their communities. He listens attentively as they vent concerns about the strike and about their jobs. Somehow, the conversation moves from Catholics to liquor. A woman reenacts a scene from an encounter with a drunken priest whose house she was cleaning. Figueroa leaves on a trail of laughter to visit the next group of strikers.

Behind St. Margaret’s church in Morristown, Figueroa runs the car into a snow bank, shouting “Bong!” He is welcomed into the church by a round of applause, and by Sister Lynn Jacoby, with thinning gray hair, glasses and a gap between her teeth, wearing two chunky sweaters and sassy high-heeled navy slingback shoes with tiny buckles by the ankle. In this vast, chilly basement, 13 workers, about half of them women and most from Uruguay, have come in after picketing in the cold night air to feast on quarter chickens and potato salad. They’re celebrating a week’s anniversary of striking against the cleaning contractor Planned Building Services. Again, Figueroa talks about other strikes, so that these workers will feel connected to the rest of the state of New Jersey, connected to New York, to Los Angeles–“todo el país.”

As he heads out of what 32BJ staffers call Middle Earth (New Jersey), through the tunnel, and toward the Tower (32BJ headquarters), Figueroa realizes that he has driven most of the way there in the wrong gear, because he’s used to driving a standard in Puerto Rico, not an automatic.

He doesn’t seem tired, though the hour is late. He’ll spend the next several weeks in contract negotiations with the Realty Advisory Board for residential workers, who granted their approval for a strike. “Some things in my life I would change,” he says later, “but not working for building service workers.”