There is one reason why building workers in New York City can make a living wage: the Service Employees International Union’s 32BJ local. The union is the size of a small city, it’s vocal, and its president wants a wholesale reimagining of Democratic party politics in the Trump era.
Hector Figueroa was born in Puerto Rico with labor activism in his blood—some of his earliest memories are of his parents participating in a teachers’ strike. He joined the SEIU in 1995, working as an organizer for janitors and textile workers, and four years later came to work for 32BJ SEIU, a 163,000-member coalition of property workers: doormen, cleaners, security guards, and many others. Today, 32BJ is one of New York’s (and the nation’s) most politically active and powerful unions—go to any big progressive protest in the city and you will see it out in force. Figueroa has been its president since 2012. He spoke to us about building labor power and how to survive and thrive in the shadow of the Trump administration.
Your union’s membership has more than tripled since you came here, even while union membership overall has been on the decline. How did you do that?
Hector Figueroa: The union had a focus on organizing, nationally and locally. When we came here in ‘99, there was a reason—the union was losing its market. The number of non-union workers was becoming greater than the number of union workers in services in New York. I think it starts with that commitment to put resources in organizing. We also have the advantage that we have industries that are not going away, although technical change, now with the sharing economy, mobile apps, could inflict a lot of disruption into the kind of work that people we represent do. But their jobs are still in that place that you have to rely on a human being to do most of it and it’s not going away. You cannot take a building and ship it to Mexico...
We represent not just the people who are paying dues. We also represent the people who are not in the union who should also be having the kinds of benefits and wages that our members enjoy. And because we have a service economy, that is almost the entire labor market. We cannot survive as a union if the minimum wage doesn’t go up, because then the gap between what our members earn and the minimum wage is too big, and the [incentive] for employers to get rid of us [is too strong].
What advantages do your members get out of having a union as big as yours is today?
Figueroa: The difference is the ability to consolidate resources. We have a middle to low wage base. If you’re a doorman in New York City, it’s just on the very lower end of the middle class. You make it, your kids can have a better life than you, you can better yourself and find a different job or stay in that job and have health care and retirement benefits. It’s hard to demand that that doorman contributes a lot of money... our size means you can bring a lot more resources to bear in any individual fight, in any individual city. Our strike fund is there for everybody. So the numbers help to have the resources to organize, to fight for good contracts, to give members opportunities to be involved in the movement for immigrant justice, or politics, whatever their interest is. The scale gives you that.
Where do you see opportunities for your union to expand?
Figueroa: The opportunities are in the subcontracting of services, which is usually seen as a threat—but if you organize the workers that subcontracted, like we have done in cleaning and security, you create opportunities. Ironically, capital, firms, companies, by aggregating the work and making it into a commodity, provide sometimes opportunity for it to be organized... before [industry consolidation], security officers could have been employed individually by the building owners, or separately in mom and pop companies. When they are now under the same company, and we made workers aware that if they come together they can exercise collective power and raise their wages and have benefits, it’s a whole different game.
Is it possible to bring all the “gig economy” workers into existing unions, or is there a new model that will work for them?
Figueroa: That’s what we’re trying to figure out. We like the idea of building an identity of workers. What the Taxi Workers Alliance has done for taxi drivers, if that could be extended to Uber drivers... there is an experience that could be informative as to how you could organize Uber. And they’re trying. They’re trying to organize Lyft. If the independent contractor status remains what these companies employ under the law, there are some ways to go around that.
If we can establish that these new economy workers are really employees... collective bargaining follows, after the workers have an identity. We’re going to try that with fast food workers. My point is, we are trying to figure out how collective bargaining works [for these workers]. We know it cannot be building by building, employer by employer. Our own industry, that’s not how we organize. At the airport, we organized 18 different contractors for this last contract at the same time. So you have to organize multiple employers at the same time, geographically build an identity because it creates the equivalent of having a big factory, and people together have power. And then you come with an economic solution, whether it’s a union contract or a better fare that provides for better compensation.
The “Fight For $15,” funded by the SEIU, has had a lot of success. But it’s more of a political campaign than a union campaign. Is there tension created by a campaign that doesn’t actually create new union members?
Figueroa: We happen to be looking at a snapshot of a movie. If you look at the railroad workers in the 1890s, you would say, “Was that a campaign to have an eight hour day and safety on the job, but not a union?” They win the union sometimes ten or fifteen years later... Our local supported Fight for 15 from the beginning as a campaign for $15 and a union. So we still believe that we need to win and we can win a union in fast food venues. It’s going to take a long time. We were trying to win it nationally, and the politics would have been very different under Hillary Clinton than they are under Trump. But we’re still fighting for a union... We see these victories of raising wages through politics as intermediate steps. We don’t see them as the end of the game, because they’re not sustainable. They can be taken away with the next change in the legislature or the governor’s office. The workers are not really building organizations just by having raises.
Were you surprised on election night?
Figueroa: I was surprised and shocked, like everyone else. But I did have some people saying this was going to happen... that night, what I felt was very surreal.
Democrats need to do a fundamental revision of how they’ve been operating for the past 20 years. I also felt that this was my last trust in the Democratic establishment.
What do you think the Democrats need to revise?
Figueroa: I think they need to change how they do politics. They need to reconnect with working Americans, with the working families of this country. I feel that the party has been dominated by a tendency that views social issues to be liberal, and economics more conservative, and I think that that is schizophrenic and bipolar. The Democrats need to be consistent, and both socially liberal and progressive, and in economic terms liberal and progressive. That really needs to happen. The party is too dominated, in my opinion, by corporate interests, is dismissive of labor too often, and sees labor as an important constituent, but as labor has declined—partly in response to policies that Democrats themselves have supported—has become less obligated to listen to labor. It’s a party that needs, in my opinion, huge, huge reorganization.
We were supporters of Hillary Clinton, but we were pushing Hillary to try to campaign on the platform that came out of the convention, that was actually a very impressive platform. I’m a member of the DNC, and I felt that was the best platform I have seen in many, many years. It really articulated what we were hearing from Trump supporters, what we were hearing out on the streets. And unfortunately I don’t think that’s how the campaign proceeded after the convention. So I think that we need to do a lot of soul searching and reexamination.
Have you had second thoughts about how strong union support was for Hillary, versus Bernie?
Figueroa: Our members were overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. We are a majority people of color union. We are 60% at least people of color, probably more. African-American voters, Latino voters were unfamiliar with Bernie. They liked Bernie’s policies as they became more aware, but they were more familiar with the Clinton identity, and they still have that association.
Unions are in a hard place politically, because they would seem to have no alternative to the Democratic party. How do you deal with that?
Figueroa: The argument that “if you didn’t vote for us, the worst thing is gonna happen” doesn’t work for me anywhere. We’re done with that. We are living in the worst thing. If Democrats want to win back some sectors of labor, they cannot come in and say “Hey, we are moderate, but if you vote for [the other] one it will be the worst.” We’re living the worst right now. So if they are not able to be a buffer between right wing, anti-worker politicians and they’re not willing to go farther in a progressive direction, we don’t need them, because we’re now going to have to learn to live with right wing politicians... It has changed the relationship of the union electorate and the Democrats, in the sense that people are gonna go places. If you look at the age gap, workers get older, and they move on and they retire, and even younger workers have a very different view of the Democratic party. Millennials voted significantly for Bernie, and many of them stayed home in the last election. The party has to really say, “the Clinton era is done.” I don’t even want to hear about Hillary running again for another term. Please god, don’t do that...
The next Democratic candidate cannot be a gradualist, incrementalist candidate. That’s not gonna work.
What are your most immediate concerns about labor and the Trump administration?
Figueroa: The [AHCA] is a disaster. It affects labor in many ways. Twenty four million people without health care, the disruption it’s gonna create, the loss of jobs, which is gonna impact unions like SEIU—that is profound... The other thing I think is immigration. The assault on immigrant workers. In the past quarter century it has been immigrant workers in the forefront of many fights. This is going to be very damaging.
Many of the leaders of building trade unions have chosen to go the White House, express support for Trump, and play ball. What do you think of that?
Figueroa: I’m not in their shoes, but I think that if the hope of that approach was that somehow they would be insulated and protected from the assault, they’re gonna be disillusioned. I think that Davis-Bacon [rules providing union wages to federal contractors] is at risk. I think the infrastructure program is going to be a massive wealth transfer to the rich. I don’t expect anything else... I think the proposition of buying yourself time is very attractive, but it’s not a winning proposition if you’re thinking about what kind of labor movement we’re going to have ten or twenty years from now.
Union membership has been declining for decades, and the political and legal outlook is bad for organizing. Is there any real way to turn around that dynamic and make unions stronger and bigger?
Figueroa: The first thing we need to ask ourselves is, have we found the labor movement in that situation before? And the answer to that is yes. Although statistics were not as reliable as they are today, the labor movement at its inception in the late 19th century had a moment that the original fraternities and mutualist societies, before craft unions came in, grew, and they they fell apart. And then craft unions came into the scene. Then you have the decline of craft unions... Trade union density around the world found its lowest point just before the market crash [of 1929]. World War One, the Gilded Era, the 1920s, it was very, very low. People were talking about the disappearance of the labor movement then. And then you have the surge of the late 1920s and 1930s that led to significant union density increases all around the world, not just in the US...
There are some people who think the surge needs to come from moving away from collective bargaining. I don’t think so. I’m not into making predictions, but if you look at the long arc of history, the situation today is not worse than some other moments the labor movement had found itself in. The question is, what are we going to do about it? Are we gonna just be lamenting our own death? What kind of a strategy do we need? We’re still searching for it. I have a view that you need to have unions and organizations that are not unions collaborating more closely, and try to open up whole sectors of the work force that feels confident enough to make demands. And I think that it has to be highly concentrated geographically, because the moment, the politics, the way in which the economy is working, the revival of cities—you have to think about the organizing potential in that environment. I think that offers the best potential for a surge.
At least some SEIU members have announced plans for a huge May Day strike. Will you participate?
Figueroa: We’re going to do rallies and actions. We’re going to be clear on the message that immigrants are not criminals, and this needs to stop... I believe that some people will go on strike, some people will not go on strike. We’ll manage how our members feel in a democratic fashion.