New York, NY – I dunno, but after the sudden death of 32BJ President Héctor J. Figueroa late Thursday evening and Donald J. Trump’s plan to raid working families in 10 American cities over the weekend, I can’t help thinking that, indeed, “only the good die young.”
Maybe, you’re thinking the same thing. I didn’t know Figueroa well; he could have had feet of clay. But as a labor journalist, what I do know is that, unlike others, Figueroa had the courage to address tough questions and always provide thoughtful responses.
He would have been there in the trenches on Friday afternoon in Foley Square representing the Labor Movement and helping to beat back the “inhumane detention practices and brutal immigration policies of the Trump administration.” Instead he was gone at 57.
Héctor J. Figueroa was better than Donald J. Trump. He fought for the American working class. At the time of his death, the popular 32BJ leader had declared this the “summer of justice”; putting the elite of this city on notice and threatening to strike if tens of thousands of office cleaners, maintenance workers, security officers, doormen and porters didn’t get a fair contract later this year.
“The building industry in booming in New York City and we have to start telling the building owners and the contractors that we have done the work; we have earned what we deserve; and we are coming for our fair share of the wealth that is here in New York,” Figueroa told scores of rank and file members rallying outside Bryant Park in June.
When ICE tried putting a Bronx building porter and father of five named Baba Sillah on a plane and deport him in March — Figueroa took to the steps of 26 Federal Plaza declaring an end to the U.S. “deportation machine.”
“We’re going to stop the funds and eradicate this deportation machine that is basically giving fuel to a broken immigration system,” Figueroa said. “All it does is go after working people. Baba is a worker. [His wife] Mamou is a worker. This assault on immigrant workers that are building our economy along with all other workers has got to stop — and has to stop now.”
Figueroa was especially savvy, too, in that he well understood that the one thing Trump has been successful in doing, is turning American workers against each other — scapegoating and demonizing immigrants searching for jobs, while shielding the stateless corporatists who are actually responsible for creating a “race to the bottom” and eroding the middle class.
The 32BJ leader alluded to the issue at a Brooklyn rally against deportations last summer, when he told those hoping to get a massive public infrastructure investment or fair trade policy out of the Trump administration that “the writing is on the wall.”
“It’s very clear: [Trump’s] not interested in helping working people,” Figueroa said. “He’s interested in exploiting and dividing and using workers to whatever ends he needs.”
Figueroa once explained to me that in his union, “We no longer really talk about politics — we more broadly talk about justice.”
“When we talk about politics, we think of it in the say way we bargain with employers,” he said. “We need to have justice, dignity and respect in our communities — and and that’s how we look at politics.”
Figueroa died on the same day news began trickling out that Trump-directed ICE agents were planning to raid working families across 10 U.S. cities.
On July 11, the 32BJ president Tweeted, “Trump is about waging war on ALL immigrants regardless of status or contributions to our economy, culture & politics.”
Héctor J. Figueroa should still be here fighting that good fight — the vacuum his devastating loss creates must be filled by all those in Labor he helped inspire to struggle, organize and overcome.