Héctor Figueroa, the president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union and one the nation’s most influential labor leaders, died of a heart attack Thursday evening, a union official said.
He was 57 years old.
“It is with overwhelming sadness and a heavy heart that 32BJ mourns the unexpected passing of union president Héctor Figueroa last night in New York,” the union said in a statement Friday.
“For those of us who have worked with him to further the well-being of our members and working people everywhere, and felt his personal and principled concern for our members, our staff and others this is a devastating loss.”
“In his many years of service to our union, to the labor movement, and to our communities, he consistently joined together a clear vision about the empowerment of working people with compassion and energy.”
Since 2012, Figueroa had headed the country’s largest buildings services union, Local 32BJ, which boasts more than 163,000 members nationwide.
Born in Puerto Rico, Figueroa moved to the United States in 1982 and started the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, which is now called Workers United. While there, he earned a reputation for being a pioneer in speaking out for immigrants’ rights in the labor movement.
He joined in the Service Employees International Union’s “Justice for Janitors” campaign in 1995 and worked his way up SEIU’s ranks.
Many elected officials, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, mourned his loss on Friday.
Cuomo credited the late union leader with helping his administration enact “New York’s nation-leading $15 minimum wage — first for fast food workers and then for all workers — and the historic $19 minimum wage for airport workers just last year.”
“I am beyond heartbroken to learn of the sudden passing of Héctor Figueroa — a towering figure in politics and a hero of the labor community who did untold good for the working people of this state and this nation,” the governor said. “Héctor was a champion for working people, minorities, the poor, the voiceless.”
De Blasio said that “it’s impossible to put into words what Héctor meant to the men and women of 32BJ SEIU, to working people and to the labor movement.”
“Héctor embodied that word ‘solidarity,’” Hizzoner added. “His love of 32BJ SEIU ran deep, but you’d be just as likely to see him on the picket line with fast food workers or taxi drivers as you would with the custodians, service workers and doormen he represented. He fought just as doggedly for relief for people in Puerto Rico as he did for fair contracts here in New York City. ”
During his final months, Figueroa was a vocal critic of progressive leaders whose opposition led to Amazon pulling out of a deal with the Cuomo and de Blasio administrations to build a second headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, which would have brought 25,000 jobs.
Figueroa is survived by wife Deirdre and his two children, Eric and Elena.
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Details about memorial plans will be forthcoming, according to 32BJ SEIU.