Latinos in the World of Work: An Interview with Hector Figueroa

December 19, 2013


2267 Hector Figueroa in Philadelphia at a Rally on September 28, 2011. Photo by Dave Sanders.

Hector Figueroa is the president of Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Based in New York City, 32BJ has 145,000 members along the eastern seaboard, making it the largest property service workers union in the United States and one of the largest unions of any kind in New York. Its members include janitors, doormen, porters, maintenance workers, bus drivers, window cleaners, school cleaners and food service workers. Figueroa spoke with NACLA’s Fred Rosen at the union’s Manhattan headquarters on September 13, 2013.

FR: To begin with, as a long-time labor organizer and president of a union that has historically organized an immigrant workforce—these days a largely Latino workforce—tell me how you see the effects of the presence of that workforce on the shape of the city?

HF: Let me start with this, as a way of telling a story. Imagine you’re in the 60s, sort of late 60s into the 70s, just before the financial collapse of the city, and what you experience is immigrant New York. The Latino community is predominately Puerto Rican. Dominicans are starting to come in some numbers, Cubans have been arriving since the outcome of the Cuban Revolution and finding an enclave with old Spanish immigrants still living in the city. And what you find is Queens neighborhoods like Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, and Corona populated by Spanish from Spain, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans all interacting with immigrant and ethnic communities of Irish, Italians, and others.

And I have to mention the Bronx. In the 60s and 70s, when I was a kid I used to come mostly to the Bronx. The Bronx was heavily influenced by the Puerto Rican presence as was Spanish Harlem and the Lower East Side.

FR: How did the Puerto Rican population blend into the workforce, and how did that affect the city’s labor movement?

HF: Puerto Ricans began asserting themselves in the effort to organize public sector workers. They were also present in the manufacturing base, doing a lot of the jobs. You know, cardboard boxes, paper-related industries. My uncle used to work in the garment industry, which was still going strong. Then also in services like meatpacking, you know, doing all that kind of work. A substantial portion of the union base, including at that time in 32BJ, were property-service workers. The publications of the union were published in three languages: English, Polish, and Spanish, that early. There were Latino caucuses already, active Latino caucuses, in unions like AFSCME [American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees]. There were caucuses of Latinos in 1199 [healthcare workers]. There were caucuses of Latinos in the transit workers union. It was a maturing labor force, beginning to be established. With beginning leaders at the intermediate and low-ranking levels, there were not many labor leaders of Spanish heritage. But the city was starting to visualize the Puerto Rican community, with the presence of Puerto Ricans in politics—in the City Council, for example.

FR: And how did that set the stage for today?

HF: Puerto Ricans still dominate in the labor force in the public sector; manufacturing is essentially gone; the only manufacturing that is vibrating in the city is small manufacturing that caters to the diversity of food preferences of a largely immigrant community. So there’s a lot of tortillerías making Mexican tortillas for both New Yorkers at large and for the growing Mexican community. A lot of stores … like grocery stores and bodegas, that provide a whole vast network of Latino products, that are either packed, sent here, or made here. The manufacturing of the past has mostly disappeared. The garment industry is gone, the boxing and cardboard industry used to be very big here, gone. The jewelry industry in New York used to be a center of manufacturing is essentially gone too. So all those industries where Puerto Ricans and the incoming Dominicans were able to have union jobs in manufacturing are all gone.

So the jobs now are largely service jobs. Building service work continues. We still have, among Latinos, still a dominant group in Puerto Ricans but quickly being replaced by Dominicans, I would say probably already replaced in the last couple of years. We haven’t had a census inside the union, but it was neck and neck, Puerto Ricans only a little ahead, but neck and neck with Dominicans. When we poll our members now, we continue to have our publications in English and Spanish and occasionally Polish and Albanian. But the Latino membership is largely Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Mexicans, who are starting to come and show up in our buildings industry; also a huge number of Colombians and Ecuadorans, a growing Peruvian community with leaders in the union and leaders in the community. And we have Hondurans and even Paraguayans establishing restaurants in neighborhoods that never ever saw that. All the flavors of Latin America are essentially present now in New York City.

FR: How does all this translate into Latino political power?

HF: Politically, Latinos have not managed to get citywide leaders…. There is a lot of fragmentation in the community. There are younger leaders like Carlos Menchaca, the first Mexican to win—with the support of our union—a city council seat from Brooklyn. The large number of Latinos in the workforce and in the population at large is not finding its way, as it should be by now, into influence in the political process. So it remains a challenge.

In terms of leadership in the unions and participation in the unions, hotel workers have a large number of Latinos; laborers are more and more Latino; construction workers are more Latino than they ever used to be; the service sector is increasingly more Latino. So the share of Latinos in these industries is growing, and yet the number of Latino officers like me is very, very low. Latinos who are presidents of the unions or have a leadership role in the unions, are very few, if you were to compare the size of the work force.

FR: Is that because it just takes time to move up the structure?

HF: I think it is, because it takes time to move up the structure, and also because of the changing economy with more and more non-union work. I don’t have the data, but I will venture to say that Latinos are less unionized now than they were 40 years ago. The majority of the Latino workforce is not in unions today, is the sense that I get, compared to the moment when we unionized the public sector, when there was still unionized manufacturing in the city and there was still unionized retail in the city, and leaders like Ida Torres and Dennis Rivera were much more present. Now, with the decline of the manufacturing unions and the garment sector gone, essentially you only have services and the public sector. There are also fewer unions that are out there with members. There is a potential of organizing by using the identity of Latinos as a beacon to organize workers.

FR: Is it your sense that the Latino community in general self identifies as Latino or more Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Peruvian?

HF: I think it’s both. I think there is a Latino identity when it comes down to the unity of the language, and a lot of pan-Latino relationships in the neighborhoods.

On the other hand the Latino identity is molded by the remittances and the experiences of your country of origin, so that never changes. I’m Mexican, I’m Ecuadoran, I’m Peruvian, I follow the newspapers of my community, I follow the news with the Internet, I pay attention to what’s happening when my team is playing, I wear the colors. But at the same time there is a communality of language, we eat at each other’s restaurants, we buy from each other’s bodegas, we are treated by the system as being Spanish-speaking immigrants or Latinos, so you get hit by both. Not to mention the other identity, which is like, we are not going back, we’re New Yorkers, we live in the city, we are now part of this country, what are we going to do? I think in the Latino community you have these three conflicts of identity. The identity of the country of your parents or where you came from, the identity of being part of Latino, Hispanic cultural and sometime political entity, and then the identity of being also Americans, new Americans, and new New Yorkers.

So the identity comes from many different places. And it may be that the politics of the community is missing something in terms of how to appeal to that. Most of the elected officials tend to be still Puerto Rican and Dominican, but now you have Colombians and Mexicans in representative government. And when they come together they talk as Latinos, trying to figure out who we really are, what is identity? But it is not really an identity; the identity doesn’t really tell how we are different other than the fact that we speak Spanish. We are tolerant and embracing of each other.

FR: What about identity forged by your place in the workforce?

HF: The identity in the workplace is very strong. In the cafeteria-restaurant industry, Mexicans dominate the Latino identity. The Mexican community is really there in the restaurant industry. It’s pretty amazing to see.

FR: Yeah, you notice. It’s very obvious to you as a customer.

HF: Very obvious, and Dominicans to some degree. In the property service industry there are really a lot of South Americans and Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. So the Latino identity is forged by language and we see that because Latinos tend to negotiate together—their position on the job and their promotion—and if their supervisor is from another country they call us to exercise power. If the supervisor is Latino, very often there is that kind of symbiotic relationship leaving other groups on the side. So there is a politics of identity that people come together on the job, much more with the Latino identity. I see this all the time, and it is frequently about the language spoken on the job, the right to be able to communicate.

One example is that we had a big fight recently with the Yankees organization because the Yankees worried after what happened in Boston with the marathon they realized that a Yankee game could be the subject of a terrorist act or something. And they wanted all the employees in the field, cleaning, maintaining the grounds and in the bathrooms and in the common space to speak English. And they decided that anyone who spoke Spanish had to be relegated to post game or pregame work, but as long as you had fans in the stadium the workers had to be able to speak English. We fought that and the workers all came together.

FR: How was that resolved?

HF: We won. The way we won it was that we committed to give training to people in English. The Yankees agreed to take people that only spoke Spanish but who learned the necessary English to say to somebody where is an exit in the case of an emergency, what are the security processes that they need to follow, in very simple words. We also persuaded them because we said look, it’s to your benefit that people speak Spanish in the stadium because a large number of the fans also only speak Spanish.

FR: So those workers belonged to 32BJ.

HF: To 32BJ, yes.

FR: Not only the Yankees but other sporting events? Do you organize all those workers?

HF: Most of them. We don’t organize the workers who sell in the concessions, but anybody that ushers you, sells the food going around but not in the concessionary, the people working in the field, in the seventh inning they do their act, they are our members. The security office as you’re going into the stadium or the arena, they’re our members. And you know a lot Latinos in these venues—Madison Square Garden, a lot of Latinos there.

In terms of the industry sector, retail has a large number of Latinos, growing numbers too, but different from the Latinos of the past. What is interesting now is that a lot of their workers are new immigrants, but they are also not a cohesive international group, so you’re having a lot of multinational Latinos in the workplace. Even the last few years you have seen a lot of these changes—because there were some sectors that were mostly Dominican it’s no longer that. When I went to a workplace, it was like 90% Dominican; I go now and I find people from Uruguay or Paraguay are coming in more numbers. Brazilians are starting to show up sometimes, Colombians—you cannot describe a work place as dominated by a single group besides the restaurant industry food processing that is dominated by Mexicans. Very interesting.

FR: One thing you sometimes notice: there is a kind of segmentation within certain workplaces among Latinos. Like in a lot of supermarkets, the guys that are loading the shelves are Mexican, but the foremen or supervisors are either Puerto Rican or Dominican and they are kind of an interface because they are bilingual and they can talk to the boss.

HF: Totally, the ones that are bilingual, that are second or third generation, end up with managerial jobs. In our industry they end up with the doorman job or the super’s job. I don’t know of any single super that is Mexican in the city of New York. In fact, the supers that are Latino I would say are 90% Puerto Rican in Manhattan. Then you go to the Bronx and they’re largely Dominican, the supers. But language is kind of connected to how long you’ve been in the country and if you’re first generation, second generation.

FR: It looks the same way in a lot of construction sites. The kind of lowest level jobs tend to be filled by Mexicans. Of course, there are a lot of non-Latinos too.

HF: The foreman or the foreladies tend to be Dominican and Puerto Rican at this point. People will probably disagree with me, but in the workplace it’s starting to become hard to distinguish one from another because now you’re having Dominicans that have been actually born here and end up with these jobs. And they adopt the culture of urban New York.

There is an urban New York Latino culture that is also very influenced by the African American culture. That is something distinct to the new immigrant culture. In some neighborhoods there is tension between new immigrants and Dominicans and Puerto Ricans from several generations. And they fight each other. And there are gangs who go after the immigrants that only speak Spanish. Those dynamics are also present.

But going forward what I would say is that, for me, what is exciting is how the Mexican community, both in the workplace and in the union movement, in broader fights, gets integrated into the Latino efforts, and that needs to happen very quickly so we can have a progressive, pro-labor, pro-union, pro-worker Latino politics in this city. The second thing that is exciting is the progressive movement in the city now. There is a huge amount of discontent around income inequality, around civil liberties, and there is a movement that could reshape the leadership and the priority of leadership within the Latino community. And it could be that the assertion of economic demands with the assertion of more prescient openness could be the way that the new Latino political leadership structure gets developed.

These last city elections, for example, with the emergence of de Blasio as a candidate … there are many things to say. We supported Quinn early in the race because we had worked very well with her, and she actually delivered in many areas, but clearly there was an anti-incumbent sentiment and desire for change. Even though de Blasio has been a public officer for many years, he has taken positions that were not associated with the mayor or the governor, so he could claim a progressive or alternative image. And it remains to be seen if that message resonates with the Latino community. Exit polls in this last primary election showed 38% for De Blasio among Latinos that voted. They also show a Latino share among voters in the primaries of 18%, which is a healthy number, could be better. I think that we can, if we organize a lot of voter registration and education in the community, if we mobilize workers and tie it to union organizing campaigns, that share of the electorate should be more like 22% and that’s the goal.

FR: In all these elections, specifically for labor, what’s at stake?

HF: What is at stake, I would say is the opportunity to have a mayor who is supportive of the organizing of service workers. The fast food workers have shown that there is a tremendous amount of receptivity to organizing drives. A lot of those workers are Latino too. In fact some of the most compelling stories of fast food workers came from Mexican delivery people who played the leadership role in many of the different groups that were pulled to strike. And Dominican and Puerto Rican kids, and when I say kids, in their twenties with families to support on a fast food wage. So those groups came together with African Americans to demand $15 an hour and a union. They have stuck four times in New York in maximum numbers, over 100 stores.

FR: Has 32BJ been involved?

HF: 32BJ is involved in supporting that effort. Community for Change is involved in the organizing and there is some progressive foundation support for it. But what is interesting is the receptivity. There is a moment here and now that can be like that 60s, 70s moment, that led to the rapid growth of Latinos, in that case Puerto Ricans, in unions, combined with the gains of bilingual education, combined with the gains in access to education and many other programs as well as access to hospitals and services. I think we can replicate that moment, where the assertion of the Puerto Rican community coincided with greater unionization across the city and greater responsiveness of the city and the state and the national government to Latinos. It can happen on a scale that has yet to be established but that can be the way that Mexicans and new immigrants together with the older Puerto Ricans and Dominicans can assert a Latino identity and maybe perhaps eventually elect a mayor.

So I think it is very exciting and I think it can happen. The progressive caucus in the city council has a lot of Latinos, and these Latinos are not just pushing Latino identity. A lot of them are connected to the growing gay and lesbian movement, and a lot of them are interested in social and economic justice, and workplace issues for the great non-union Latino population. It needs to be continued, but I believe that in the next decade the Latino community has to play a big role in that, and it is our job to organize that community because right now we are still fragmented. We lack the cohesion of the Puerto Rican community of the 60s and 70s; we lack the shared experience; we lack the concentrated preciseness in some neighborhoods, and we have to compensate for that.

FR: Just one last thing about reaching out to workers in non-union jobs, trying to either unionize or get better positions. A lot of those jobs to my understanding are informal, meaning they are not on the books, they don’t have social security, they don’t have benefits, like car washers for example, or deliverers from take-out restaurants.

HF: There are a lot like that but they are side by side with regular jobs. Immigration reform will help a lot to make people able come out of the shadows and participate more fully. What captures peoples’ imagination are the informal jobs, and there’s plenty of them, but at the core, informal jobs are connected to formal jobs that have been diminished in terms of compensation, in terms of the regularity of employment and in terms of the quality of the job. That place is the very place to have collective bargaining and union rights. Informal jobs can be shaped by those formal efforts. So green grocers and car washers and taxi drivers and domestic workers are a great population for organizing. Fast food offers a potential of an industry that has billions of dollars in profits, tons of people employed, millions of people employed throughout the country and thousands in New York. From there we can build outward, like an onion; the more stable jobs that pay very low become much better jobs, and the related jobs can benefit from the improvement of conditions in the much more stable jobs.

But the deterioration at the center of the good jobs just continues outward to the more informal economy that is growing. So I think that that informal economy will not improve by just those workers coming together. It will improve from workers at the core reestablishing power and then they themselves making demands. I would find it very good if fast food workers were to win a contract or just an ordinance that elevates wages to 12, 13, 15 dollars an hour, it creates a pool, a space that can only help the others. 



Transcribed by Rafael Espaillat.



Fred Rosen is the editor of NACLA.



Read the rest of NACLA's Winter 2013 issue: "Latino New York"



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