Gotham Gazette Fri, 24 Jan 2020 23:10:35 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Powerful Head of Building Workers Union Takes on Critics, Explains Positions gov cuomo 32bj

Hector Figueroa (photo: Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

Among powerful labor union leaders, transparency in political decision-making processes can be rare. But Hector Figueroa, president of the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ (SEIU 32BJ), has proved an exception, at least to a significant new degree. And he’s using a now time-honored tool for public sharing: Twitter.

32BJ is the largest property services union in the country, and as its head Figueroa is a prominent political player nationally, and especially in New York, where most 32BJ members work and vote.

Through his Twitter handle @figue32BJ, Figueroa often seeks to explain the decisions his union makes and how it makes them, with the expected focus on how political choices, like candidate and policy endorsements, benefit its members -- a practice he recently took to a new degree around several topics: 32BJ’s support of the ultimately failed plan to bring a sprawling Amazon campus to Queens, its approach to rent regulations being decided in Albany, its endorsement in the contentious Queens District Attorney race, and its support for the Green New Deal.

Though he’s often active on the platform, Figueroa was especially engaged in Twitter conversation recently as he took on critics, praised allies, and outlined key aspects of 32BJ’s strategies.

“As a labor leader, I see it as my responsibility to demystify the union movement and be as accessible to members and the larger community as I can,” Figueroa said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, when asked about his recent activity and broader approach to public discussion. “Social media offers us a very effective way to communicate with a broader audience and build our collective power.”

With regard to rent reform, the union has sent representatives to testify against certain more tenant-friendly bills being debated in Albany, and made public its positions against related measures. A suite of rent regulation reforms, include those opposed by 32BJ, are supported by many grassroots progressive movements and a version of certain updates to the laws appear headed toward passage in the coming days.

Using Twitter, Figueroa clarified the union’s complicated position on the broader issue.

“We want to make sure reform is done well. Somewhere between what tenant advocates say & landlords say is where what works is,” Figueroa wrote on Twitter, facing criticism from a tenant activist. “We don’t know yet what it looks like & will follow this as closely as we can. So far only landlords have talked about workers.” Figeuroa noted that 32BJ members have an important interest in a thriving real estate industry and in apartment building owners investing in their buildings, while members are also concerned about affordable housing and strong tenant protections.

Like on rent regulations -- the most contentious issue being debated in Albany ahead of the June 15 expiration of the current rent laws -- and a host of other issues, Figueroa has made clear that his union’s positions are based on what is in the best interests of the majority of its members.

“We believe in and need rent control and affordable housing but 40k of us work in apartment buildings and do not want our members to lack the resources to upkeep and fix apartments or lose the ability to bargain increases on wages and benefits. We can do both is what we advocate,” Figueroa wrote on Twitter, responding to a critic of the union’s position. “Our residential members want solutions between what landlords & advocates want that meet their needs as workers (good jobs) & as tenants (affordable rents).”

32BJ has more than 163,000 national members, including over 80,000 in New York alone, according to the union’s website. The union consists of members who work across the field of property services, and include doormen, security officers, maintenance workers and engineers.

“We push for bills or weigh in as needed on issues that impact the work our members do. Sometimes that may be different from what advocates want,” Figueroa wrote on Twitter.

Often, those critical of the union forget that the union must support causes that benefit the majority of the union’s members, Figueroa wrote.

“I understand frustrations of activists when building trades don’t support GND, health care workers don’t want transparency on hospital bills, public unions caution about health care for all, building workers question aspects of rent control. Union politics are complicated,” Figueroa wrote on Twitter. Figueroa called for a better way of wrestling with complicated issues than “twitter or public call outs. We need a political way for the left & labor to talk,” he wrote.

On the Green New Deal, Figueroa has supported the federal push by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others, but 32BJ has not gotten behind any of the climate bills being debated or passed in New York.

Responding to a critic who challenged the union’s lack of support for city legislation to institute new regulations on building emissions, Figueroa wrote: “We didn’t oppose the bill. If we had it wouldn’t have passed. As the bill moved we all were concerned about metrics & implementation, offered alternatives. We are, after all, building workers.”

32BJ often backs progressive causes, and was instrumental in the campaign to pass a $15 minimum wage program in New York, among various other recent victories for workers. 32BJ is also a leading member of Fair Elections NY, a coalition for election and campaign finance reform in the state.

But Figeuroa and the union have been clear that they will break from progressive activists.

And 32BJ has also broken with the Democratic establishment, endorsing upstart progressive candidate Alessandra Biaggi in her ultimately winning 2018 campaign against then-Senator Jeff Klein, a powerful and controversial figure who had led the rogue Independent Democratic Conference.

The endorsement followed efforts by Cuomo to reunite the IDC with the rest of the party, where all the elected officials involved pledged not to support primaries against each other. 32BJ’s push for Biaggi, who has been critical of Cuomo, may have hurt what has largely been a very close relationship between the union and the governor.

Cuomo and Figueroa were aligned on Amazon’s move to open a campus in Queens, but as that deal fell apart and 32BJ continued to push campaign finance reform in Albany, the governor repeatedly targeted the union publicly, in a series of moves that seemed to befuddle 32BJ leadership and many watchers of state politics.

On Amazon, Figeuroa was outspoken in supporting the deal, which promised jobs for 32BJ members. Figueroa again took to Twitter to clarify the union’s position and fend off critics.

He challenged “the left” for not considering the interests of unionized construction and service workers, and expressed support for the notion, espoused by Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, that bringing Amazon to New York could help the push to unionize its factories and warehouses.

“Building HQ2 in NY is better for working families than not building it. In NYC it will create good union construction & service jobs & other family sustaining jobs. Labor has a better shot here than elsewhere at unionizing & improving conditions in Amazon warehouses & tech jobs,” Figeuroa wrote. After the deal fell apart, he wrote a scathing op-ed in the Daily News taking on those who had helped push Amazon away.

A break with grassroots liberal activists is also currently evident in the union’s support of Queens Borough President Melinda Katz for Queens District Attorney. Katz, seen as the “establishment” candidate, has amassed many endorsements from major unions and elected officials.

“It is wrong to say that unions “taking risk” means supporting insurgent candidates,” Figueroa wrote on Twitter. Many activist groups and politicians further to the left are backing public defender Tiffany Caban for Queens DA.

Figuera noted that Katz had the support of the progressive Working Families Party for years, fighting back against the notion that she is a part of the “establishment.”

“It may fit some folks narrative to depict her as the establishment in order to draw support for an insurgent candidate but our politically active members & officers know her well. We don’t erase history out of convenience or fashion,” Figuera wrote on Twitter.

Figueroa clarified that the process of winning the endorsement of the union was not solely up to the union’s elected leadership. Offering some transparency into the endorsement process, he said that leaders and activists among Queens-based members of the union screened and ranked candidates for DA, followed by a recommendation of one candidate to the elected executive board and ultimately a vote by the board.

Twenty thousand of the union’s members live in Queens, he said, in a wide variety of neighborhoods and representing many demographics.

Figueroa noted that the union can improve on its member screening process, but said Katz’s history of working together with the union is what won her the endorsement.

“We think she will be able to do it, to reform the DA office in the progressive way we need and manage its enormous staff,” Figueroa wrote on Twitter of the union’s support for Katz and shunning a potential endorsement of Caban.

Figueroa seems to feed off the energy off those who critique him, sometimes challenging them or calling out “the left” himself.

“We have made the lives of 175k service workers better & won raises, paid sick days & paid leave for millions more not in unions across 11 states & DC. Those are our interests. Call us out,” Figueroa wrote on Twitter, responding to criticism that he supports progressive ideas unless they adversely affect his union.

“We know service workers are often invisible to employers & powerful people but to learn they can be invisible to the left too is something new,” Figueroa tweeted.

by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Powerful Head of Building Workers Union Takes on Critics, Explains Positions Wed, 12 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
For the Future of Our Communities, Labor Support for The Green New Deal green new deal via sunrise movement

(photo: @sunrisemvmt)

Four years ago, the New York climate march brought 300,000 people to the streets of Manhattan to demand action from national and world leaders. Marching in New York City with my family, we witnessed how thousands of people from all walks of life filled the streets with energy, passion, and hope for a better future for our children and grandchildren. 32BJ SEIU, the labor union I am honored to lead, played a vital part in the People’s Climate March because our members live and work in communities that are affected by climate change.

We reside in coastal cities that have been flooded by storms like Hurricane Sandy. Our urban areas suffer with skyrocketing asthma rates. Many of us have families in the global south that have been devastated by climate change. We march and organize to bring attention to this existential crisis and demand action now. And we know that solutions can be found that both generate jobs and deliver sustainable energy.

As the new crop of progressive legislators in Congress is showing us all, the time to be bold on issues like climate change, the economy, and immigration is now. Last week Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced the introduction of the Green New Deal, a plan to make climate change, clean air, clean water, and reductions in pollution a priority for the new Congress when its members take office in January.

As a union representing 163,000 doormen, security officers, cleaners, and airport workers up and down the east coast, we support this bold vision to reduce greenhouse gasses, switch to renewable energies, and create good jobs. It’s both doable and indispensable.

For labor unions like ours, climate change is an environmental issue, an economic opportunity, and a political challenge that can destabilize our societies. We need to be ambitious and that requires us to think on a large scale and allocate the appropriate finances to fully address the climate threats that our planet is facing.

These threats are environmental and economic, and they will require investments in the communities historically dependent on fossil fuel extraction and production so the transition to renewable energy doesn’t leave “coal country” out in the cold. This is an opportunity to re-industrialize America with a green economy, with jobs that, with the right training, can provide career ladders for many low-wage workers who struggle to afford the high cost of living.

32BJ has a Green Buildings Program that serves as a good example and learning experience. The program, which trains existing building superintendents how to make residential buildings in New York more energy efficient, was meant to reduce the 77% of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions that are produced by residential buildings. It has taught us that investing in long-term training and education programs for current employees can help them transition into the green economy and even become leaders in these efforts.

When these jobs are well paid, with benefits and union representation, green initiatives can further support local communities already dealing with the impacts of climate change. Initiatives like the Climate Jobs New York Program, which includes legislative requirements for labor standards in the creation of new wind and solar energy jobs across the state, show us that it is possible and deeply impactful when good union jobs are a central tenet of green job initiatives.

Directly impacted communities, those who have done the least to cause climate change—the poor, people of color, immigrants—and are suffering the most also need good jobs, affordable modernized public transportation, and big investments in renewable and solar energy in order to survive and thrive through the projected climate threats to come.

As Congress weighs the viability of a Green New Deal, we urge elected officials, labor unions, environmental groups, and community organizations to support its vision and to be smart, compassionate, and bold.

While there is much going on around the globe today that is disturbing and disheartening, it is also a time for hope. Let’s keep moving, marching, organizing, voting, and winning.

Hector Figueroa is president of 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, representing 175,000 property-service workers up and down the east coast. On Twitter @figue32bj & @32BJSEIU.

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For the Future of Our Communities, Labor Support for The Green New Deal Tue, 11 Dec 2018 05:00:00 +0000
One of the State's Most Powerful Unions Tries to Take Down One of Its Most Powerful Politicians 32BJ for Biaggi

photo: @32BJSEIU

As Alessandra Biaggi, a first-time candidate for office, attempts to unseat Democratic state Senator Jeff Klein, once the powerful leader of a rogue faction of Democratic senators, a prominent labor union is pulling no punches to ensure that her insurgent campaign prevails in the September 13 primary.

The property services workers union, 32BJ SEIU, which boasts more than 160,000 members and is a regular political heavyweight, has been aggressively courting voters and spending money to help Biaggi defeat Klein, a Democrat the union once backed. A force in state politics with allies at the highest reaches of government, 32BJ could put Biaggi over the top in what is increasingly being viewed, despite Klein’s significant advantages, as an unpredictable race given broader trends and recent upsets, Biaggi’s strengths as a campaigner, and the activism behind her bid.

Klein represents Senate District 34, which covers parts of the Bronx and Westchester, and has been in office since 2005. Along the way, he acquired power and prestige, forming the Independent Democratic Conference (IDC), an alliance that grew to eight senators who broke from the chamber’s mainline Democratic conference and formed a coalition majority with Senate Republicans, at times ensuring GOP leadership of the only Republican stronghold in state government. In turn, IDC members received leadership positions, additional stipends, more discretionary funding for their districts, and other benefits. The infamous “three men in a room” of state government decision-making -- the governor, Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader -- became four, with Klein joining to influence the fate of key legislation and the state budget.

The IDC rejoined the mainline Democrats in April, after another state budget agreement and no shortage of criticism from progressive activists, unions, and elected Democrats who viewed their power-sharing agreement with visceral hatred and outright derision. A slate of challengers, including Biaggi, had already launched their campaigns to unseat the IDC members in the primary, promising “real” as opposed to “Trump Democrats.”

The Democratic unity deal had its beginnings in a letter sent in November 2017 by leaders of the state Democratic Party, Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley and, notably, Hector Figueroa, an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee, the president of 32BJ, and an active and powerful voice in New York politics. They appealed to Klein and Democratic conference leader Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins to reunite the disparate factions of the same party. In April this year, the two sides finally came together, with Governor Andrew Cuomo literally in the middle at a press conference, expressing a newfound bonhomie that tried to erase years of bad blood. Both sides promised mutual support in the upcoming elections. Klein was appointed deputy conference leader under Stewart-Cousins and pledged that the IDC was dead forever as a conference.

But, damage was already done. Following Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election, a wave of grassroots activists had vowed to oppose the IDC Senators and, one by one, challengers emerged to take on each senator in the primary. They shared similar policy platforms, pledging to support causes near and dear to progressives -- such as single-payer health care, criminal justice reform, enhanced rent regulations, voting, ethics and campaign finance reform, and increased education funding -- which they blamed IDC members for blocking. Among them was Biaggi, who formerly worked in Cuomo’s counsel’s office and was deputy national operations director for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

In late June, two months after the unity compact, 32BJ announced its endorsement of Biaggi, which shocked the New York political world and many saw as the crumbling of the facade of a unified effort to keep Democratic incumbents, including Cuomo and Klein, in power. Figueroa, who remains a staunch Cuomo supporter, was accused by some of reneging on a commitment to not oppose the former IDC members, a charge he has repeatedly dismissed.

“I think that Democratic unity was already broken,” Figueroa said in a phone interview on Thursday. “The efforts to fix it were not really sincerely driven, or even embraced when others were driving it, by the IDC.” He emphasized that the IDC had ample opportunity to return to the fold, and should have done so when the need for unity became clear. First was after the 2014 elections, when 32BJ had endorsed Klein after he promised to end the IDC alliance with Republicans. Klein subsequently broke that promise. Then came Trump’s election, after which Democrats saw a dire need to regain complete control of state government. Again, the IDC stuck with Republicans.

“So the effort that we undertook throughout 2017, showing them the reality of where the country was and what it meant to be sharing power with Republicans, finally caught up with them when they were primaried,” Figueroa said, “When they experienced rejection in their own districts, then they decided that it was time to try to figure out how to come back.”

The terms of the deal were also unacceptable, he said, noting that the former IDC members insisted on funding their campaigns with money raised with the Independence Party through the Senate Independence Campaign Committee (SICC), which received contributions from donors more friendly to Republican causes, such as real estate and charter school interests. (The committee was recently ruled by a judge to be illegal and the IDC members were directed by a Board of Elections official to return millions in campaign funds they had received, though they have refused to do so, while they took steps to get the SICC into compliance.)

“Even when they accepted the offer, they kept the [SICC] money and they demanded what cannot be demanded, which is that everybody bow to their leadership and ignore their opponents,” Figueroa said. “So to me, this was already set to fail, unfortunately,...because of the attitude and arrogance of the head of the IDC and his minions in the conference.”

He continued, “The roots of division were very, very deep and had they behaved in a different way, had they refunded the money, had they taken the attitude that they have to talk to voters, they have to talk to people in the district like we asked Klein to do with our members, had they been more humble, maybe they could have avoided the ferocity of the opposition. But they didn’t do that. They felt that institutional politics protects them and now they’re paying the price.”

Endorsing Biaggi was an easy calculation for the union. Klein refused to be interviewed by its screening committee, which then unanimously voted for Biaggi, Figueroa said.

Biaggi said the union’s support was “incredibly massive,” touting shared values and the union’s organizing efforts around progressive legislation in the state. “They were also the first union to come out and support me before any other union, and that’s something that I will absolutely never forget. It is incredibly politically courageous,” she said.

The union had already committed to hitting the ground for Biaggi, traversing the district to knock on doors and canvass for votes. Then, just over a month after their endorsement of Biaggi, Klein pulled a stunt that left Figueroa “perplexed.”

The senator hosted about a dozen rank-and-file members of Figueroa’s union and posted a video to Twitter in which they held up signs for his campaign and chanted, “32BJ!” In a subsequent tweet, Klein wrote, “These are the doormen, the superintendents, maintenance staff and security companies in our building and our public schools, who provide clean and safe environments for our families. This is a testament to loyalty, and I am truly honored by the rank and file support of @32BJSEIU.”

“[It] doesn’t mean anything except that it revealed one of the personality flaws that we find in Klein - the vanity, the arrogance of doing that is really innovative and unique,” Figueroa said, having never experienced a candidate attempting to project support that he does not have from the union’s majority and endorsement vote. “And it’s that style of politics that we have to reject at this time. The politics of confusion and the politics of divisiveness and the politics of deceiving the electorate, which is what has been the trademark of Jeff Klein and the IDC. That only energized us more to support Biaggi.”

The move also annoyed many union members and the next day, Figueroa said, 109 members volunteered to assist the effort behind Biaggi’s candidacy. They went to the Bronx in a show of force.

Biaggi said the move was of a piece with Klein’s career, that he was attempting to fool voters just as he had done for years as part of the IDC, misleading “all of the voters of District 34 into thinking that they were voting for a Democrat when they were really voting for someone who was empowering Republicans. And now he’s trying to pretend that he has a union that did not endorse him...I would never in my wildest dreams do that. It kind of reduces his credibility as a leader.” (City & State reported that, in late August, Klein’s campaign also sent a letter to constituents that made a few misleading claims about his record.)

A spokesperson did not respond to a request for an interview with Klein for this article, and he has declined multiple Gotham Gazette invitations to make radio show appearances, though he has participated in at least two debates with Biaggi and other candidate forums.

In one of the debates, hosted by BronxTalk, Klein downplayed the IDC’s role in empowering Republicans while touting its record passing progressive legislation including raising the age of criminal responsibility and a phased $15 minimum wage program. Klein said his opponent was playing “fast and loose” with the facts and he insisted that the IDC couldn’t have given Democrats a majority since the 32nd vote that gave Republicans control over the 63-member chamber came from Simcha Felder, a conservative Democrat from Brooklyn. That continues to be the case, which is why Democrats are hoping to notch victories in several swing districts outside New York City in November, while some eye unseating Brooklyn Republican Senator Marty Golden and others, including 32BJ, support Blake Morris in his primary challenge to Felder.

Klein insisted the IDC was a creation of necessity, pointing to the last time the Democrats won a majority in 2008. “The minute we won that majority, it was all downhill -- corruption, dysfunction,” he said, pointing to four Democratic state Senators who had attempted their own independent faction that year which plunged the chamber into chaos. “I originally decided to run for the state Senate to make sure we had a Democratic majority. And over the years, even though there wasn’t a Democratic majority, I was able to get a lot of things done,” Klein said in his closing statement.

A Democratic consultant who lives in the district and requested anonymity to speak freely said Klein’s move to court union members made sense. “I can see it as a viable tactic by an elected official like Jeff Klein to have public meetings with union members even if he didn’t get support from their leadership,” the consultant said.

Klein may not have 32BJ’s backing, but he does have a whole host of unions, some very powerful ones, that want to see him reelected including 1199 SEIU, DC37, the Hotel Trades Council, TWU Local 100, RWDSU, and several law enforcement unions. Klein has also raised and spent much more money than his challenger.

“I am still the underdog in this race,” Biaggi acknowledged, “which means that I have double the amount of work that I have to do to make sure that people know who I am, that people understand what this race is about and what's at stake for really everyone in New York and why it’s so important for our community to actually have a real Democrat representing them.”

Besides the hundreds of volunteers that 32BJ has put into the ground game week after week, the union has also put money behind Biaggi. It donated $7,000 to her campaign and its independent expenditure committee, Empire State 32BJ SEIU PAC, had spent $75,938 to support her campaign through mailers and social media through the most recent filing. Figueroa also signalled that more outside spending was on the way, and the PAC’s latest financial disclosure to the Board of Elections shows $43,861 in outstanding liabilities for expenditures both in favor of Biaggi and opposing Klein.

Biaggi herself has raised more than $504,000 over the course of the race, and has, so far, spent $184,000, which pales in comparison to Klein’s campaign finances, but left her a solid chunk, with more surely coming in, to spend in the final 10 days of the race. In just this two-year cycle, however, the incumbent senator has raised $1.66 million and spent almost $2.4 million, dropping $836,000 in just three weeks in August. While Biaggi had about $263,000 in cash on hand, Klein had nearly $960,000 in the bank for the final stretch.

The Democratic consultant said there has been an “insane amount of mail” going out from both campaigns and their surrogates. “At least one piece a week,” the consultant said. On the ground, the campaigns seem to have split the district in their approach, the consultant said. Klein’s campaign seems focused on holding his home turf in the east, in Morris Park and Wakefield, while Biaggi campaign workers have been hitting the ground hard in the west side of the district, in Riverdale, Van Cortlandt and Kingsbridge. “The farther west you go, prime voters are not getting door-knocked at all by Klein’s people,” the consultant said.

[Read: Candidates in Contested State Senate Primaries File Final Pre-Primary Financials]

Biaggi said Klein’s outsize spending on the race is a clear signal of weakness. “It says that he is not certain that he’s going to win and that sends a signal to everybody who has supported him previously to say, am I on the right side of this?”

stringer biaggiSeveral Democratic elected officials have also declared for Biaggi, including U.S. Senator from New York Kirsten Gillibrand, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Comptroller Scott Stringer (pictured with Biaggi), Congressional candidate and progressive rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (whom 32BJ did not endorse in her primary win), former Mayor David Dinkins, Congressional Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney, and City Council Members Brad Lander, Ben Kallos and Carlina Rivera, Mt. Vernon City Council President Lisa Copeland, Catherine Parker, the majority leader of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, among others. The Working Families Party has also endorsed her and is providing similar on-ground support like 32BJ. 

Biaggi was also among four Senate candidates to receive the coveted endorsement of the New York Times editorial board, which wrote, “Alessandra Biaggi, who describes herself pointedly as ‘a real Democrat,’ is the kind of smart, dedicated reformer so desperately needed in Albany.” Biaggi was subsequently endorsed by the New York Daily News editorial board.

A side effect of 32BJ’s mobilization in the district, which is home to 6,000 of its members, said Figueroa, is a new awakening about the local issues and community that is unlikely to fade even if Klein retains his seat. “This is a district where we’re gonna be setting roots for years to come,” he said.

“We have seen the process be hijacked year after year to put a break on what could effectively be the most progressive legislature in the country,” he added. “That is really what is behind the dynamics of this race. And that is only growing. If people feel that somehow if Klein wins, the opposition will go away, they are making a big mistake.”

The next challenge is getting people to turn out to vote on a Thursday. “I am feeling great, I am feeling excited, I’m feeling motivated,” Biaggi said exactly one week before the September 13 primary. “I’m feeling that this next week is going to be incredibly critical to making sure that everybody gets out to vote, that is my number one goal for the next seven days.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated to note that Alessandra Biaggi has also been endorsed by the Working Families Party. 

One of the State's Most Powerful Unions Tries to Take Down One of Its Most Powerful Politicians Sun, 09 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000