Latino Leaders at the Forefront of Unions

Although the number of unionized workers is at its lowest in nearly a century, various Latino leaders at the forefront of important unions throughout the nation are keeping the fight for workers’ rights alive.

Hector Figueroa, president of SEIU, is one of the most prominent labor leaders in the country. (Photo by David Sachs/ SEIU, Creative Commons license)

Hector Figueroa, president of SEIU, is among prominent labor leaders in the country who are Latino. (Photo by David Sachs/ SEIU, Creative Commons license)

“There will be a future for unions if they focus on closing the inequality gap between the rich and poor, because if they don’t, they become irrelevant,” said Héctor Figueroa, a Puerto Rican who is president of SEIU-32BJ, the largest union in the country representing building service workers.

Figueroa, who has been involved in labor unions his whole life, thinks unions should fill the leadership void in the Latino community of the East Coast.

“The political leadership in our community is very fragmented,” said Figueroa. “Labor unions should use our influence to unify the needs of Latinos and reflect the power we already have in terms of numbers.”

Figueroa was elected president of 32BJ last year, and since then has managed to grow the organization by 20,000 members – one of the few that has grown in recent years – and plans to extend the union’s influence to North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.

32BJ represents more than 145,000 workers – cleaners, janitors, superintendents, maintenance employees, etc. – in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, Maryland and Washington D.C.

Another influential union leader is Cindy Estrada, who was elected in 2010 as the first Latina vice president of United Automobile Workers (UAW), one of the largest unions in the U.S. with headquarters in Michigan.

Estrada believes that immigration reform could help unions turn around the difficult circumstances they are experiencing.

“When thousands of immigrant workers come out of the shadows, they will lose their fear of organizing,” said Estrada. “They will become a very weighty force in the struggle for decent jobs and wages, which is the main problem workers have in this country, with 38 million people living in poverty.”

UAW operates in the Midwest where the country’s powerful automobile industry is centered. UAW has 390,000 active members and 600,000 retired members in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico and comprises more than 750 local syndicates.

These new leaders are replacing prominent Latino union trailblazers such as Puerto Rican Dennis Rivera, who between 1989 and 2007 headed 1199, the main union local in the nation with headquarters in New York.

During his term, 1199 grew from 70,000 to more than 300,000 members and merged with SEIU, spreading its influence to the rest of New York State, Maryland, Washington D.C. and Massachusetts.

Rivera went on to run the SEIU Health Care Union, with more than a million members, where he has been a central figure in the negotiations for Obama’s health care reform.

Another Latino leading one of the major unions is Arturo Rodríguez, president of United Farm Workers of America, founded by legendary activist César Chávez. UFW represents farm workers in 10 states.

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