In July, Hector Figueroa, the revered head of the powerful New York labor union SEIU 32BJ, died of a heart attack. Figueroa’s successor is Kyle Bragg, who now stands at the head of one the most politically potent and effective unions in the country. Splinter spoke to Bragg about power politics, the future of the labor movement, and his relationship with the left.
In many ways, SEIU 32BJ—whose members are building service workers, janitors, security guards, and airport workers up and down the East Coast—is a model of what unions should be. They have been strongly committed to new organizing and growth for decades; they serve many workers who can only maintain a middle class lifestyle thanks to the union’s power; and they use their political clout to push elected officials to help the broader working class. Still, the fight over Amazon’s aborted headquarters project in New York City (which 32BJ supported) and the union’s frequent support of establishment Democrats over more radical challengers has caused friction with groups on the left who charge that the union is transactional but not idealistic.
Kyle Bragg himself was raised in the labor movement. His father was a union organizer, and he led his first strike at the age of 16, before going to work for 32BJ more than 35 years ago. He worked closely with Figueroa, who was widely viewed as one of the nation’s most dynamic union leaders, for nearly two decades, building 32BJ into a major force. Now, Bragg himself has been thrust into leadership. “We agreed that building the strength of the union gave us opportunities to work on behalf of working families and our members on other justice work,” Bragg says. “Economic justice, racial justice, immigrant justice, environmental justice.”
Splinter: When I interviewed Hector two years ago, you were at 163,000 members. What’s the growth been like since then?
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Bragg: We’re currently at 177 to 178,000, and growing.
Has it been harder to grow in recent years?
Bragg: No. We’ve seen the consistent attacks on labor unions in this country. But if we focused on things that kept us from organizing workers, we’d never organize workers.
The future of gig economy workers like Uber drivers is such a live issue right now. What are you doing on that front?
Bragg: I’d just say that we believe that every worker should have the opportunity to be in a union if they so choose. To segregate workers by saying they’re contractors versus workers—a worker’s a worker. If he gets up every day and he goes to earn a living—there’s certain criteria, and we’re trying to drive legislation to say: this makes you a worker. And if you meet that criteria, then you should have the ability to organize and unionize. That’s our work.
Do you expect New York to get a bill like the recently passed California bill AB5, which will reclassify most “independent contractors” as employees?
Bragg: I hope so. The governor said that he wanted it. I expect that it will happen.
You’re doing a lot of work organizing airport workers. Do you think they have a unique amount of leverage, given the power of aviation in the U.S. economy?
Bragg: I think there’s a unique amount of leverage in airport workers, but what drives us is that these are jobs that at one time were good jobs. They were well-paid, union-paid jobs. Airlines are making good money. Great profits. They’ve taken those good jobs and they’ve made them poverty jobs. They’ve turned them over to contractors. They’re trying to wash their hands of responsibility over having workers work in dignity and respect and have livable wages.
The Fight for $15 has had so many successes, but there haven’t actually been any union members produced by it. Do you think there ever will be?
Bragg: I strongly believe there will... we’re looking at the long game. We drive a program that tries to attack the disparities in the work environment that exist in wages, working conditions, part time industry scheduling problems. We passed “Fair Workweek” legislation to stabilize the industry. We had the wage board, which got those workers to $15 before anywhere else in the state. So we’re looking at the long game, and our strategy is to continue to mobilize and organize these workers so they’re empowered through their unity and strength, with the support of our union.
Is there any limit to the patience of SEIU for funding the Fight for 15 if it doesn’t produce more union members? It’s not cheap.
Bragg: Tough question. It’s not cheap. As we talk today, we’re fully invested in the campaign to bring forward fast food justice. We’ve won some significant battles. We’re trying to win the war. We just had Chipotle being held accountable for their violation of the Fair Workweek law, and wage theft, and they’re being fined significant amounts of money... we went into this understanding that it’s not a simple battle, but it’s the right battle.
The entire approach of focusing on bigger issues, playing the “long game,” and not narrowly focusing on members is a minority approach in the union world. Why do you think that is?
Bragg: We talk to our workers all the time. We communicate with our workers, our workers communicate with us. We know what interests them... they appreciate the fact that their union is standing up for them in areas of social justice, racial equity and parity, for economic justice, which is obviously part of our mandate. Immigrant justice—we’re a union made up of many different members of different cultures and countries. The immigration policies of this country are broken, and have been broken... we want to make sure that there’s a planet that has clean drinking water and fresh air for our next generation to breathe. What are we doing if we’re destroying our planet and we’re not standing up together to fight for environmental justice? It just doesn’t make sense. All this work that we’re doing to organize workers and bring economic justice will be for nothing if we don’t have a planet to live on.
It’s been almost 15 years since SEIU and several other unions left the AFL-CIO and formed Change to Win, mostly out of frustration with the AFL-CIO’s lack of commitment to organizing. Is it time to think about uniting the whole labor movement again?
Bragg: Looking back, it was a great idea at the time, I thought, because the labor movement needed to do something different. We couldn’t continue moving in the same direction we were going. There’s a saying: “If you continue on the path that you’re going, you’ll find that you get where you’re headed.” We were getting where we were headed. The loss of membership nationally, the loss of power for unions, the public not seeing unions as a real option for worker justice. And that’s changed... unions are viewed way more favorably now than they have been in many, many years. That change didn’t happen accidentally. It happened because unions began organizing workers, began agitating, and activating their membership and engaging in disruption to bring equity and justice to workers.
Do you think there would be any value to reuniting the whole labor movement within the AFL-CIO?
Bragg: Having a united labor movement has incredible value. The question is, can we unite around core principles that drive success for working families? That’s what’s important. If we can align our ideologies and align our principles in the labor movement, and make it about working families and how we build on the justice fights that impact our workers, then yeah—a united labor movement could do incredible things.
We’re three years deep into the Trump administration. What are the biggest things the Trump administration has done to hurt organized labor? I guess you could say everything.
Bragg: Yeah, I could say everything. It’s a constant, continual attack on labor. It appears to me that that administration wakes up every morning thinking, “How can we screw labor today? What can we do to stop their progress? What can we do to turn back the tides, and put power back into corporations and the rich and the one percent?”... [on the other hand] I’m so excited to hear this coming out front and center in the presidential debates. All the leading presidential candidates are talking about, how do we help workers unionize?
What do you think about sectoral bargaining?
Bragg: I think it’s the right way to think about how to continue to build power for workers. We’ve been doing it. We have sectoral bargaining right now— we have a contract for 70,000 commercial workers that expired across ten states and Washington, DC... so we see the value.
Within the union world, some people’s response to Trump’s election was that we need to cater more to the “white working class,” and to Midwestern swing voters who went for Trump. What do you think about that philosophy?
Bragg: We need workers united across demographics, period. White workers, Latino workers, black workers. Wherever workers hail from is not as important as how they come together to create power that allows us to win.
How do you think Bill de Blasio is doing?
Bragg: As a mayor of New York City? I think de Blasio’s been a good mayor. I think he fulfilled a lot of his promises that he ran on... if you look fairly at his accomplishments, you have to qualify him as an effective mayor in a lot of ways. Nobody’s perfect.
A lot of leftist, activist groups have ended up on the other side of 32BJ on certain issues, like the Amazon fight in New York City, and also in Democratic primaries. My read has been that your union feels like because you are serving some of the workers with the most need, the value of what you win for members outweighs idealistic concerns on the left. Is that a fair read? What’s at the root of these disagreements?
Bragg: The natural separation is that—they’re leftist groups, I don’t know who they answer to. We answer to our members. We’re a union. We talk to our members, we answer to our members. Our job is to make sure we build a union in a city that respects the rights of workers and empowers workers, gives workers a voice. That’s who we’re answering to. I’m not answering to the left, I’m answering to my members. And again, I don’t know who the left is answering to. I don’t know how the left is described.
On Amazon, we had a position on Amazon. Hector stated it clearly in his op-ed, and he and I were clearly aligned on that. We saw it as an opportunity. The amount of jobs that were gonna be created by that development, I thought would be good for the city and for the state. We had a portion of the work force that we represent that would have been unionized. I think the opportunity to go after a monster like Amazon—I don’t know any team who doesn’t like to see their home court like an advantage. We had home court advantage... we had significant opportunities to go at Amazon in an area where labor’s strongest, and to reverse a trend of non-union employment.
On a national level, there’s been a long trend of union membership declining while political spending by unions goes up. Your union has managed to grow and be politically powerful. What do you see as the relationship between organizing and power?
Bragg: They’re all aligned. We organize to grow, we organize for power, and we play in politics to build power to facilitate our organizing... we want to make sure that our members are engaged, and they proudly use the platform of their union to engage issues that go beyond the borders of their workplace.