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Latest News - May 2012

May 27, 2012
Head of building-workers union to step down
Source: Crain’s New York
By: Daniel Massey

Former carpenter Mike Fishman turned a once-weak 32BJ SEIU into a power player in New York politics and real estate. The 62 year old is moving on, running for a top slot with the national SEIU.

Former carpenter Mike Fishman is leaving the union he turned around.

Mike Fishman, who led the building workers union from a shrinking, corruption-scarred local into an expanding, powerful force in city politics and real estate, is stepping aside to run for a top position at 32BJ SEIU's parent body, the 2.2 million-member Service Employees International Union.

An election to replace Mr. Fishman, 62, will take place in September, and he'll stay on with 32BJ until October. Héctor Figueroa, the union's secretary-treasurer, who was part of the Fishman-led team installed at 32BJ in 1999 to help clean up the union, is running for president and is all but certain to win. It's not yet clear if anyone will oppose Mr. Figueroa.

"The time to leave is when everybody is asking you to stay, not when they're wondering when you're leaving," Mr. Fishman said. "It's never an easy judgment to leave, but the time to think about passing the baton is when you're strong."

Mr. Fishman is leaving 32BJ after the conclusion of a tough bargaining cycle that has left the local in relatively good shape. Late last year, the union negotiated a contract for 25,000 commercial office cleaners that included raises and increased employer pension and health care payments. And earlier this month, the City Council overrode a mayoral veto on a bill the union had pushed that will require employers to pay building service workers at city-subsidized projects a prevailing wage.

SEIU President Mary Kay Henry asked Mr. Fishman to join her slate, which is expected to be elected Tuesday at the union's convention in Denver. Mr. Fishman said he would have stepped aside when his term ended in October, even without that invitation, because "if you don't make room for the people coming up, the organization becomes stale."

A Brooklyn native and former carpenter, Mr. Fishman was brought into 32BJ as a trustee by SEIU leaders at a time when the union was hemorrhaging members and reeling from the reign of longtime President Gus Bevona, who famously earned a $450,000 salary and kept a penthouse apartment at the union's headquarters.

Mr. Fishman methodically built it into one of the city's fastest-growing and most effective unions. It has nearly tripled in size—to 120,000 members in eight states— as he's forged relationships with would-be adversaries to help advance his union's agenda. At one moment, he'd spar with the real estate
industry over contracts and wage legislation, then pivot and partner with them to promote affordable housing, green buildings or safety training for his members.

In addition to his love/hate relationship with the real estate industry, Mr. Fishman has close ties to many of New York's power brokers, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Partnership for New York City President Kathryn Wylde, and Citizens Budget Commission President Carol Kellermann.

In an interview with Crain's in February, Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Mr. Fishman "a good guy who has done a hell of a job for his members." The two have breakfast every six weeks at a diner or at Mr. Bloomberg's foundation. "Mike really does understand that the future for his members depends on the future of the city and of the industry where they work," Mr. Bloomberg said at the time. "A lot of labor leaders forget that."

Executive Vice President Kevin Doyle, who was part of the team that came in with Messrs. Fishman and Figueroa, is also stepping down. In a letter that will be distributed to members next week, the outgoing
leaders wrote: "It is with sadness that we write to let you know that we will not be seeking another term in office. We love this great union and will miss our roles in it."

Mr. Figueroa's slate will include Kyle Bragg, a union vice president, who will run for secretary-treasurer; and Larry Engelstein, assistant to the president, who will run for executive vice president.

Mr. Figueroa was traveling over the weekend and unavailable for comment. A native of Ponce, Puerto Rico, he came to New York City in 1982 to study economics at New York University. He worked as assistant research director of SEIU's "Justice for Janitors" campaign, which has organized some 225,000 janitors since its launch in 1985; and as the organizing director of SEIU's campaign to win collective bargaining rights for 100,000 public sector workers in Puerto Rico.

In his 13 years at 32BJ, Mr. Figueroa has pushed the union to adopt an agenda beyond its members' bread and butter issues, particularly with regard to immigration issues. He spearheaded the establishment of the union's voluntary political action fund and drove its advocacy efforts for legislation that provide non-English speakers with translators for city services and for the DREAM Act. Most recently, he led the union's commercial contract campaign.

Mr. Fishman said that he's already put in place plans for the next several years, and he expects a smooth transition to the next leader. "Héctor will have a different style than me because he's a different person," Mr. Fishman said. "But I don't think there's any dramatic change in direction. We're a team that's built the union together."



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