32BJ SEIU President Kyle Bragg retires after leading essential workers through COVID-19 pandemic

32BJ SEIU president Kyle Bragg retires after leading his union of essential workers through the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of 32BJ)

One of the city’s most powerful unions, 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, has a new leader after its president Kyle Bragg announced his retirement Dec. 7 after 40 years of service. Bragg had planned to retire earlier, but he stepped into the void when legendary leader Héctor Figueroa of Jackson Heights suffered a fatal heart attack in 2019.

Bragg led the union of essential workers through the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic shutdown and successfully negotiated the 2019 commercial contract, which raised standards and wages for his members and oversaw the union’s successful advocacy for airport workers at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports that led to the passage of the landmark Healthy Terminals Acts in New York and New Jersey, which provided comprehensive health care coverage and improved wages to tens of thousands. In 2022, 32BJ reached a historic contract for 32,000 essential residential building service workers who were critical in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

(Photo courtesy of 32BJ)

Bragg, the first Black president in 32BJ history, has hung up his bullhorn and gone home to Rosedale for good.

“I will be forever grateful and honored to have had the chance to lead 32BJ as its president,” Bragg said. “Serving at the very top of this incredible organization represented the culmination of a four-decade-long career in the labor movement. From the first day I walked through the 32BJ doors, it was clear this union did not back down from a righteous fight. It was right here, with my brothers and sisters, that I learned that you couldn’t just be about the work; you have to double down on it.”

Bragg spearheaded 32BJ’s successful electoral advocacy, which delivered legislative wins for working people. Under his leadership, 32BJ played a vital role in the election of Mayor Eric Adams, President Biden, and New York City’s historic majority women’s Council, including Speaker Adrienne Adams, the first Black female Speaker of the city’s legislative body. Coupled with victories at the ballot box were several legislative victories, including a groundbreaking law reining in out-of-control hospital pricing, landmark bills establishing protections for fast food workers, and raising labor standards for security officers.

“I never lost sight of our proud tradition of going beyond representing our members,” Bragg said. “We fought for and won the benefits and security families need and deserve. And we did all of this when labor was under attack for decades, beat back the resurgence of xenophobia, racism, and misogyny, and faced down a global pandemic. Because of the strength of our organization, people, and mission, we are poised to keep winning for working people across America.”

After a vote by the executive board on Wednesday, 32BJ’s Secretary-Treasurer Manny Pastreich was elected as the union’s new president. A second-generation labor leader, Pastreich brings 30 years of experience in bargaining, representation, and organizing campaigns that have produced wins for members and strengthened 32BJ, particularly through his leadership on healthcare and retirement issues.

“It has been my true honor and pleasure to work alongside Kyle all these years,” Pastreich said. “32BJ and the entire labor movement are better because of his leadership, and 32BJ is immeasurably stronger. We will miss Kyle and will use all he has taught us to continue to win strong contracts, organize the unorganized, and make politicians accountable to working people.”

Bragg noted the transition would be a smooth one and reiterated his confidence in the union’s future.

“We have a great team and my brother Manny Pastreich has been my most trusted voice on not only the bread and butter of bargaining and benefits, but also how we can bring union power to workers in non-traditional industries,” Bragg said. “Next year we will be bargaining for over 80,000 members, and no one is more qualified than Manny to lead 32BJ through that challenge.”