LIUNA Spotlight: Hector Fuentes

Published by: NJ Laborers on 01/09/2012

Hector Fuentes remembers the combustible working conditions that burned his lungs. He recalls fearing for his health amid hoping he'll see his next meal with his crummy earnings. It's easy to dream of a better road in such dank quarters, but difficult to take the first step to get there. Still, Fuentes' life changed the day he become part of a laborers union, and he's been organizing his fellow workers since. More than a decade later, as Business Manager of Laborers Local 55, he relates his story often, hoping to convince others to walk alongside him. "I like to think it was my good looks, superior intellect and disarming charm, but I was lifted up by a union," Fuentes said. "They gave me a job as an organizer and continue to provide opportunities for me and my family. They reward an honest day's work with an honest day's pay, and are committed to doing that for millions of workers."

Fuentes considers himself a breathing endorsement of the benefits, and uses personal experience to encourage others. Doubters only need to listen to the tale of a scared 17-year-old kid from Honduras, who made a dangerous choice in 1997. Staying in his Central American home country wasn't an option for the second-oldest of six kids, and the oldest boy, who grew up poor with no formal schooling after age of 12. Before reaching the United States, Fuentes' first challenge was making it to and through Mexico.

"I was either going to die in Honduras, die crossing Mexico or reach the United States and work hard," he said. "I survived somehow."

A cousin did not, dying in Mexico attempting the same trip years earlier. Fuentes made it, then insulated himself within the Latin community, in a $900-a-month apartment shared by seven other workers. Knowing little English, he fixed cars, cleaned the bowels of petroleum cargo ships or sweated in recycling plants for 16 hours a day, six days a week. All for as little as $4.95 an hour, or 20 cents below the minimum wage.

The only personal protective equipment came from gloves and masks discarded by local utility workers Fuentes and others fished out of the trash.

Despite the risks, Fuentes embraced the idea of helping to organize, and was promptly fired. He resurfaced at another company and tried again. Threatened with bodily harm, but he bravely persevered. He had to.

"They said if I appealed to the national labor relations boards and testified against the company, they'd kill me," he said. "One of the things that really helped me was that I was young, 18, and didn't have a family. I knew I needed courage."

After a two-day training session -- with one of the instructors helping to translate -- Fuentes loved being part of a community, and was selected to become one of the organizers for the Eastern Region. On any given day, he'll drive to speak to new laborers, hoping to recruit new legions, and constantly tries to reassure those afraid of losing their jobs that the rewards outweigh the risks.

"Eleven years ago, I was sitting where they are now," he said. "It's not only about job security. It's about feeling that somebody is backing you up. Every now and then, I run into people who say, 'Thanks to the laborers union, my wife and I have a house, or health-care benefits. That means a lot to us as a laborers union, when you know you have actually changed someone's life."

Being part of a union has given Fuentes a pension for himself, his wife and two young children. He owns a home -- no more apartment -- and has health care if necessary.

Fuentes' latest organizing efforts revolve around newly chartered Local 55, which represents residential construction workers (four stories or lower), light commercial work and energy-efficient projects such as weatherization, green construction and solar panels.

Since arriving in Feb. 2009, the group has already signed up about 230 workers and more than 80 contractors, who commit to hire 50 percent of Local 55's properly trained workers.

While Fuentes thinks it's an easy sell to enlist members -- he estimates between 5,000 to 7,000 members in three to five years -- the challenge comes from convincing contractors. More contractors mean more work, and more members. Local 55 also allows contractor to bring in their workforce to become part of the union and promote its contractors throughout New Jersey and Delaware.

Local 55 is currently bidding to the Newark Housing Authority for some of the $70 million in mostly residential construction work, a large opportunity for its members.

"Contractors love the idea because that's jobs we're securing for them," Fuentes said. "It's a win-win."

It's all simply part of the overall philosophy.

"We have to be persistent," Fuentes said. "I tell people the sky is the limit. I challenge them to do what they are sometimes afraid to do. It's not always easy, but it's worth it."

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, January 31, 2012 - 11:15
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