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Guide to the Social Service Employees Union Records WAG.003

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
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Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by K. Kevyne Baar

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on January 07, 2021
Description is in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 edited by Nicole Greenhouse to reflect additional administrative information and added archived websites  , November 2020

Historical/Biographical Note

The origins of the Social Service Employees Union Local 371 can be traced to the 1930s when the State, County and Municipal Workers (SCMWA) served as the nucleus of organizing efforts among New York municipal employees for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). SCMWA and its successor, Local 1 of the United Public Workers (UPW) found no favor with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, yet by the mid-1940s the CIO affiliate had successfully established itself as the chief labor union with the New York City Welfare Department.

In the post-war period the leftist leadership of the UPW fell victim to "anti-subversive" pressures within the CIO, and the union was expelled in 1950. Soon after the expulsion the City's Welfare Department withdrew recognition from the UPW and members had little choice but to join one of two new unions, Social Investigators Union Local 1193, an American Federation of Labor affiliate, or the American Civic Employees Union Local 371, an affiliate of the CIO. UPW activist charged that they suffered harassment, intimidation, and forced resignations -- sometimes through the use of loyalty oaths.

In 1955 when the AFL and CIO merged, their local affiliates in the Welfare Department joined to form Local 371 within District Council (DC) 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), AFL-CIO. From the beginning Local 371 claimed representation rights for all employees within the Welfare Department under the Civil Service categories of clerical, social services, and special services. However, in adopting the strategy of lobbying for legislation and political favors for public employees in the tradition of the Civil Service Forum which preceded it, Local 371 was open to criticism that it practiced: "collective begging instead of collective bargaining." Critics claimed that recruitment of new members, especially from among the increasing number of caseworkers, was not given priority.

From its beginning Local 371contained seeds of discord. Some elements of the membership, especially former UPW members, were prepared to press for a more militant approach. Perhaps the most cohesive group among them worked in the Brownsville Welfare Center, located in a poor section of Brooklyn. By the late 1950s the Brownsville group, mainly social investigators, formed the nucleus of a reform movement under the leadership of Sam Podell. The deterioration in working conditions with increasingly heavy caseloads and continued low salaries provided two major slogans around which the Podell group rallied the support of caseworkers, many of whom were still not members of Local 371.

A break-through for the reform movement came in April 1961 when the New York City Department of Labor was involved in a simmering conflict with Jerry Wurf, head of DC 37, the parent body of Local 371. Podell, supported by Joe Tepedino (Borough Hall) and Judith Mage (Amsterdam Welfare Center), took advantage of the situation to file a petition for recognition of the Social Service Employees (SSE) as an independent union. The Labor Department, seeking to embarrass Wurf and DC 37, granted them a charter. The SSEU was born.

The SSEU focused organizing efforts on welfare centers and caseworkers, both hitherto neglected by Local 371. In the wake of a tremendous increase in the number of welfare recipients, new welfare centers proliferated and many new caseworkers were hired. The reformers soon found in these caseworkers, most of them recent college graduates full of enthusiasm and idealism, a ready constituency. By the end of 1962, the reform movement enjoyed a strong following in welfare centers across the city. The success of the SSEU in organizing welfare workers and generally mobilizing the rank and file put increasing pressure on Local 371.

In 1962, on the eve of contract negotiations, leaders of Local 371 prearranged the contract settlement with the administration. The plan called for setting salaries at $6,000 for caseworkers with an expected raise of $700 after two years experience, and a caseload capped at 60 per worker. The plan was disclosed only during the negotiations. Initially the SSEU supported the contract, but it soon became evident that its provisions were not to be honored by the City. Caseloads per worker rose to over 90 and the salary scale was not put in effect. SSEU members felt cheated and discontent grew.

On March 28, 1964 Borough Hall caseworkers staged a spontaneous walkout when the welfare center director refused to meet them to discuss their long-standing grievances. Although caseworkers were suspended and none of the expected support from other welfare centers was forthcoming, the protest action provided a great deal of publicity for the union. In July the SSEU captured headlines again when four of its leaders, Joe Tepedino, Judy Mage, Dominic Cuccinotta, and George Betts were suspended by Commissioner James Dumpson for writing a letter of complaint to HEW regarding the city's violations of federal caseload limits. Both protests helped to galvanize support for SSEU. In a representation election held in October 1964, the SSEU easily defeated Local 371 securing collective bargaining rights for the civil service titles of case worker (social investigators and social investigator trainees), home economist, homemaker and children's counselor.

Close on the heels of the election, SSEU began negotiations for a new contract. The most important and controversial of the union's demands involved the repeal of a career and salary plan, the establishment of a labor-management committee chaired by an impartial outside person, the right to bargain on any issue the union saw as viable and the provision of special clothing grants for welfare recipients. Except for the salary increase the city declared the rest of the SSEU proposals "unbargainable" (beyond the constraints of traditional collective bargaining). Negotiations continued without success, and on December 31, 1964 SSEU members voted enthusiastically for a strike. Under intense pressure from Jerry Wurf, Local 371 also joined the strike.

On January 4, 1965, 8,000 Welfare Department employees went on strike. The city retaliated by invoking for the first time the Condon-Wadlin Act, a 1946 piece of state legislation which provided for the summary firing of any striking public employee. Nearly 5,400 striking welfare workers were dismissed. The problems of half a million welfare recipients without services received wide publicity. New York labor leaders, caught off-guard by the strike, voiced support publicly, but privately were less enthusiastic about a maverick independent local union dragging them into open confrontation with Mayor Robert F. Wagner who had the reputation of being pro-labor.

The strike took a turn for the worse in late January when 19 union leaders were jailed. Two-thirds of the city's welfare centers were closed down. Political and labor pressure mounted against the city administration. Civic leaders, members of the state legislature and the city council wrote letters requesting an early settlement of the dispute. To break the impasse George Meany, president of the AFL-CIO, entered the negotiations and persuaded Mayor Wagner to settle the strike. On January 31, 1965, the strike ended with an agreement to set up a five-man panel chaired by Dean Schottland of the Brandeis School of Social Work. The other four panel members included two city representatives, one SSEU representative and one Local 371 representative. As part of the agreement, contempt charges against the jailed workers as well as the penalties against the striking workers under the Condon-Wadlin Act were dropped. In June the city and the union signed a contract largely based on the Schottland Committee's recommendations which embodied most of the original demands of the SSEU. It soon became evident that the 1965 contract was only a temporary victory for the union. The case load limitation, one of the most important provisions of the contract, could not be enforced, and bureaucratic foot-dragging by the cCty prevented many caseworkers from receiving the benefits of the salary increase.

John V. Lindsay, who succeeded Mayor Wagner in January 1966, was even less interested in seeing the 1965 contract provisions enforced. Toughening its stance toward labor, the Lindsay administration wanted to put an end to future Schottland-type committees. In April the City, supported by labor, established a permanent Office of Collective Bargaining (OCB), a tripartite panel composed of representatives of the city, the union, and the public. The panel soon entered into a tacit agreement with the city to exclude from future labor-management negotiations broad areas of prerogatives which under the 1965 SSEU contract were "bargainable." The SSEU interpreted the panel's agreement as a sell-out, threatening to nullify major gains of the 1965 contract.

Meanwhile the SSEU experienced growing militancy within its ranks, culminating in the election of political activist Judith Mage as president in April 1966. Confrontation between the City and the union seemed inevitable. The SSEU's 1966 contract demands included increased salaries, promotional opportunities, lower caseloads and better working conditions. The chief bone of contention was the scope of collective bargaining. The SSEU reasserted its 1965 position that any issue was bargainable. With negotiations in a deadlock, SSEU members voted to sit-in at their work locations beginning on June 19, 1966. The City retaliated with a lock-out lasting nearly six weeks.

Many observers have concluded that the strike was preordained to failure. There was little solidarity, even among the SSEU rank and file. Many white moderates and blacks did not join the strike, and Local 371 refused to support it. When the City seemed about to take the drastic action of revoking dues check-off, DC 37 leader Victor Gotbaum and the NYC Central Labor Council came forward, not to rescue the SSEU, but to prevent the city from establishing a precedent for union-busting. The city responded by ending its lock-out and striking SSEU workers went back to work.

After losing the strike, SSEU was in no position to negotiate an equitable contract. The right to bargain on any issue, one of the most important demands, was dropped altogether, as were demands pertaining to welfare policy in behalf of clients. Caseload limits remained at 60 but without the guarantee of periodic review. The door was left open for serious violations by the city. The salary increase stipulated by the new contract fell below that of other civil service employees.

After 1967, structural changes in the welfare system and collective bargaining threatened the survival of SSEU as an independent labor union. For instance, elimination of eligibility certification for welfare clients substantially reduced the number of caseworkers. SSEU membership, vulnerable to a high rate of turnover, declined further. The emergence of the OCB, with its system of boards, mediation panels, advisory arbitration procedures and fact-finding panels, also weakened the SSEU. There was a growing realization among SSEU members that they stood to gain more by cooperating with the rest of the labor movement than by standing alone. In April 1968, Judy Mage, the militant apostle of independent unionism, was replaced by Marty Morgenstern. In the ensuing months affiliation with AFSCME Local 371 and DC 37 became the primary concern of the SSEU. The militants campaigned against the move and secured the defeat of the merger referendum on June 28, 1968. But Morgenstern and his supporters continued to argue so vigorously for the merger that the issue won overwhelming support when resubmitted in January 1969. In June representatives of the SSEU and Local 371 formally signed the agreement establishing SSEU, Local 371 of DC 37, AFSCME, AFL-CIO.

SSEU Local 371 is governed by its president, executive vice-president, secretary-treasurer and five vice-presidents elected for two-year terms by the membership at large. The executive committee consisting of all eight top officers and eight delegates elected annually by the Delegates Assembly is entrusted with the functions of policy-making and administrative oversight. The Delegates Assembly is composed of representatives elected proportionally from all work locations on an annual basis. Chapters are organized partially by title and partially by agency and can provide the focus for concerted action by members who work for the same department, agency or bureau regardless of their work location. Although each chapter enjoys a wide range of autonomy on matters pertaining to its members, its decisions are subject to review by the Executive Committee, Delegates Assembly and quarterly Membership Meetings.

During the 1970s SSEU Local 371 experienced both expansion and change. On the one hand, the union broadened the scope of its recruitment to include more than 100 titles scattered throughout various city agencies. At the same time the number of case-workers, who constituted the core of the union, declined sharply due to changes in the welfare structure, automation and the ever-present high turn-over. Still, case-workers remained the single largest group of members and continued to hold the top offices of the union. Expansion brought an influx of lower-paid non-professional African-American and Spanish-speaking workers. Gearing its strategies to a more diverse membership, SSEU Local 371 refocused of its collective bargaining concerns, balancing the bread-and-butter concerns of an era of fiscal crisis with the preservation of its progressive, client-oriented traditions.

A new era in the history of the SSEU was ushered in by the election of Charles Ensley as president in 1982. Ensley, an active participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, worked as a NYC caseworker after graduating from Howard University. Served in the military and returned to the union as a grievance representative. As president he has doubled the membership of SSEU, has fought to improve conditions in homeless shelters, to strengthen services for at-risk children and, in general, to expand services for the poor while improving working conditions for his members. He has carefully navigated through a difficult period of upheaval and reform within DC 37, and at times had to fend off bitter public and press criticism of failures in the child welfare system. On the front-lines of the protest against Apartheid South Africa, in developing special programs for Latino members, and by offering the union's support to progressive candidates, Ensley has kept the tradition of the SSEU as a fighting force for social justice alive.


  • Bernard and Jewell Bellush, Union Power and New York: Victor Gotbaum and District Council 37. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1984.
  • Mark H. Maier, City Unions: Managing Discontent in New York City. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987.
  • Richard Mendes, "The Professional Union: A Study of the Social Service Employees Union of the New York City Department of Services," Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1974.
  • Kesavan Sudheendran, draft history of the SSEU, 1983, copy at Tamiment Library, PE collection "Social Service Employees Union"
  • Daniel J. Walkowitz, Social Workers and the Politics of Middle-Class Identity. Chapel Hill,: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.