Marty Morgenstern, an activist in the 1965 city welfare strike who later served as president of Social Services Employees Union Local 371 of District Council 37 and, as a top aide to California Gov. Jerry Brown secured collective-bargaining rights for state employees there, died Feb. 5 at 87 of complications from Parkinson’s disease.
While Mr. Morgenstern spent more than 40 years working in California, initially as a ranking official at two unions there but for most of that time in a series of management jobs, his early career with the old city Welfare Department and his quick transition there into a labor activist was a crucial factor in his career and one he remembered fondly, his wife of more than 42 years, Sylvia Pizzini, recalled in a Feb. 14 phone interview.
(An earlier marriage to the late Jane Morgenstern, another former social-services worker who for decades was a top New York City labor-relations official, ended in divorce.)
‘Formed Who He Was’
“In his last months when he was quite ill, to the extent he had the energy he would recount his days there and the work with the union,” Ms. Pizzini said. “He felt it was an experience that really formed who he was, and it stayed with him ’til the day he died.”
The 1965 welfare strike was prompted by employees’ anger not only about their low salaries but the poor working conditions, which they argued were detrimental to their clients as well. Mr. Morgenstern became a strike captain at the department’s East Harlem offices, and the gains that resulted from that walkout fueled his activism, leading to his being elected to the presidency of the SSEU—then an independent, unaffiliated union—in 1968. It merged with Local 371 the following year, midway through his first term.
Linda Schleicher, a retired vice president of Local 371 who knew Mr. Morgenstern in those years, said, “He was charismatic. He was a born leader of people. He turned on in front of a crowd, the way politicians do, but he was funny.”
The union during those years was known for internal turbulence, with its presidents rarely getting a second term, and he was defeated for re-election in 1970. Ms. Pizzini said he obtained a job in Massachusetts, but before he began it, Jerry Wurf, who was president of the local’s national union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, asked him to head its California chapter.
Mr. Wurf, who had previously headed DC 37, had a reputation as a brilliant union leader whose irascibility made it tough to work for him, and Ms. Pizzini said that in 1972, Mr. Morgenstern was fired “in some dispute over a policy issue.”
Voice Got Him Brown Job
He moved over to a rival union, the California State Employees Association, which led him to move to the state capital of Sacramento. One day in 1975 he walked into a restaurant where Mr. Brown, who that Jan. 1 had succeeded Ronald Reagan as Governor, was dining.
“Marty had a really loud voice,” Ms. Pizzini said, and Mr. Brown, suddenly aware of his presence, called him to his table and began a conversation that led to an offer to head what was then the Governor’s Office of Employee Relations.
Wisconsin was the first state to offer its employees collective-bargaining rights in the late 1950s, and New York City authorized them a few years later, with formal establishment in 1966 under Mayor John Lindsay.
California had lagged behind, however, perhaps because Mr. Reagan, while a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, was burnishing his conservative credentials in the Republican Party as he prepared for a run for President in 1976 (he succeeded four years later).
Made Case for Bargaining
Mr. Morgenstern convinced Governor Brown that state workers deserved the same rights they already enjoyed in other jurisdictions, and after a bill he backed made it through the California Legislature in 1978, he signed it into law.
Mr. Brown told the Los Angeles Times following Mr. Morgenstern’s death that his honesty and intelligence had won his trust, saying, “He was one of the few whose advice you could always rely on. Because if he wasn’t sure, he would tell you.”
Ms. Pizzini, who worked for decades in social-services jobs in state and county government in California, said, “Marty brought the lived experience in an environment like that. Jerry [Brown] trusted him that this was a good policy thing to do.”
One of the achievements her husband was proudest of, she said, was a contract negotiation he billed as “janitors to judges” that provided pay raises soon after the bill became law in equal dollar amounts, rather than percentage increases, to employees in all state job titles. “Everybody got $70 a month” more, she said, with further increases in dollar amounts to those on the lower end of the pay scale later granted “as appropriate.”
Helped Them Keep Pace
The reasoning behind that, Ms. Pizzini said, was that it was the best way to bring up salaries for the lowest-paid state workers, who under the traditional system of percentage increases would have fallen further behind their higher-salaried colleagues. A variation on that used to be utilized at DC 37, where a contract rooted in percentage raises would also include a minimum dollar amount that exceeded those percentages for its lowest-paid members.
Mr. Morgenstern’s career after Mr. Brown’s second term as Governor ended at the beginning of 1983 moved to working for state agencies when Republicans held the job and advising Democratic Governors when won it back. He worked for the state Public Employment Relations Board and in California’s public-university system, as well as doing some consulting work for more than a decade, and when Gray Davis became Governor in 1999, he appointed Mr. Morgenstern Director of the Department of Personnel Administration, which Ms. Pizzini said had replaced the Office of Employee Relations.
When Mr. Davis was recalled by the state’s voters in late 2003, Mr. Morgenstern retired from state service, but he returned in his late 70s when Mr. Brown began a second stint as Governor in 2011 as the state’s Secretary of the Labor and Workforce Development Agency.
The following year, Mr. Morgensten helped the Governor persuade state legislators to approve a major overhaul of the state’s Workers’ Compensation program. But he also antagonized some union leaders by negotiating a less-generous pension system for future employees—something which happened that same year in New York under Gov. Andrew Cuomo despite protests from labor leaders here.
In New York, where the state and city pension systems were in far better shape in terms of funding than in other states like New Jersey, Illinois and Kentucky, there were suspicions that Mr. Cuomo pushed for the less-generous pensions to further win support from Republicans as he tried to expand his political base.
In California, Ms. Pizzini said, while her husband didn’t discuss his reasoning in detail with her, “I think the pension [system] as it existed wasn’t sustainable. The Governor made the decisions, but Marty recommended that it was the right thing to do.”
Mr. Morgenstern left the Brown administration late in 2013, and told the L.A. Times that his theory of government rested on three guideposts: “We never have enough money. We’ve always got to be careful with the money we spend. And always make sure you spend the minimum amount of money to get the job done.”
In 2015, he returned to government as a board member for Covered California, the state’s health-insurance exchange.
‘Never Forgot His Roots’
Al Viani, who was president of Local 371 during the welfare strike and wound up going to jail as a result, maintained a friendship with Mr. Morgenstern over the years that was not complicated much by the fact that he married Jane Morgenstern after she and Marty divorced.
In an email he sent to him a month before his death after learning of his deteriorating health, Mr. Viani wrote, “You have always served as an inspiration to me, including your great successes in life, your Bronx brashness, your over-the-top NY accent, your intellect, your political savvy, your genuine concern for working people and the poor, and for your generosity to me and others.”
Ms. Pizzini, asked whether Mr. Morgenstern was prouder of his early years in New York as a union advocate or his achievements in enacting collective bargaining and fairer treatment for lesser-paid workers as a top aide to Governor Brown, replied, “It was really a little of both. He never forgot his roots. He was proud of how he got started, and proud of what he was able to accomplish.”