"It was cold beyond belief, but it was an honor to be on those picket lines and even in jail, because we were fighting not only for ourselves but for the powerless people we served."
Ishmael Lahab Vice President, SSEU 1965 Strike
One strike three decades ago changed the face of public employee labor relations in New York City and across the nation. More than 8,000 welfare workers -- striking social service professionals, along with clericals who couldn't gain directly from the walkout -- spent 28 days in January 1965 on union picket lines. They froze, they were vilified by the press, they were all fired, and 19 of their leaders were jailed.
But their bravery and unity won the backing of the entire labor movement; their concern for the poor and afflicted they served won the support of the civil rights movement; and their own solidarity held strong until the strike was won. And what they won, besides pay and benefits and a broad union contract, was the right of all city employees to real collective bargaining. This was the fundamental right that District Council 37 had been seeking since its beginning: the right to sit down at the table as equals with management and negotiate a contract.
This revolution in collective bargaining was not achieved in a vacuum, but followed a string of advances the union had won from Mayor Robert Wagner through demonstrations, political pressure and smaller strikes. The rights to organize, file grievances and meet with management were followed in 1958 by Executive Order 49, which provided limited bargaining rights for unions representing the majority of employees in a unit. These concessions dangled the hope of true bargaining and raised employees' expectations, but in fact little changed. Good deals were available to the powerful and politically connected, and for the rest it was still "collective begging" at the Salary Appeals Board.
Hope was a powerful force. DC 37 won a series of strikes for pay and recognition in cultural institutions, negotiated raises for 33 titles in 1959, and achieved its first written contract in 1960 for transit clericals. But when Local 983's motor vehicle operators rejected a paltry pay offer in 1962, the city broke off the talks. Angry drivers hit the bricks, 2,000 strong, in the the union's first strike to seriously disrupt services, including sewer repairs, school lunch deliveries and officials' limousines. When the Police Department suspended 16 drivers for violating the anti-strike Condon-Wadlin Law, other unions joined DC 37 members and ringed City Hall with 12,000 in protest.
After ten days, the strike was won, with the suspensions canceled, 37-cent-an-hour raises, and the first welfare fund ever for non-uniformed employees -- but no change in overall labor policy. The 1965 strike that changed the picture came at the midpoint of a turbulent decade of sit-ins, marches and mass demonstrations for civil rights, student rights, community rights and peace. Pervasive poverty had been exposed behind the white-picket-fence front of the 1950s, welfare rolls were soaring, and thousands of young college graduates answered President Kennedy's call to "do for your country" by joining the Welfare Department. Many had been active in the civil rights movement, as Southern students and Northern volunteers, and more shared its willingness to defy unjust laws.
Idealism and Professionalism
Together with older welfare workers, they faced intolerable working conditions, such as caseloads 50 per cent above the federal guideline of 60, which frustrated their idealism and professionalism, plus the low pay (far below the private sector) of all city jobs in those days. A rare defeat for DC 37 paved the way for the strike that won full bargaining rights.
With intense involvement by its militant rank-and-file, the independent Social Service Employees Union captured representation rights for 6,000 caseworkers in October 1964 from a previously ineffective Local 371 -- which was then revitalized with new leadership. When the city said some of their demands could be discussed but refused to bargain on most issues, especially those involving workload and conditions, both unions voted overwhelmingly to strike. They refused to deal with a fact-finding panel that had the mayor's negotiator as the "impartial" tie-breaking vote. Picket lines went up on Jan. 4, 1965, at City Hall and the welfare centers, most of which had to be closed.
Jerry Wurf, who had left DC 37 to carry the struggle for bargaining rights nationwide as president of AFSCME, rushed back to lead the strike with the SSEU's Joseph Tepedino and Judy Mage and Local 371's Alan Viani and Pat Caldwell. The New York Times called the strike "a rebellion against the government and the law." The city fired the strikers, the first time the Condon-Wadlin Law had been used so massively and locked up 19 leaders.
Sailors sent by Paul Hall of the Seafarers union bolstered the picket lines. Vital support came from Martin Luther King Jr., the NAACP, community and welfare organizations, the New York City labor movement and finally the national AFL-CIO (which previously had been reluctant to push for equal rights for public employees). Despite the cold weather and constant threats from management, the strikers loudly voted down a city fact-finding plan that said all issues could be discussed, but most could not be included in a contract. The picket lines stayed up until Feb. 1, when Wagner agreed to a wide-ranging and impartial fact-finding procedure and freed the leaders.
In the end, the strikers won the right to bargain on a wide range of issues, the right to a truly impartial "umpire" when labor and management could not agree, improvements in conditions for welfare recipients, 9 percent pay increases, the first lOO-percent city-paid health insurance, the first union education fund, and a tripartite (labor-city-public) panel that drafted the city bargaining law that is in effect today. That panel later evolved into the Office of Collective Bargaining, the impartial agency established in 1967 that decides disputes on representation and bargaining rights.
Bargaining rights won for all
By their readiness to strike and their steadfastness on frigid picket lines, by identifying with those they served, and with the support of a united labor movement, the welfare workers of 1965 set a lasting precedent for public workers across the nation. They left a legacy of bargaining that is enjoyed by every New York City employee today. What's more, the unity and cooperation between SEEU and AFSCME Local 371 that made the 1965 strike successful set the stage for the merger of the two unions and the creation of our contemporary union.
Written by Bill Schleicher, this article first appeared in the publication "How We Built a Great Union", marking the 50th anniversary of AFSCME District Council 37.