The Social Service Employees Union Was a Model of Public-Sector Unionism

In the 1960s, an upstart union of New York City social workers forged alliances with welfare recipients while fighting to improve public services at the bargaining table. They’re a model for public-sector unions today, which should be pushing for better services and struggling to democratize the state.

A District Council 37 strike. Photo courtesy DC 37

Unionization came late to the public sector in the United States. But when it finally did, it spread like wildfire. As unions won legal recognition and collective bargaining rights and consolidated their relationships with Democratic Party officeholders, union density in the public sector rose to around 40 percent by the early 1980s and has hovered near that level ever since.

This was an advance for public employees and the labor movement as a whole, particularly as private-sector unions withered under an intense assault by employers and anti-union politicians. But this process of incorporation also meant that the unions could substitute the support of public officials and government agencies for the collective action of their own members, a development that made them vulnerable to the relentless attacks of the last decade.

After smashing organized labor in the private sector, anti-union forces turned their attention to undermining labor’s public-sector strongholds. They have rolled up a string of major victories since the 2008 financial crisis, culminating in the Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus v. American Federation State, County, and Municipal Employees decision that imposed a “right-to-work” regime on public employment nationwide.

To their credit, many public employee unions have recognized that they can’t effectively confront the new reality through a defensive particularism focused exclusively on maintaining jobs and organizational security. The adoption of Bargaining for the Common Good programs speaks to the growing realization that so-called “labor-community coalitions” can no longer be the temporary and largely transactional affairs they largely have been to date.

This shifting orientation is taking place alongside the emergence of a new socialist movement in the United States. While organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are rambunctiously pluralistic, there is broad consensus that the movement must position itself both in and against the state, not simply to win immediate reforms but to carry out a long-term process of fundamental social transformation.

As the stalwart Canadian socialists Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin have consistently argued, public employees and their unions must play a leading role in this process. Because they organize the people who administer the state, they possess a unique potential to transform state structures and promote working-class and democratic capacities instead of capitalist social relations. Among other things, this would mean making the level, quality, and administration of public services a leading collective bargaining demand.

The early history of public employee unionism, particularly the period before the implementation of elaborate collective bargaining systems, offers important practical examples of this type of unionism. One of the most effective and influential organizations of the period was the Social Service Employees Union (SSEU), an independent union of New York City social workers that formed in the early 1960s. SSEU had scores of socialists, New Leftists, and civil rights activists in its ranks, who joined with more traditional trade union militants to build a remarkable vehicle for politicized public employee unionism.

In the winter of 1965, it waged an illegal strike that shut down New York’s welfare department for a month and led to the creation of the city’s modern collective bargaining system. Until its reabsorption into AFSCME District Council 37 (DC 37) in 1969, SSEU consistently fought to put the level and quality of public services on the bargaining table and built political alliances with welfare recipients to represent their demands.

Reviving this lost tradition is crucial to the fortunes of public-sector unions and the new socialist movement alike — the former to defend its gains, and the latter to broaden its base and create the capacities necessary to democratize the state and society.

The Emergence of Public Employee Unionism

Public employees began to form unions and other protective organizations as early as the 1830s. While union organization of any kind was regarded as little more than a criminal conspiracy until well into the twentieth century, public-sector workers confronted a unique set of challenges. Government employers and the judiciary almost uniformly viewed public-sector unions as subversive organizations that undermined state sovereignty and threatened public order.

The chaos and disorder that accompanied the 1919 Boston police strike seemed to confirm this view, and the backlash against public-sector unions that followed in its wake set the cause of unionization back for decades. When an unprecedented upsurge in working-class organization and militancy spurred the passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) in 1935, public employees were excluded from its protections. This exclusion divided private-sector workers from their counterparts in the public sector, who became subject to a patchwork system of state and local laws that varied widely on a regional basis.

Nonetheless, public-sector workers continued to organize. In 1932, a civil servant named Arnold Zander founded the Wisconsin State Employees Association, the forerunner of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) union that became the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in 1936. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) also set its sights on organizing public workers. In 1937, it established the United Federal Workers (UFW) to challenge the AFL-affiliated American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) in the federal government sector, as well as the State, County, and Municipal Workers of America (SCMWA) to challenge AFSCME’s foothold among state and local government employees.

Union membership among state and local government workers grew rapidly during the Depression decade and the war. In 1947, SCMWA merged with the CIO-affiliated UFW and dissident locals from the AFL-affiliated American Federation of Teachers to form the United Public Workers of America (UPW). At the time of the merger, the UPW could claim up to five thousand members in New York City alone, making it a viable challenger to AFSCME’s position as the premier labor organization for state and local government employees.

The UPW practiced an early form of what has come to be known as social movement unionism. Many of the union’s top elected officials, including its president, Abram Flaxer, were Communist Party members or closely linked to the party, as were many of its local leaders and rank-and-file activists. In addition to fighting for higher standards for public employees, the union also advocated for the interests of public service recipients and supported independent political action outside the Democratic and Republican parties. It vocally opposed the onset of the Cold War and supported Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign for the presidency in 1948.

The UPW ultimately could not survive the repressive political climate of the immediate postwar period. It was expelled from the CIO in 1950, and Flaxer was hit with a prison term for refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

The UPW’s stronghold in the New York City Welfare Department was one of the most notable casualties of the anti-Communist purge. In 1948, Mayor William O’Dwyer appointed a new welfare commissioner, Raymond Hilliard, to “clean up” the department by ridding it of Communists and other perceived subversives. Hilliard moved quickly to hound the union out of existence by banning union meetings on city property, prohibiting leaflet distribution, and establishing a network of informers within the department to report on the activities of UPW members and orchestrate their dismissal. With the national union in disarray after its expulsion from the CIO, UPW leaders in New York could not successfully push back against the onslaught of employer repression in the Welfare Department and other centers of UPW strength.

By 1951, the union was driven from the department, clearing the way for the city to recognize two anti-Communist unions — Local 371 of the CIO-affiliated Government Service Employees Organizing Committee and AFSCME Local 1193. When the AFL and CIO merged in 1955, these two locals merged to form Local 371, an affiliate of AFSCME’s District Council 37 (DC 37).

New York Labor and the “Little Wagner Act”

Public-sector unions across the country still had yet to secure a clear claim to legal recognition and collective bargaining rights by the early 1950s. In New York, relations between municipal unions and the city were largely controlled by the mayor, who wielded the power of recognition on a highly discretionary basis.

The election of Robert Wagner Jr in 1954 marked a turning point in the history of New York labor. Wagner issued a mayoral order that for the first time provided a clear legal guarantee of the right to organize and compelled city agencies to establish grievance procedures and labor-management committees to address economic and working conditions on a departmental basis. In 1956, municipal unions gained the right to automatic dues checkoff, and in 1958, the mayor issued Executive Order 49 (EO 49), also known as the “Little Wagner Act.” (His father, Senator Robert Wagner, was the namesake of the 1935 Wagner Act.)

Though it excluded the public schools, the City University of New York, the Transit Authority, and other major agencies not under mayoral control, EO 49 was a milestone in the history of New York’s municipal labor movement. Most significantly, it granted the right of exclusive representation to those unions certified as the chosen representative of the majority of employees in a bargaining unit within a specific department.

The executive order did not, however, completely divest the mayor of his personal influence over crucial matters such as certification. And Wagner used his prerogative to fragment bargaining units and play rival unions off against one another.

Toward a Militant Union in Welfare

Local 371’s leaders thrived in this atmosphere. After the UPW purge and the merger that formed Local 371, they enjoyed a very cozy relationship with Welfare Department administrators and officials at the city’s labor relations agencies. A string of local presidents used their connections with City Hall to win personal favors, including appointments to high-level positions in the new administrative apparatus. Negotiations with the department did not yield collective bargaining agreements but rather memoranda of understanding, which did not have the same legal force as a contract and whose provisions often went unimplemented.

At first, social investigators dissatisfied with Local 371 attempted to reform it from within, but their failures led them to launch the independent Social Service Employees (SSE) in 1961. SSE gained an unlikely ally in Mayor Wagner, who recognized the fledgling organization and granted it dues-checkoff rights later that year. The mayor’s decision was not motivated by any sympathy for the SSE, whose lineage could be directly traced to the Communist-led UPW. Instead, Mayor Wagner granted recognition and dues checkoff to SSE in an attempt to undermine DC 37, whose increasingly militant blue-collar locals threatened the stability of municipal labor relations.

The fragmented and competitive logic of the city’s system of labor relations, in which some eight hundred certificates of representation were granted to a wide array of unions, provided an opening for the upstart SSE to gain a foothold in the Welfare Department and launch a direct challenge to the incumbent Local 371.

SSE was not the only dissident formation in the Welfare Department. An informal caucus at the Borough Hall Welfare Center in Brooklyn led by a social investigator named Joe Tepedino decided to join forces with the SSE in 1962, and the Social Service Employees Union (SSEU) was born.

SSEU drew much of its initial support from older workers who cut their teeth in the UPW, as well as recently hired college graduates with activist experience in the early New Left. While their ultimate aims went well beyond the narrow concerns of traditional business unionism, SSEU grounded its appeal in the day-to-day problems of life in the Welfare Department.

An explosion in the welfare rolls was not matched by increased hiring of social investigators and other frontline service providers. Investigators struggled to keep up with caseloads ranging anywhere from sixty to one hundred at a time, while working for very little pay relative to their education and seniority. In many cases, the physical condition of welfare centers was appalling, and social investigators complained of spending too much time filling out paperwork and cutting through red tape instead of providing services to clients. Turnover among social investigators reached as high as 40 percent some years.

Despite the magnitude of the problem, Local 371, dominated politically by supervisors and clericals and on exceedingly friendly terms with management, was unwilling and unable to address the miserable working conditions confronting social investigators in the Welfare Department. In addition, Jerry Wurf and the DC 37 leadership neglected to shake the local out of its torpor or counter the SSEU’s increasingly visible organizing activities. While Local 371 dwarfed the SSEU in terms of membership and access to resources through the mainstream labor movement, its internal weaknesses made it highly vulnerable to a successful challenge from a rival union sustained by high levels of rank-and-file participation, militant shop-floor activism, and the ideological fervor of its youthful cadre.

Between 1962 and 1964, the SSEU established itself as a serious competitor to Local 371 and built the strength it needed to win a pivotal representational election through a steady escalation of tactics. In April 1962, SSEU held one of its first public demonstrations to protest the welfare commissioner’s announcement that one thousand new caseloads would be assigned to the Amsterdam Welfare Center in Harlem — and only one new social investigator to deal with the dramatically higher workload. More than two hundred workers attended the lunchtime demonstration, even though the commissioner agreed to meet the union’s demand for additional staff just forty-five minutes before the demonstration was scheduled to begin.

Though the department retaliated against SSEU by stripping it of the right to have meetings in welfare centers, this action nonetheless established the upstart union as a force to be reckoned with. When Local 371 held negotiations with the department in August 1962, agitation by SSEU activists pushed it to issue its first-ever strike threat. Though the threatened strike never took place, the agreement between Local 371 and the department contained a number of important concessions: caseload reduction, the implementation of a labor-management committee, a significant wage increase — and, for the first time in the department’s history, a written memorandum of understanding between the parties.

The 1962 agreement, however, did not bring labor peace to the Welfare Department. The wage hikes, which were scheduled to take effect on January 1, 1963, were indefinitely postponed when Mayor Wagner announced in February that city employees would not receive wage increases at any time during the year. In response, SSEU president Joe Tepedino and the Borough Hall Welfare Center chapter led a walkout that lasted from February 28 through March 3, costing the center two workdays. Despite the suspension of scores of workers, the union led an overwhelming majority of the center’s staff out on strike for two days and prevented any of them from getting fired. On top of that, the pay raises Local 371 negotiated the year before were introduced in the summer of 1963.

Immediately following the pay increase, SSEU raised its profile even further through seemingly less confrontational tactics: a telegram and a letter to Washington. After finding that Welfare Department caseloads routinely violated federal requirements for aid from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW), President Tepedino and three other SSEU members sent correspondence to the Social Security Administration and the secretary of HEW demanding that funding for the department be suspended until it met HEW’s sixty-caseload limit. Retaliation from the department was swift, as the four SSEU members who signed the correspondence were suspended without pay.

This move backfired spectacularly when the New York Times gave the story front-page coverage, boosting SSEU’s legitimacy as a fighting union and allowing it to dramatically expand its membership in the department. Union leaders used the suspensions and the publicity as an organizing tool, holding meetings and circulating petitions to burnish its reputation and set itself apart from the comparatively inactive Local 371.

If it was to win, however, SSEU would have to spread its influence from its initial strongholds to welfare centers throughout the city. Its power base was in Brooklyn, above all the Borough Hall Welfare Center where Tepedino and his followers first won recognition and dues checkoff. SSEU members who lived and worked in Brooklyn tended to be traditional trade-union militants with deep roots in the borough’s multiethnic working class. Across the East River, SSEU members who lived and worked in Manhattan tended to be younger, free from family and parental responsibilities, and influenced by the nascent campus radicalism of the early 1960s.

They were exemplified by future SSEU president Judy Mage, a young activist with family roots in New York’s radical Jewish middle class. According to an early study of the SSEU, “left-wingers” and Manhattanites such as Mage “saw the Union in ways varying from its utilization as a springboard for the Revolution to a major instrument for the reform of a specific social institution, Welfare.” By contrast, “right-wingers” and Brooklynites like Tepedino “were more inclined to lean to the more narrow definitions of the role of the Union in placing its primary responsibility on the immediate ‘bread and butter’ needs of its worker-members.”

Despite these differences and the intense factionalism that would follow, both groups accepted the need for a strong workplace-based organization that addressed the specific needs of welfare workers as well as a social-unionist orientation toward the needs of their largely black and Puerto Rican clients, many of whom came to the city from the South and the island in search of work.

SSEU’s goal for 1964 was to defeat Local 371 in an election for bargaining rights for social investigators and negotiate a new and improved agreement for 1965. After months of preparation, SSEU petitioned the Department of Labor for an election in August 1964 and papered the city’s welfare centers with pamphlets and leaflets.

In spite of their disadvantages in terms of membership and resources, SSEU scored a smashing victory in the October election. It won a majority in twenty-one of twenty-two welfare centers and defeated Local 371 by a vote of 2,642 to 1,411. By adopting internally democratic governance structures, speaking to the day-to-day concerns of frontline social services workers, and winning immediate improvements through militant direct action, SSEU had established itself as a viable independent local union in the face of seemingly unfavorable odds.

After its historic election victory, SSEU attained a level of influence in New York’s municipal labor movement far out of proportion to its relatively small membership base in the Welfare Department. In January 1965, it led a pivotal twenty-eight-day strike (supported by DC 37 and the mainstream labor movement) that directly challenged managerial prerogatives and sought to expand the scope of bargaining to include the level and quality of public services.

Sustained by extremely high levels of worker participation and strong public support, the strike ended with a historic settlement whose terms were favorable to workers and welfare clients alike: 9 percent salary increases; a maximum caseload limit of sixty; a reserve pool of workers to handle caseloads in excess of sixty; automatic clothing grants for welfare recipients; and, perhaps most crucially, the establishment of a tripartite committee to study New York’s system of municipal labor relations and make recommendations for its reform.

A “Second Labor Bloc?”

In a fine example of the cunning of history, SSEU’s demand for a committee to study potential reforms of the municipal labor relations system led to the establishment of a new framework that undermined its position as an independent and socially oriented union. Published in March 1966, the committee’s recommendations, known as the “Tripartite report,” envisioned a dramatic overhaul of the labor-management relations system.

The report proposed setting up an independent Office of Collective Bargaining (OCB) to take authority over matters such as recognition and unit determination out of the hands of the employer. It also sought to centralize the collective bargaining process by granting the representative of a majority of municipal employees the exclusive right to bargain over matters like overtime and leave rules on a citywide basis. After beating Teamsters Local 237 in the pivotal 1965 hospitals election, there was only one union that could claim this status — DC 37. Finally, the report sought to protect managerial prerogatives by placing a number of important issues, including the level and quality of public services, outside the scope of bargaining. Of all the report’s recommendations, this one was most objectionable to SSEU. It fought the 1965 strike over the scope of bargaining, and its leaders were not willing to cede any ground to the city or DC 37 on this issue.

Over the course of 1966 and 1967, SSEU and a motley coalition of Teamster, independent, and AFL-CIO unions fought the implementation of the Tripartite report. In the spring of 1966, they established the United Committee for Collective Bargaining (UCCB). In addition to SSEU, committee members included the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Doctors Associations of the Departments of Hospitals and Health, City Employees Union Local 237 (Teamsters), the Association of Bridge Operating Personnel (Teamsters), the United Electrical Workers (UE), the Welfare Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, and a number of smaller unions. Though they represented a diverse array of public employees and had no coherent political orientation, UCCB members were united in their opposition to the design of OCB and the promotion of DC 37 and its new executive director, Victor Gotbaum, to a leading position in the local labor movement.

SSEU consistently denounced Tripartite as “anti-labor.” This position certainly reflected the union’s institutional interest in blocking the report’s implementation, particularly those provisions that would grant exclusive bargaining rights over crucial citywide issues to DC 37. But, more important, SSEU correctly argued that Tripartite’s enactment would foreclose the development of the kind of public-sector labor movement they were fighting for. Instead of raising demands on behalf of the community or seeking a voice in the design and management of public services, unions would be left with a rather narrow bargaining agenda: wages, benefits, working conditions, and the impact of management decisions on union members.

For its part, DC 37 defended the Tripartite report as a milestone for the public-sector labor movement and campaigned vigorously for its implementation. Of course, the council had a strong institutional interest in supporting a plan that would cement its status as the dominant municipal union in New York. It was sincerely committed, however, to winning rights and protections for city workers according to its own particular vision for the burgeoning public-sector labor movement. While SSEU defended the right to make demands concerning the level and quality of public services at the bargaining table, DC 37 insisted that such demands were more appropriately addressed in the political arena.

Thousands of workers turned out to picket City Hall and protest the Tripartite report on June 1, 1966. SSEU leaders hailed the demonstration as a sign that they and their allies were cohering a “second labor bloc” in New York. Throughout the rest of 1966, UCCB continued to push for an alternative system of labor relations that would preserve an institutional space for smaller, independent unions and a broader scope of bargaining.

In the end, however, SSEU’s efforts to create a second labor bloc to compete with DC 37 and fight Tripartite came to naught. Both the state-level Taylor Law and the New York City Collective Bargaining Law were passed in 1967, consolidating DC 37’s position as the dominant municipal union and restricting the institutional space available to local independent unions like SSEU. In 1969, the upstart union rejoined Local 371 and DC 37.

Different Kind of State, Different Kind of Labor Movement

Broadly similar developments played out in cities and states through the 1970s and 1980s. In New York and elsewhere, winning union security measures and collective bargaining rights proved to be something of a double-edged sword. On one side, public employee unions were able to secure reliable dues income streams and institutionalize their hard-fought gains. On the other, these measures restricted the scope of bargaining and drew union leaders closer to public officials than their own members and the people they served. This left the unions highly vulnerable to any withdrawal of external guarantees of support — which is exactly what started to happen with the near-destruction of private-sector unionism and the general rightward shift of US politics.

This is where the new socialist movement and public-sector unions share a common interest. As Panitch and Gindin have observed, the socialist revival is strongly class-focused, but it is not yet class-rooted. As such, it lacks a meaningful base in the working class and therefore the power to effectively challenge the rule of capital. For their part, unions must adopt a strategy of broad popular mobilization in order to defend themselves and make new gains. The scope of conflict must be widened beyond bargaining with individual employers over a narrow range of subjects to mass mobilizations and strikes that target the state and public policy, including demands for popular participation in the design and administration of public services.

The government’s abject failure to respond to the pandemic, combined with the rebellion against racist police violence, have boldly underlined the need for a different kind of state and a different kind of public-sector labor movement — one that is focused on meeting human needs and fostering collective self-government.