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Social Service Employees Union Records

Call Number



1952-2023, ongoing, inclusive
; 1960-1999, bulk


Social Service Employees Union. Local 371
Social Service Employees Union. Local 371 (Role: Donor)


44 Linear Feet (44 boxes)
6 websites in 6 archived websites.

Language of Materials

English .


Social Service Employees Union Local 371 is part of District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFL-CIO). The union primarily represents New York City workers in the social service professions. Although the origins of the union can be traced back to the 1930s, their modern story begins in the bitter cold of January 1965 when more than 8,000 welfare workers spent 28 days on union picket lines and leaders from what were then two separate entities, the Social Service Employees Union and Local 371, went to jail. Besides winning salary increases and improvements in conditions for their clients, the strike resulted in a number of firsts including the first 100 percent city-paid health insurance, an effective grievance procedure, and the establishment of a panel made up of representatives of labor, the city, and the public that led to what is today known as the New York City's Office of Collective Bargaining. Two more strikes, both unsuccessful, took place in 1967; finally, in 1969, the two unions merged. Under the leadership of presidents Martin Morgenstern, Stanley Hill, Joe Sperling and Charles Ensley, among others, the union has grown in diversity over the years. Although caseworkers still make up the single largest segment of the SSEU's membership, the union now represents over 150 title categories including counselors, social workers, investigators, and residence staff. The collection includes constitutions, minutes of meetings including executive committee and general membership, along with collective bargaining demands and contracts. The largest segment of the collection is the general files which include officers' correspondence, member communication tools such as leaflets and newsletters, union elections and press clippings. The final section consists of grievances, arbitrations and legal cases.

Historical 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.


Series I is arranged chronologically within categories; series II-IV are arranged alphabetically.

The files are grouped into six series:

  1. I, Constitutions and Minutes
  2. II, Collective Bargaining and Related Arbitration Cases
  3. III, General Files
  4. IV, Grievances, Arbitrations, and Legal Cases (General)
  5. V, Unprocessed Material
  6. VI, Archived Websites

Scope and Content Note

Series I: Constitutions and Minutes, 1964-2005, is comprised of early constitutions and by-laws (pre-merger), the constitution of the merged unions and its amendments, and minutes of the Delegate Assembly (1969-2005), Executive Board/Executive Committee (1962-2005), and General Membership Meetings (1964-2005).

Series II: Bargaining Files and Related Arbitration Cases, 1938-1996, contains materials used in collective bargaining as well as the resultant contracts. Included are demands and proposals both general and specific to the various titles covered by the merged unions, along with background material, press releases, legal documents and arbitration cases related specifically to the collective bargaining process.

Series III: General Files, 1944-2006, consists of correspondence, files on committees of the union, files on union elections, press clippings with a special emphasis on child welfare, homelessness, and other major welfare issues, material on the strikes of 1965 and 1967, and documentation of the scandals that rocked DC 37 in the late 1990s. Prominent also in this section are the numerous routes the union chose to communicate with its members: leaflets used to inform as well as mobilize the membership, newsletters of the SSEU and of affiliated chapters, and "Recorded Union News," which provides information to members via a 24-hour telephone tape. Occupational Deferment Requests filed during the Vietnam War period can also be found in this series.

Series IV: Grievances, Arbitrations and Legal Cases (General), 1953-1999, includes correspondence pertaining to grievances, rebuttals and requests (1960-1996), arbitrations and various legal cases that do not fall under the umbrella of collective bargaining.

Series VI contains websites created by the union, including the scholarship foundation.

Conditions Governing Access

Materials are open without restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright (or related rights to publicity and privacy) for materials in this collection, created by the Social Service Employees Union, Local 371 was not transferred to New York University. Permission to use materials must be secured from the copyright holder.

Preferred Citation

Identification of item, date; Social Service Employees Union Records; WAG 003; box number; folder number; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

To cite the archived website in this collection: Identification of item, date; Social Service Employees Union Records; WAG 003; Wayback URL; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

Location of Materials

Materials are stored offsite and advance notice is required for use. Please request materials at least two business days prior to your research visit to coordinate access.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated by the Social Service Employees Union, Local 371 in 1979 and 2005. The accession number associated with this gift is 1979.019. was initially selected by curators and captured through the use of The California Digital Library's Web Archiving Service in 2007 as part of the Labor Unions and Organizations (U.S.) Web Archive. In 2015, these websites were migrated to Archive-It. Archive-It uses web crawling technology to capture websites at a scheduled time and displays only an archived copy, from the resulting WARC file, of the website. In 2018, was added to the web archive. The accession number associated with this website is 2019.104. In 2019, redirected to and the URL was added to the web archives. The accession number associated with this website is 2019.132. In October 2019, was added to the web archives. The accession number associated with this website is 2019.145. In April 2020, was added. The accession number associated with this website is 2020.038. In September 2023, was added. The accession number associated with this website is 2023.085.

Take Down Policy

Archived websites are made accessible for purposes of education and research. NYU Libraries have given attribution to rights holders when possible; however, due to the nature of archival collections, we are not always able to identify this information.

If you hold the rights to materials in our archived websites that are unattributed, please let us know so that we may maintain accurate information about these materials.

If you are a rights holder and are concerned that you have found material on this website for which you have not granted permission (or is not covered by a copyright exception under US copyright laws), you may request the removal of the material from our site by submitting a notice, with the elements described below, to the repository email.

Please include the following in your notice: Identification of the material that you believe to be infringing and information sufficient to permit us to locate the material; your contact information, such as an address, telephone number, and email address; a statement that you are the owner, or authorized to act on behalf of the owner, of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed and that you have a good-faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the law; a statement that the information in the notification is accurate and made under penalty of perjury; and your physical or electronic signature. Upon receiving a notice that includes the details listed above, we will remove the allegedly infringing material from public view while we assess the issues identified in your notice.

Separated Materials

Photographs were separated to the Social Service Employees Union Photographs (PHOTOS 014) and eight posters were separated to the Tamiment/Wagner Poster and Broadside Collection (GRAPHICS 002).

Related Material at the Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

SSEU Oral History Collection (OH 063)

Sol Gorelick Papers (WAG 019)

Social Service Employees Union Photographs (PHOTOS 014)

Michael Padwee Papers (WAG 004)

Christopher Dykema Papers (WAG 016)

Gilbert Jonas Papers (WAG 062)

Collection processed by

K. Kevyne Baar

About this Guide

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on 2023-10-23 10:41:24 -0400.
Using Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language: Description is in English

Processing Information

In 2014, the archived website was added as Series VI. Additional websites and description were added to the finding aid in 2019-2020, 2023.

Revisions to this Guide

October 2023: Edited by Nicole Greenhouse to reflect additional administrative information and added archived websites

Edition of this Guide

This version was derived from sseu.doc


Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives
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