The Civil Service Technical Guild was organized in 1937, its main purpose being to organize engineers and architects employed by the City of New York, to fight the problem of "farming out," the requirement of the new City Charter of 1936 that large-scale public works projects be subcontracted to private engineers and architects. The Guild was organized by Henry F. Cunningham, mechanical engineer, and William S. Elliot and George Ellenoff, assistant engineers. They succeeded in organizing 300 engineers, and in 1937 traveled to Albany, at their own expense, to protest to the New York State Legislature. They won passage of the Buckley Law, which removed the "farming out" provision from the City Charter. In its early years the Guild actively recruited members from existing professional associations and predecessor unions, including the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians (FAECT), a militant CIO-affiliated union.
One of those who had traveled to Albany with the Guild leaders was Philip Brueck. A recent graduate of Cooper Union working at the Board of Transportation, he was elected President of the Guild in 1938 and remained in that office for nearly twenty years. Brueck was responsible for the Guild`s unique way of obtaining want it wanted. In all the years of the Guild`s existence the organization never resorted to a strike. Brueck learned political tactics quickly and, working closely with Alexander Lurkis, became proficient at writing legislation and then lobbying for its passage.
During the battle against the farming-out provision, the Executive Committee of the Guild, recognizing that working together with other organizations would provide more strength, recommended and implemented affiliation with the Civil Service Forum. The Forum appealed to many Guild members because it was neither a full-fledged union nor a professional association. In 1949 the Guild voted to disaffiliate itself from the Forum, charging that the Forum was not adequately representing the Guild`s concerns. In 1951 the Guild affiliated with the Government and Civic Employees Organizing Committee of the CIO. After the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955 the Guild affiliated with District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; it received its charter as AFSCME Local 375 in 1959.
After passage of the Buckley Law and an intensive organizing drive, about 2,000 new members in twenty-five city departments joined the Guild, which now represented engineers, architects, chemists, and technical inspectors. Employees of various city departments were organized into separate chapters, each with its own officers. Victories followed for Guild members, including salary increases, medical and dental plans, social security benefits for City employees and long-term disability insurance. The Guild was an early supporter of the mayoral campaign of Robert F. Wagner, Jr., and scored substantial gains under his administrations. The Guild played a major role in the drafting of the law establishing the New York City Department of Personnel and in the establishment of the Career and Salary Plan - enacted six months after Wagner's election in 1953. In the early years of Wagner's mayoralty two former Guild presidents, Phil Brueck and Al Lurkis, moved into top management positions in city departments, further cementing the cordial working relationship between the City and Guild. By the mid-1960s the Guild had won collective bargaining rights, a long-sought goal. Farming out continued to be a prime concern of the Guild, however; although it was no longer mandatory in City contracts, it remained optional. The Guild attempted to remedy the situation through additional state or local legislation, against the bitter opposition of private-sector professional organizations. On this issue the latter gained powerful allies, including several mayors and City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, and the Guild never achieved a strong anti-farming-out bill.
Guild resources were sorely tested during the severe fiscal crisis that beset the City in the mid-1970s. Guild members joined mass protests and otherwise acted in solidarity with other municipal unions, but there was growing dissatisfaction in the union with DC 37's leadership and a movement toward disaffiliation, supported by then president Richard Izzo, gained momentum. In response a dissident group of members, known as the "New Team," began to take form - on a platform of support for alliances with other unions and an active role in AFSCME and the Municipal Labor Committee. The "New Team" prevailed, and one of its key activists, Louis Albano, took office as Guild president in 1981. The "New Team" philosophy was to direct the Guild's course for the next twenty years. DC 37 leader Victor Gotbaum appointed Albano to head the Council's new Professional Committee. The union broadened its field of action, launching organizing drives, fighting nepotism and cronyism in the civil service, joining with the Transport Workers to back improvements in mass transit, raising issues of health and safety, creating a Women's Committee in 1986, and supporting a wide range of human rights campaigns, including efforts on behalf of civil rights in the U.S. and against Apartheid in South Africa.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the established leadership of DC 37, including top officers of the Guild, came under sweeping attack from a dissident group, the "Committee for Real Change." Within the Guild, as in many other Council locals, charges of malfeasance, fiscal improprieties and election fraud flew thick and fast. The Albano administration replied in kind, continuing with legal challenges after the election of dissident Roy Commer as Guild president in 1998. In recent years the union has continued to cope with major challenges, both internally and on the wider battleground of municipal affairs.
Rachel Bernstein, with Steve Beck and Molly Charboneau, Building a City, Building a Union: A History of the Civil Service Technical Guild (New York: Civil Service Technical Guild, 1987).