January 28, 2014
By Steven Wishnia
Some 700 people turned out Jan. 23 in Howard Beach to raise money for scholarships Social Service Employees Union Local 371 is creating in memory of Charles Ensley, the local’s late longtime leader. Speakers included State Sen. Diane Savino of Staten Island (formerly a vice president of the union), Bob Croghan of the Organization of Staff Analysts, and several Local 371 officials, including current president Anthony Wells.
The scholarships will go to Local 371 members or family members who are pursuing degrees in labor studies or policy studies. The union plans several more fundraisers for them, says spokesperson Ari Paul.
Ensley, who died in 2010, served as Local 371’s president from 1982 to 2008. “Charles was a fighter for working people and working families for four decades,” says Wells, who met him when he joined the local in 1988. “He was a friend, a mentor, a leader.”
“He maintained one of the most aggressive and socially conscious unions in the New York City civil service,” says Croghan, who began working with him in the late 1970s. “Charles was one of the good guys.”
Charles Ensley was born into a family active in the labor and civil-rights movements in 1941 in Birmingham, Alabama. He moved to New York in 1965 and got a job with the Bureau of Child Welfare in Brooklyn, just after the 28-day strike that won caseworkers their first union contract.
That 1965 walkout was a landmark, says Croghan, because it broke—in both senses of the word—a state law that banned public workers from striking and prohibited participants from ever working for the city or state again. It led to the city and state legally recognizing public workers’ unions and their right to collective bargaining.
As president of Local 371, Ensley refused to take a salary of more than $87,000, the top pay for rank-and-file members. During his tenure, the local’s membership nearly doubled, to 17,000.
When he died, the Chief newspaper’s obituary said Ensley “took pride in the belief that he'd acquired enemies over the years for the right reasons.” He clashed with the Dinkins administration in 1993, when the city’s welfare commissioner, in a ham-fisted push for “diversity,” refused to promote about 75 workers who’d passed a test for supervisor. Most were Jewish men who’d been waiting for years to move up, recalls Croghan, and the commissioner skipped over them for provisionally appointed younger women. The union won them promotions in an out-of-court settlement, which Ensley said preserved the principle that advancement should be based on “merit and fitness.”
In 1996, when District Council 37 members voted to accept a contract with a two-year pay freeze demanded by the Giuliani administration, Ensley charged fraud. Another local had sent in an unusually high number of mail-in ballots—with more than 80% yes votes. “He knew something didn’t smell right,” says Croghan. He was proven right three years later, when that local’s head was indicted and later convicted for ballot-stuffing.
Ensley believed that “the union is a common ground, that all our interests are the same,” says Wells. “His legacy lives on in our hearts and our minds.”