Remembering Charles Ensley
Elected in 1982, Ensley was tireless in his efforts to organize members and to expose wider injustices in the City. In 1986, he helped the New York Times cover the overcrowding in the child welfare system that was overburdening SSEULocal 371 members.
Under his leadership the Union saved several important programs, such as the Community Alternative System Agency and the Division of AIDS Services (on three separate occasions, no less). All the while, he was defending the rights of civil servants and fighting City Hall's efforts to reduce and outsource services. And he increased the size of the Union from 8,000 members when he took the helm to more than 17,000 when he retired.
Protecting Civil Service
"Protecting the merit and fitness system of civil service and combating patronage and corruption was the hallmark of Charles Ensley's leadership," said Larry Glickson, a former Vice President and close advisor, and a current senior advisor to the President, "He was able to make the connection between the workers and the people we serve."
A native of Birmingham, Alabama, Ensley brought his skills from the civil rights struggle in the South to the municipal labor movement in New York City. Known for never backing down from a fight against a Mayor - whether it was Ed Koch, David Dinkins or Rudy Giuliani - Ensley believed that members should never get less than they deserved. When DC 37 brought home a contract he thought shortchanged social service employees, he led a campaign to vote it down. And when DC 37 found itself the subject of a large criminal investigation, he was proactive in reforming the institution for the better.
Diane Silver, Co-Chair of the Union's Jewish Heritage Committee, re-called that Ensley's leadership was key to fighting privatization in homeless services. "I will always be grateful to Ensley for being on the frontline to keep these vital services staffed by dedicated civil servants," she said.
The Union's Executive Vice President, Yolanda Pumarejo, said "He was my mentor and friend. Charles inspired members no matter who they were or where they worked. His honesty and integrity was never compromised. His commitment to the labor movement was immeasurable. His core principle was that the Union was our common ground. and for 26 years Charles led this Union in a member-driven style and afforded me the opportunity to learn and understand the true meaning of leadership and unionism."
Shirley Gray, an Executive Assistant to the President, recalled, "He trained me as a grievance rep. He taught me everything about being an active union member. He was an outstanding and outspoken example of leadership, and above all, an unforgettable friend."
Ensley inspired members and leaders of other unions, especially the ones working closely with SSEU Local 371. "Social work is a caring profession, but in City service it is also very tough," said Bob Croghan, Chairman of the Organization of Staff Analysts. "A social work union, therefore, must be both caring and tough. Charles made sure that SSEU Local 371 lived up to its reputation."
Union member Kathie Sabater recalled how memorable Ensley's speeches could be, and that she thinks about his words and his charisma whenever she thinks about the challenges Union members are facing today. "You can just hear him say, 'Stick with your Union.'"
Former VP Linda Schleicher recalled the times Charles would get angry when reading the newspapers about the right wing attacks on unions. "I know he would ask Union members to be informed and to be proud of the work they do." She emphasized that he also knew how to have a good time with the members. "He was politically savvy, funny and generous. He loved a good time but he never waivered in his belief in the Union and its members."
Reggie Styles, the current Executive Assistant to the President, said "Charles always referred to me as the son, and I will always remember him as my Union father."