One hundred years ago, a group of New York state employees got together and organized the Civil Service Employees Association. Now, as CSEA winds toward its 100th anniversary, the union represents nearly 300,000 workers in almost every community in the state.
CSEA represents civil-service workers working in municipal governments and school districts throughout the state.
Ron Briggs, the president of the 1,000-member CSEA Local 818 in Fulton County, said the union continues to serve a dual role as it approaches its 100th anniversary Oct. 24.
"One [role] is to help the employees get the best representation so they are treated fairly and respected, while getting the best deal possible and working for the betterment of community," he said.
The other role, Briggs said, is to educate members on what the union's role is and the battles that were won to achieve things people take for granted, such as a 40-hour work week and medical benefits.
"People expect things now," he said. "They don't always know that people before have fought for those things."
Ed Russo, president of Local 839, a Montgomery County chapter, said the union works to get better health care coverage and make sure its members are compensated for what they do.
On the heels of the recent economic crisis, Briggs said the union may be needed now more than ever.
"The gap between the rich and poor is wider than ever," he said. "The union comes in to work for the middle class and to keep the poor from getting poorer."
The Montgomery County chapter won a big victory in August when about 80 members picketed outside a Board of Supervisors' Personnel Committee meeting to protest cuts to about 15 percent of the work force. Supervisors had also asked department heads to cut about 40 percent of their budgets.
The motion died in that meeting.
"That was a [great] victory," Russo said. "We let our supervisors know that we're not going to stand around and let them lay us off."
CSEA will mark the centennial with several sets of traveling displays across the state to tell the union's story. Public events also are being planned in various locations as well, along with the union's 100th Annual Delegates Meeting scheduled for Albany from Oct. 18 to 22.
According to a news release, the union hasn't held a delegates conference in decades.
Briggs said the Fulton County chapter won't be doing anything special to mark the anniversary. He said member participation and leaders' attentiveness to members are a key factor in CSEA's 100-year success.
"Our union is the most democratic union of all the unions," he said. "We are responsive to the members and have been able to change and evolve to represent the members the best we can."
CSEA President Danny Donohue said in the release that it is important to consider all the changes between CSEA's inception and now.
Back then, the U.S. was just becoming a world power, women didn't have the right to vote yet and African-Americans hadn't had the right to vote yet.
"The past year has been difficult, and based on what we're already seeing across New York, there are some enormous challenges ahead in our centennial year," Donohue said. "If there's one lesson to take from our history, it is that CSEA is always at its best in adversity."
There is still more adversity out there.
"There are still battles we need to fight to make working conditions better and safe," Briggs said.
Mike Zummo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.