Charles Ensley, who died last week at 69, was one of New York’s great labor leaders, but it shouldn’t shock us that the only way he made it onto the Times obit page today was via one of the paper’s $52-per-line paid death notices.
The tabloids also skipped the news, but that’s par for the course since they’ve been stoking the class warfare fires lately. The day after Ensley’s death, the Post ran a hit on his old sparring partner, Lillian Roberts, the head of the 121,000-member District Council 37, for earning too much ($333,500) and having a driver (she’s 82). It followed up with an editorial ticking off a laundry list of recent union indictments, suggesting that “there’s something about organized labor that attracts leadership of a criminal bent.” (Not that the Post would ever engage in a fair stat-fight, but if so, it would lose in a knockout: Corporate and Wall Street-related indictments are running a good 20-1 ahead of labor, but who’s counting?)
Ensley, known for his roaring belly laughs, would have gotten a kick out of the timing of the stories. For one thing, during the 26 years he was president of Local 371 of the Social Service workers, Ensley kept his own salary capped at $87,000, the highest any of his members earned.
For another, he was the only head of the big municipal workers’ locals to emerge unscathed from a massive scandal in 1999 that saw 20 officials indicted and more ousted. It was Ensley who first insisted something was rotten inside DC 37 when he pointed to the lop-sided voting tallies that were reported in favor of a 1996 contract that included two years of no raises for members. National union officials blew him off, but two years later the scandal erupted and it was discovered that some local chieftains had simply stuffed all the “No” ballots into lockers without counting them.
The kicker for Ensley, had he been around to roar, would have been the Roberts story. He waged his last hurrah in 2003 when he ran against Roberts for presidency of the district council, saying she was squandering labor’s mighty clout in the city. He lost after Roberts horse-traded favors worth thousands of dollars in perks with other local leaders with whom he’d feuded in the past. Still, as The Chief‘s Richard Steier notes in a front-page obit in this week’s paper, “he took pride in the belief that he’d acquired enemies over the years for the right reasons.”
Those right reasons came to him while growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the years of Bull Connor and his cattle prods. His father led a fight for equal pay for black workers at the Birmingham News. The son attended Howard University, classmate of Stokely Carmichael, student of the great E. Franklin Frazier, as the costly agate-type notice in the Times reports. He took his lessons north to New York where he became a caseworker for the old Bureau of Child Welfare. His spare time was spent tutoring kids in Harlem. He ran for president of a badly divided union in 1982, taking 70 percent of the vote. He had a gift for making workers feel part of a union that too often keeps members at watchful arms-length. “You could be in a room with a thousand people and you always felt he was talking to you,” Stuart Liebowitz, a former Ensley vice president and head of the DC 37 retirees association, tells Steier in The Chief.
He also ruled by the code that all his members were equal. His local was overwhelmingly black, Hispanic, and female, but Ensley’s biggest fight with City Hall came during the term of the city’s first and only black mayor, David Dinkins, when the administration tried to toss out a civil service promotion list because it was “too male and too white.” Ensley stuck up for his own local’s minority, suing and winning to keep the list. “A lot of other union officials wouldn’t have done anything,” state senator Diane Savino, former political director for the local, tells The Chief. “They just would have said to themselves, there’s a lot more black women in this union than there are white Jewish men.”
James Hanley, the city’s veteran labor relations commissioner, says that was just Ensley’s style. “You knew he was going to do what he had to do to protect the civil-service rights of his people.”
That’s probably too complicated a labor lesson for the Post to rehash, and one too off-the beaten track for the Times to celebrate. But The Chief does a fine job, as do the friends and family who kicked in for the 11-inch death notice in the Times, including photo. The next edition of his old local’s paper, The Unionist, will no doubt go them one better. I’m looking forward to it. Charles Ensley’s is a story worth telling, no matter what the press barons think.