Labor History Month: CSEA makes positive change

During Labor History Month, observed in May, CSEA and other unions celebrate the achievements of working people, as well as workers’ ongoing struggles for justice on the job.

“It is important for CSEA members to know not only our union’s history, but that of the labor movement,” said CSEA President Mary E. Sullivan. “If we know our past, we can take the lessons we have learned to better determine the future of our the current and future labor movement and share our knowledge with others.”

For the past 113 years, CSEA has helped make history – and change – in New York. Here is a brief look at our union’s history.

Association influences change

As the 20th century began, unions were fighting for fair pay, shorter workdays and safer workplaces. Another factor facing workers was corruption and favoritism in our state’s civil service, and no strong central authority for state agencies. 

A group of New York state workers, seeking to end the corruption and improve working conditions, formed the Association of State Civil Service Employees on Oct. 24, 1910.


The association would play a key role in advancing worker rights in New York. The association’s first president, William Thomas, was instrumental in establishing in 1920 the New York State Retirement System, which today remains one of the most fully funded and stable public retirement funds in the country. 

As the Great Depression gripped the U.S. in the 1930s, the labor movement saw many major victories as working people increasingly formed unions and stood strong for worker justice.

One of the Association’s earliest supporters was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who as governor in 1932 called the Association a “legitimate representative” of state employees. As President, Roosevelt would go on to champion and sign landmark New Deal legislation that included significant advancements in workers’ rights. 

In this photo, 1930s era state health workers celebrate their service. Photo courtesy of New York State Archives.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the association was heavily involved in state civil service reforms that saw job classifications and functions be based on a “merit and fitness” system, and included protections and oversight to ensure fairness. 


In 1934, Beulah Bailey Thull became the association’s first woman president. While she served in the position for one year, her years as an activist included numerous accomplishments. 

Growth and change

During World War II, the association worked to ensure fairness for members who left their jobs to serve in the war. 

In 1946, the association opened membership opportunities to local government groups, with Westchester County being the first one to join. 

Another significant change – the association changed its name to the Civil Service Employees Association.

CSEA membership grew during the 1950s with the introduction of health insurance and upgrades to the retirement system. 

Our union saw its next major change during the 1960s, when labor unrest among public workers brought about one of our union’s most major transitions when the state Public Employees Fair Employment Act, also known as the Taylor Law, gave our union collective bargaining rights under the law.

Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller, seated, signs the Public Employees Fair Employment Act, known as the Taylor Law, in 1967. From left to right, then CSEA President Joseph Feily; Rockefeller aide and former CSEA counsel Harry Albright; state Budget Director T. Norman Hurd; Lt. Gov. Malcolm Wilson; Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz; Ersa Poston, chair of the state Civil Service Commission, unidentified woman and incoming CSEA President Theodore Wenzl. Photo courtesy of New York State Archives.

In the 1970s, our union fought for justice amid fiscal struggles in New York. To ensure CSEA stayed strong in the face of more labor unrest, our union affiliated with AFSCME in 1978, becoming CSEA/AFSCME Local 1000 and giving our union more influence throughout the national labor movement. 

CSEA also became more involved in political action efforts, both in New York and on the federal level. Our union was key to passing the state Public Employees Safety and Health Act (PESH) in 1980, as well as a permanent COLA in 2000.

Standing against challenges

In the early 2000s, the labor movement saw more opposition from well-funded business interests and private sector union membership.

CSEA and AFSCME stood strong against labor opponents, helping prevent efforts to contract out public services, gut Social Security and more. 

However, our union would soon be tested in an unprecedented way. 

In 2018, in its Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down labor union “fair share” fees. Anticipating the decision, CSEA launched a massive effort to engage with and connect with members, both at their workplaces and homes, to ensure members stay strong. One of CSEA’s top priorities remains connecting with members and staying union strong amid ongoing challenges. 

Progress and justice

Unions have also been longtime supporters of advancing justice for workers who may have been denied opportunities based on their gender, race, national origin and sexual orientation. CSEA has long stood with members and other communities fighting for justice, and our union’s commitment to this fight continues. 

During the late 1970s and 1980s, CSEA Statewide Secretary Irene Carr helped advance the roles of women in our union, along with leading change for working women and families. 

In 2020, Sullivan became the first-ever woman and local government employee to be elected as our union’s statewide president.

To learn more about our union’s history, visit

— Janice Gavin

Test your knowledge of labor trivia on CSEA’s App!


About Author

Janice Gavin is the editor of The Work Force and CSEA’s special interest publications. A graduate of SUNY Plattsburgh and Syracuse University, Gavin has been a journalist and public relations professional for more than 25 years. She worked as a newspaper reporter and bureau chief at the Plattsburgh Press-Republican, where she was honored with Associated Press and New York Newspaper Publishers Association awards. Gavin joined CSEA as a communications specialist in the union's Southern Region in 2000. In 2004, she became The Work Force's associate editor, a position she held until becoming the publication's editor in 2017. Growing up in a union household, she is dedicated to improving workers’ lives through telling their stories.

Comments are closed.