Jane Morgenstern, who began her career in city government as a Caseworker in the old Welfare Department, moved over to management and rose to become an Assistant Labor Relations Commissioner but never lost her affinity for working people, died May 23 of a combination of lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to her husband of 40 years, Al Viani. She was 77 years old.
Ms. Morgenstern spent roughly a decade beginning in 1985 as Chief Review Officer of the Grievance Unit of the old Mayor’s Office of Labor Relations, mediating disputes between city agencies and their employees that had reached the Step 3 level. During a 1987 interview, in talking about the unit’s work, including cases in which she said the issue could be as trivial as whether an employee deserved to be paid for just an hour or two of work—”which should be resolved at the local level but isn’t” because of personality clashes—she offered something of a governing philosophy and a self-description.
‘Have to Work Together’
“We don’t solve all the problems, and employees don’t always walk away happy from this office,” Ms. Morgenstern said. “The most important thing that we remember is that we have to continue to work together.”
She then added, “There are times when I have to use my powers of persuasion, and I do it at a voice level that isn’t necessarily ladylike.”
That style could extend from a tart comment about a city or union official to remonstrating with a friend for caging a young, rambunctious dog in a crate, notwithstanding the friend’s explanation that, left to his own devices, the family pet would make a meal of the living-room molding.
“She was a good, feisty advocate for equity and social and racial justice,” said Mr. Viani during a May 28 phone interview.
His own career overlapped hers in some respects: he went to jail briefly for leading the 1965 welfare strike that ended shortly before she became a Caseworker, and made the transition from longtime chief negotiator for District Council 37 to Deputy Director for Disputes at the Office of Collective Bargaining at the end of 1985.
In fact, the two of them had been married six years earlier in OCB’s offices, with the guests including her boss at OMLR, Bruce McIver, and his boss, the late DC 37 Executive Director Victor Gotbaum. In an interview with the New York Times a day before the ceremony, Mr. Viani remarked, “This is a true marriage of labor and management, and we thought we ought to hold it on some neutral territory.”
Daughter of City Workers
Ms. Morgenstern, whose mother was a city Teacher and father worked as an attorney and a Certified Public Accountant for the city Department of Finance, grew up in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay section and attended Madison High School before getting a degree in literature from Brooklyn College in 1961. She spent a couple of years doing public-relations work for Long Island University before beginning graduate studies in English at the University of Illinois.
When she went to work for the Welfare Department, her initial job was finding homes in which foster children could be placed. She was promoted to Supervisor 1, but in 1970 she moved to California with her first husband, Marty Morgenstern, a ranking DC 37 official whom its parent union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, had sent to California to run its district council there. Ms. Morgenstern became a business agent for the Contra Costa County Employees Association, across the bay from San Francisco, negotiating contracts, organizing workers, representing grievants and speaking nightly before boards of education and civic groups.
“It was mainly through my work as a union business agent that I began to appreciate the problems of management,” she said during the 1987 interview.
When her marriage to Mr. Morgenstern broke up, she returned to New York, moved in with Mr. Viani in 1976 and went to work for OMLR’s five-person Grievance Unit, which handled more than 1,100 cases a year, in 1978.
“Negotiating contracts is wonderful, but here you really get a chance to deal with employees and their problems one-to-one,” she said.
Even before she retired from city government roughly 20 years ago, Ms. Morgenstern was involved with numerous civic groups, many of them in the vicinity of her Dobbs Ferry home. She chaired the Westchester County Rent Guidelines Board, served as a member of the county’s Charter Revision Commission and was both a Trustee of the Village of Dobbs Ferry and a member of the village’s Historical Society. She was also a Democratic Party district leader.
She was diagnosed with lung cancer 21 months ago. In the final months of her life, she was honored by both houses of the State Legislature and Governor Cuomo, and had March 5 declared “Jane Morgenstern Day” in Westchester by the county’s Board of Legislators.
A memorial service will be held June 9 at 1 p.m. at the Edwards-Dowdle Funeral Parlor at 64 Ashford Ave. in Dobbs Ferry. Besides her husband, she is survived by her brother, Andrew Saltzman.
“She was always my confidant, and I would ask her about a million things and she always gave me good advice,” Mr. Viani said.
He remembered one final, characteristic quip she made as doctors tended to her in the emergency room two days before her death. Having difficulty speaking at that point, Ms. Morgenstern nonetheless took note of the flurry of activity around her, Mr. Viani said, and remarked, “This is all because of Trump.”
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