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In Memoriam

AFSCME Mourns the Passing of Four Leaders Who Dedicated Themselves to Improving the Lives of Workers

AFSCME Mourns the Passing of Four Leaders Who Dedicated Themselves to Improving the Lives of Workers

Robert T. Cooper, director of Pennsylvania District Council 88, died of leukemia in February at the age of 65.

Cooper began his association with AFSCME in 1972 while working as a plumber in the maintenance department at West Chester University. After his retirement from the university in 1989, he became the business agent for District Council 88. Cooper became the council’s director in 2002 and held the post until his death. The council has been rededicated as the Robert T. Cooper Labor Center.

“He was passionate about the rights of workers,” says his daughter, Beth. “We grew up believing in what unions stood for.”

“Bob was a courageous advocate for workers, a compassionate family man and a true and loyal friend,” adds Pennsylvania Council 13 Exec. Dir. David Fillman, also an AFSCME International vice president.

Howard Deck, 70, president of Pennsylvania Local 590 and former treasurer of District Council 47, died in February following a heart attack.

Deck first demonstrated a commitment to workers’ rights while employed at the University of Pennsylvania Library. There, after a two-year effort, he helped his fellow employees win the right to bargain collectively. AFSCME Local 590 was recognized in 1969.

As its founding member and only president for more than 43 years, Deck proved his skill as lead negotiator during the union’s very first bargaining effort. President McEntee, with whom Deck would maintain a life-long friendship, later called it the “best ever” first contract that he had ever seen.

“Howard built a small but effective union at Penn that cemented his record as one of the true pioneers of the labor movement in Philadelphia,” notes McEntee. “He set patterns that were followed all across the country in successive organizing campaigns. His good works on behalf of working people will be long appreciated.”

Deck went to work for District Council 47 in 1982, and served as treasurer from 1986 — 1992. “Howard was a much cherished member of the AFSCME District Council 47 family and he will be greatly missed,” says DC 47 Pres. Cathy Scott. “He has been a true trade unionist.”

Charles Ensley, president of Local 371 (DC 37) from 1982 to 2008, died in June of lung cancer. He was 69.

Under Ensley’s tenure, his local — which represents social service workers — grew from 9,000 to 17,000 members. In 2002, he became an AFSCME International vice president and served one term.

A New York Times obituary notes that Ensley learned to fight for others less fortunate “from his father, John, who in the 1950s led African-American workers against brutal opposition in a long battle for equal pay at The Birmingham News.”

“A vigorous defender of labor, Charles fought hard to win dignity for his fellow social workers,” said President McEntee.

Ensley began his career as a caseworker for the Bureau of Child Welfare, working in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of the city. In 2001, he received the prestigious Ellis Island Medal of Honor, established in 1986 to pay tribute to the immigrant experience and individual achievement.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., Ensley graduated from Howard University in Washington. He is survived by his wife, Annette Ensley.

Lettie Oliver, 58, associate director of Indiana/Kentucky Council 62, died in March after suffering an asthma-related attack.

Oliver also was president of the Marion County Central Indiana Labor Council, and associated with the Indiana Pay Equity Coalition, which pushed legislation requiring a study to determine if women and minorities employed by the state were paid the same as men for the same or similar jobs.

She endeavored to improve the pay of janitors who work in downtown buildings, and to better the working conditions of hotel workers. For her commitment to improving the lives of others, she was honored in 2008 by the Indiana Commission on Women with its Torchbearer Award. The commission observed, in its award announcement: “She has made it her life’s work to educate the women of AFSCME Council 62 in the areas of politics and organizing and has been a powerful force in sharing her knowledge with others for the betterment of all.”

“Lettie never stopped — she was an activist 24-7,” says Council 62 Exec. Dir. David Warrick, also an AFSCME International vice president. “She totally believes in the labor movement and civil rights.”

This August, Oliver was honored by her union with the dedication of the Lettie Oliver Memorial Collection of books on women in the labor movement, to be housed at the central branch of the Indianapolis/Marion County Central Library. U.S. Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.) presided over the dedication, which was attended by members of Lettie’s family and union.