One Man Making A Difference

There is an old proverb that states, “You can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” If you don’t understand what CSEA is, then you need to hear the story.

The CSEA journey starts in 1927 when a young high school student at Fremont High School in Oakland, California named Bill Schwartz took a part-time job as a custodian. There he met Mary Coughlin, a 70-year old woman who worked as a nurse for the past 35 years. Mary told Bill that the school district was forcing her to retire, but she had no pension. Mary also suffered from arthritis. Bill heard her story and it touched him.

Bill Schwarz met Mary this one time. That one chance meeting, though, lit the spark that has now become the California School Employees Association.

“The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Illinois AFL-CIO, Oct. 7, 1965

In an interview later in his life, Bill talked about his encounter with Mary. “My god. Here is a woman who spent 35 years of her life in service to schools in the city, and when she’s old and feeble they kick her out, and she’s not taken care of, and I thought ‘Well, that isn’t right. Something ought to be done about this.’”

Rather than just lament about Mary’s situation, Bill Schwarz decided to do something to protect Mary in retirement. She needed and deserved a pension after 35 years of service. She needed medical care for her arthritis. That same year, Bill met a kindred spirit in Lawrence Twoaxe, a Native American of the Iroquois Nation. Twoaxe was president of the Oakland School Custodians Association and also believed custodians deserved a retirement system.

California School Employees Association Founder Bill Schwarz at the CSEA Headquarters Historical Library in San Jose, California.

Bill and Lawrence decided they needed help and legal advice, so they spoke with the Alameda County District Attorney, who suggested forming a statewide organization so school districts could provide a pension plan.

The District Attorney they spoke with was named Earl Warren. Yes, that Earl Warren who went on to become one of the most influential and important Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Warren’s suggestion was — Organize!

Bill Schwarz formed the California Public School Custodians Association in 1927.

The Association also served as a social club, which they used to talk to custodians about the retirement fund they were trying to create. However, at the suggestion of Warren, Bill went to Sacramento to begin lobbying for a pension for custodians. He went to the floor of the legislature and talked to the legislators about school employees. It worked.

In 1929, the California legislature passed Senate Bill 551, Chapter 854 “An act to permit governing boards of school districts to provide for the payment of retirement salaries to the teachers and other employees thereof in the manner prescribed by this act.”

By 1930, the Association had grown to more than 2,500 members, and they expanded membership to all school employees. Bill Schwarz was passionate about the Association being run democratically by the members. A year earlier, he wrote the Association’s first Constitution and By Laws.

Bill Schwartz could easily have heard Mary’s story and then gone about his life, never giving it another thought. But he did not do that. Instead, he wanted to improve the lives of his fellow custodians and school employees. Since that day in 1927, one man with a mission made a difference in the lives of millions of California school employees since.

That is where we have been. Today, more than 90 years later, we continue Bill’s mission of “Improving the lives of our members, students, and community.” We are CSEA.