Marty Morgenstern, employment counselor to Jerry Brown, dies aged 87


Marty Morgenstern, who spent a career devoted to labor issues and was a close aide to former Gov. Jerry Brown, died at his home in suburban Sacramento last week. He was 87.

Friends and family said Morgenstern, who resigned as secretary of the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency in 2013, died of complications from Parkinson’s disease.

Few advisors have served Brown longer or with more loyalty than Morgenstern, a native New Yorker whose relationship with the Democratic governor spanned more than 50 years. In an interview, Brown said Morgenstern was one of the smartest and most straight-forward people he’d ever known.

“He was one of the few whose advice you could always rely on,” Brown said. “Because if he wasn’t sure, he would tell you.

When Brown returned for a third term as governor in 2011, one of his first appointments was Morgenstern as Secretary of the Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

Morgenstern’s tenure lasted almost three years. When he left government, he told the Times that his government theory could be explained in just three sentences: “We never have enough money. We must always be careful with the money we spend. And always make sure you spend the minimum amount to get the job done.”

During his tenure as Secretary of Labor, Morgenstern helped Brown twist arms in the 2012 legislature for a sweeping overhaul of California’s workers’ compensation program. And he was one of the key negotiators in Brown’s effort that year to overhaul the pension rules for public employees, a curtailment of future benefits that has been a hard sell among many in organized labor. A key provision that required negotiations to set some of the new employee contribution rates was consistent with Morgenstern’s own long-standing belief that important labor issues should be settled through collective bargaining.

Julie Su, who was recruited by Morgenstern as California’s labor commissioner in 2011, said perhaps more enduring is his commitment to reforming the state’s labor laws to tackle wage theft. She said she warned Morgenstern that efforts to help low-income workers would not be easy and would mean taking over some powerful business interests.

“He was so clear: if it’s the right thing to do, we should do it,” said Su, who is now President Biden’s Labor deputy secretary. “These changes would not have happened without his leadership.”

Su said Morgenstern must persuade her to fight for workers’ rights from the government service side. It was the same journey he had taken decades earlier.

He was the first in his family to graduate from high school or college and joined the labor movement after accepting a job with the New York City Welfare Board in 1964. When the agency’s employees quit the job a year later for higher pay and better working conditions, Morgenstern became a strike captain in East Harlem. His union interests grew in the years following the strike, and in 1968 he was elected chairman of the city’s social service workers’ union.

Morgenstern moved to Los Angeles to run the state branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. In 1972 he joined the California State Employees Assn. and moved to Sacramento – a decision that eventually led him to a friendship with Brown, then California Secretary of State. After taking office as governor in 1975, Brown appointed Morgenstern director of the new state Bureau of Labor Relations. State government employees had no right to collective bargaining at the time. Morgenstern’s long union experience helped Brown eventually sign legislation granting this right in 1978.

“He could keep my relations with the unions in order,” Brown said.

Morgenstern served on the state’s Public Employment Relations Board after Brown left office, and in a variety of academic and consulting jobs before being appointed by the government at the time. Gray Davis as director of the state’s Department of Human Resources, who held that post until Davis was recalled by voters in 2003.

Although he retired from the Brown administration in 2013, he returned in 2015 to serve as a board member for Covered California, the state health insurance exchange.

Friends and family say Morgenstern will be remembered for his efforts to help workers at the bottom of the pay scale. His wife, Sylvia Pizzini, said Morgenstern in his final days shared with friends who came to visit about the effort he led during Brown’s first term to offer government employees, “janitors to judges,” general pay rises that were added to those paychecks who earn the least add a larger percentage.

“He was very proud of that,” said Pizzini.

Su, who named Morgenstern an important mentor, said he treats struggling workers with the same respect shown to the governor and senior officials.

“He was always the voice of the working people in every room he was in,” she said. Marty Morgenstern, employment counselor to Jerry Brown, dies aged 87

Caroline Bleakley

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