The Man Who Put Public-Employee Unions on the Map

Jim Bourdier/AP Photo

Joining hands and singing in tribute at a 1968 memorial service for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., are Jerry Wurf, Coretta Scott King, Bernard Lee, and Reverend Ralph Abernathy.  

In early 1968, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. flew to Memphis three times to support African American sanitation workers who had gone on strike not only to protest unsafe conditions, abusive white supervisors, and low wages, but also to gain recognition for their union.

“One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive,” King said in his March 18 speech to an overflow crowd of 15,000 people at a Memphis church. If Americans don’t offer that respect, King continued, they “are reminding not only Memphis, but … the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich country and receive starvation wages.”

On the platform with King that night was Jerry Wurf, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union that, in coalition with the NAACP and local black ministers, had organized the workers and invited King to Memphis.

In his deep, rumbling voice, Wurf, a longtime civil rights activist, talked about the injustices shared by blacks and workers, then turned to King and said, “We know, brother, we’ve been the same places.” When a local black minister rose to speak, he pointed to Wurf and said, “This man’s skin is white. But he is a brother.”

Wurf—born a century ago on May 18, 1919—believed that garbage workers, secretaries, hospital orderlies, emergency medical technicians, child-care providers, highway laborers, office clerks, janitors, social workers, mental-health workers, and food service workers deserved decent pay, health-care benefits, and pensions. They should not have to give up their hopes, or their rights, just because they worked for government.

As AFSCME’s president, Wurf was the labor movement’s most important leader in organizing public employees, who’d been largely unorganized until the 1960s. Through aggressive organizing and skillful bargaining, his union grew from 220,000 members in 1964, when Wurf was elected its president, to over one million members at the time of his death in 1981. Wurf’s union focused on raising living standards for low-paid workers, who were disproportionately African Americans and Latinos.

The upsurge in public-sector unionizing in the 1960s and 1970s resembled the breakthrough of industrial unionism in the 1930s. Membership in public-sector unions, led by AFSCME (which became the nation’s fast-growing union, thanks in part to the publicity from its efforts in Memphis) as well as by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, grew tenfold between 1955 and 1975, topping four million by the early 1970s and doubling to eight million by 2010. Along with AFT president Albert Shanker, Wurf was a key figure in enabling government employees to win, and exercise, collective-bargaining rights.

This dramatic growth in public-sector unionism occurred at a time when overall union membership was falling. The peak unionization rate was 35 percent during the mid-1950s. It has since plummeted to 10.5 percent. Today, government employees make up almost half (49 percent) of the 14.7 million union members in the United States. More than one-third of government employees are union members, compared with only 6.4 percent of private-sector workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As historian Joseph McCartin observed, “By default, public-sector unions have become the single most effective social force capable of speaking out for a just economy.” Wurf’s pathbreaking success in organizing government workers in the 1960s and 1970s is what has kept the labor movement alive today.

Big business and conservatives understand this reality, which is why they’ve engaged in a persistent effort for several decades to demonize public-sector unions, pass state-level laws to make it harder for government employees to unionize, and file lawsuits designed to undermine unions’ political influence. One such suit culminated in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus v. AFSCME ruling, which made it more difficult for public-sector unions to be funded by all the workers they represent.

Wurf was born to Jewish émigrés from Austria and Hungary. His father was a tailor and textile worker. At the age of four, Wurf developed polio and spent much of his youth in a wheelchair. For the rest of his life, he walked with a limp, but that did not stop him from joining picket lines or protest marches.

As a Depression-era teenager in New York, he joined the Young People’s Socialist League and honed his skills at soapbox oratory, passing out leaflets and debating the fine points of political theory. Wurf briefly attended New York University but dropped out to change the world. Initially, he made change as a cashier at a local cafeteria, hoping to organize his fellow workers into the Hotel and Restaurant Workers Union. In the early 1940s, Wurf was such a persistent and militant organizer that the Yiddish-speaking cafeteria owners he was opposing called him Mal’ach Hamaves, or “angel of death.”

In 1947, Wurf joined the staff of District Council 37, AFSCME’s New York City affiliate, and soon became its director. He inherited a corrupt, do-nothing union with fewer than 1,000 members and transformed it into a potent organizing force. Wurf’s biggest breakthrough came in 1958, when he mounted a successful campaign to persuade New York Mayor Robert Wagner Jr. to issue Executive Order 49, which gave unions the right to organize the city’s employees. By the time he left to become AFSCME’s national president, District 37 had 38,000 members.

Unlike many leaders of national unions at the time, Wurf was anything but the anointed successor to the incumbent president. Indeed, Wurf became president in 1964 by ousting the do-nothing, entrenched incumbent in a closely fought election.

At District 37 and later as AFSCME president, Wurf committed the union not only to organizing African American employees but also to supporting the civil rights struggle. Before Wurf became AFSCME president, the union had separate white and black locals in the South, as did most unions. Wurf changed that practice. He elevated more African American members to leadership within the union and recruited more black and female organizers. In the late 1940s, he was a founder of the New York chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, a group committed to using civil disobedience to challenge segregation.

The plight of Memphis’s African American sanitation workers posed a major challenge to AFSCME, which had not yet made major progress organizing public employees in the South. On January 31, 1968, 22 black workers were sent home when it began raining. White employees were not sent home. When the rain stopped after an hour or so, the white workers continued to work and were paid for the full day, while the black workers lost a day’s pay. The next day, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were crushed to death by a malfunctioning city garbage truck.

These two incidents epitomized the workers’ long-standing grievances. The Memphis sanitation workers (that is, the men who collected the garbage—all of whom were black) earned an average of about $1.70 per hour—a rate so low that 40 percent of them qualified for welfare. They had almost no health-care benefits, pensions, or vacations. White supervisors called black workers “boy” and would arbitrarily send them home without pay for minor infractions that would be overlooked had they been white.

The workers’ appeal to Memphis’s mayor, Henry Loeb, and the city council to improve their working conditions was summarily rejected.

On February 12, 1,300 black sanitation workers went on strike. They demanded a pay raise, overtime pay, merit promotions without regard to race, and recognition by the city of AFSCME as their bargaining agent. City officials refused to negotiate with the union. In private, Mayor Loeb reportedly told associates, “I’ll never be known as the mayor who signed a contract with a Negro union.”

Local civil rights activists, led by the Reverend James Lawson, saw the strike as a way to mobilize the city’s African American community, which encompassed 40 percent of Memphis’s population but had almost no voice in local politics. Wurf and key AFSCME staffers joined forces with Memphis’s black leaders to organize marches and rallies to publicize the strike. On February 19, AFSCME and NAACP members held an all-night vigil at city hall. The next day, they called for a boycott of downtown merchants.

Wurf was contemptuous of Mayor Loeb’s racism and anti-union hostility, and he figured the best strategy was to outmaneuver him by getting the city council to support the workers. On February 22, more than 700 workers packed a city council hearing to demand a settlement. The next day, Wurf helped orchestrate a mass march from City Hall to Mason Temple (a prominent black church), during which the Memphis police attacked the union members, ministers, and AFSCME leaders indiscriminately, using clubs and mace. Police harassed them and even arrested strike leaders for jaywalking. On March 5, 117 strikers and supporters were arrested for sitting in at City Hall. Six days later, hundreds of students skipped high school to participate in a march led by black ministers.

The protests and the attacks cemented the alliance between the union and the black religious and community leaders, linking the workers’ grievances with the black community’s long-standing anger over police abuse, slum housing, segregated and inadequate schools, and the concentration of blacks in the lowest-paying, dirtiest jobs, according to historian Michael Honey’s definitive study of the Memphis strike, Going Down Jericho Road.

Despite the escalating protest, the city establishment dug in its heels, refusing to compromise and demanding that the strikers return to work or risk losing their jobs. The local daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, consistently opposed the strikers. “Memphis garbage strikers have turned an illegal walk out into anarchy,” it wrote in one editorial, “and Mayor Henry Loeb is exactly right when he says, ‘We can’t submit to this sort of thing!’”

Mayor Loeb and City Attorney Frank B. Gianotti persuaded a local judge to issue an injunction prohibiting the strike and picketing. The union and its allies refused to end their protests. Wurf and several other AFSCME leaders were cited for contempt, sentenced to ten days in jail, fined $50, and freed pending appeal. Wurf kept the strike going, raising money to help the strikers pay for food and rent.

With tensions rising and no compromise in sight, local ministers and AFSCME invited King to Memphis. His three visits to the city triggered national media attention and catalyzed the rest of the labor movement to expand its support for the strikers. His March 18 speech lifted the strikers’ flagging spirits.

King returned to Memphis on Thursday, March 28, to lead a mass march, but the protest erupted into chaos when some black youths, armed with picket sign sticks intended for the nonviolent march, began smashing windows and looting stores along the march route. The police moved into the crowd with nightsticks, mace, teargas, and gunfire, and arrested 280 people. Sixty people were injured. A police officer shot and killed unarmed 16-year-old Larry Payne. The state legislature authorized a 7 p.m. curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in.

Two weeks later, King came back to Memphis to lead another march, restore the campaign’s nonviolent tactics, and increase the pressure on the mayor and city council. On Wednesday, April 3, King delivered what would turn out to be his last speech, addressing the sanitation workers and other black residents along with white unionists and liberals at the Mason Temple. In his extemporaneous address, King linked the Memphis strike to struggles for justice throughout history.

“The issue is injustice,” King said. “The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers.” He urged his listeners to boycott companies—like Coca-Cola and Wonder Bread—that discriminated against black workers, and called on the audience to take their money out of banks that refused to provide loans to blacks.

The next day, James Earl Ray assassinated King, who was standing on the balcony outside of his room at the Lorraine Motel. At the time, Wurf was in Washington, soliciting funds for the strike from other unions. He learned of King’s assassination when he heard a radio bulletin, and rushed back to Memphis.

On April 8, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, three of their four children, and dozens of prominent figures—including Wurf; Harry Belafonte; the ministers Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, James Lawson, and Jesse Jackson; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Bayard Rustin; and United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther—led a peaceful silent march of 40,000 people through downtown Memphis in tribute to Dr. King and in support of the strike. Local business leaders, tired of the boycott and the downtown demonstrations, urged Mayor Loeb to come to terms with the strikers.

President Lyndon Johnsoninstructed Undersecretary of Labor James Reynolds to mediate the conflict and settle the strike. With Reynolds’s support, Wurf led the negotiations with city officials to reach an agreement. On April 16, the city council passed a resolution recognizing the union. The 14-month contract included union dues check-off, a grievance procedure, and wage increases of 15 cents per hour. Members of AFSCME Local 1733 approved the agreement unanimously and ended the strike.

“Let us never forget,” Wurf said at the meeting where union members ratified their new contract, “that Martin Luther King, on a mission for us, was killed in this city. He helped bring us this victory.”

The settlement wasn’t only a victory for the sanitation workers. The strike had mobilized the African American community, which subsequently became increasingly involved in local politics and school and jobs issues, and which developed new allies in the white community.

That was part of Wurf’s radical agenda. But his militant support for civil rights, his insistence on organizing unorganized workers, and his opposition to the Vietnam War—along with his abrasive personality—put him at odds with AFL-CIO President George Meany and the leaders of more conservative unions. (On becoming AFSCME’s president in 1964, Wurf discovered that one staff member was really a CIA agent. Wurf immediately terminated the union’s relationship with the agency.) As a member of the AFL-CIO’s executive council and one of its vice presidents, Wurf—who mounted photos of socialist and labor icons Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas on his office wall—was often a dissenting voice on key issues confronting the labor movement. In 1973, one member told Time magazine that the votes of the executive council “usually range from 25 to 1 to 34 to 1, depending on how many other union chiefs are present to vote down Jerry Wurf.”

In October 14, 1973, the opening day of the AFL-CIO’s biennial convention, Wurf authored a blistering column in The Washington Post entitled “Labor’s Battle with Itself,” attacking his fellow union leaders for “fighting each other for the right to represent workers rather than working together to organize the unorganized.” He proposed that the AFL-CIO, which then had 113 affiliated unions, reorganize itself into 20 or 30 large unions that could focus on organizing a particular industry or sector. The AFL-CIO leaders rejected Wurf’s proposal without much discussion, and it wasn’t until John Sweeney was elected to the Federation’s presidency in 1995 that the AFL-CIO turned its attention to organizing.

Wurf died of a heart attack on December 10, 1981, not long after President Ronald Reagan fired 11,345 unionized air traffic controllers after they struck for better conditions—inaugurating four decades of escalating Republican wars on unions.

Were he still alive, Wurf would surely be apoplectic about these assaults on public employees, but he would also be heartened by the growing militancy of schoolteachers and their unions over the past year, the important role that AFSCME and other government employee unions played in the Democrats’ upsurge in last November’s elections,and public opinion polls revealing that a vast majority of Americans support workers’ right to unionize.

Wurf would also be encouraged by the response of AFSCME and other public-sector unions to the Janus ruling.The mass exodus predicted by conservative and liberal pundits alike has not occurred. “Janus Barely Dents Public-Sector Union Membership,” headlined a February article in The Wall Street Journal. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, public-sector unions’ membership declined by only 49,000—to 7.16 million—in 2018, a loss of less than 1 percent. (Another 1.63 million workers are represented by unions but not dues-paying union members.)

AFSCME—the prime target of the right-wing groups that filed the Janus case—has retained 94 percent of the workers it represents, including those who pay dues and those non-members who pay agency fees. The union prepared for Janus by creating an ambitious program in which 25,000 rank-and-file members have talked to their fellow members—one-on-one—about what the union has accomplished, and what it’s seeking to do. To date, the union has engaged fully one million members in these conversations.

“Workers chose to stick with their union,” according to an AFSCME statement, “suggesting that efforts by the billionaires and corporations behind the Janus v. AFSCME case and the anti-worker majority of the United States Supreme Court to ‘defund and defang’ public service unions have fallen flat.” AFSCME’s success in both retaining members and recruiting new ones not only speaks well of the union’s current leaders, activists, and members, but also reflects the fierce commitment to worker power and social justice that guided the life of Jerry Wurf.

You may also like