Chapter 5 – AFSCME History

Table of Contents

A Brief History of AFSCME
Fighting for Civil Service. In 1932, as the country suffered through the worst economic depression in its history, a small group of white-collar, professional state employees met in Madison, Wisconsin. They formed the Wisconsin State Administrative, Clerical, Fiscal and Technical Employees Association (which soon became the Wisconsin State Employees Association).

The leader of the Group, Col. A.E. Garey, was the director of the state Civil Service system, and the reason for the group’s creation was simple: basic survival. Wisconsin state employees held their jobs based on competitive civil service examinations and there was genuine fear that state politicians might attempt to return to a political patronage, or “spoils” system.

In the November, 1932 elections, Democrats in Wisconsin rode Franklin D. Roosevelt’s coattails into office. And sure enough, in January, 1933 a Democratic senator introduced a bill in the state legislature that would dismantle the state’s civil service system.

WSEA leadership turned to the American Federation of Labor for help and was granted an AFL charter. Meetings were held, marches and demonstrations were organized, and WSEA leaders lobbied hard – and successfully – to defeat the bill and save the civil service system.

WSEA was now on the American labor movement’s map and Arnold Zander, a state personnel examiner, became the group’s driving force. Zander began promoting the idea of a national union state, county, and municipal employees and by 1935, state employee associations had emerged in several states.

At the May, 1935 AFL convention, Zander’s national union – by then called the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees – was made a “department” of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). However, this arrangement did not satisfy Zander and other AFSCME leaders who wanted fully independence. Sixteen months later, in September, 1936, AFGE officers recommended a separate AFL charter for AFSCME. That charter was granted and Zander was chosen as AFSCME’s first International President.

Growth did not come easily at first. A union for public employees was sailing in uncharted waters with no patterns or precedents to guide it. The union’s primary tactic was lobbying to pass or strengthen civil service laws. By the end of 1936, AFSCME had 10,000 members. Ten years later, membership was up to 73,000.

World War II ended in 1945. The postwar period was marked by inflation in the private sector – new jobs, higher pay – and unrest among public employees. City employees struck in a number of municipalities. Reaction to the discontent was swift and by the end of 1947, eight states passed laws which would penalize striking public workers.

Also in 1947, the U.S. Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act which restricted labor unions in private industry. Despite this opposition, AFSCME continued to grow. By 1955, the year of the AFL AND CIO merger, membership passed the 100,000 mark. The attitudes of AFSCME members were changing as well during this time. Many of the union’s new members came from big cities which had strong trade union roots and traditions.

At conventions in the mid and late 1950’s, AFSCME members began stressing public workers’ rights and collective bargaining as a means to improve their working conditions. In 1958, responding to pressure from AFSCME, New York Mayor Robert Wagner signed an executive order which granted collective bargaining rights to unions representing city employees. A turning point had been reached.

 

Bargaining For Rights. The desire for collective bargaining became AFSCME’s driving force. In New York, District Council 37 made the most of the opportunity presented by Mayor Wagner’s executive order. Under the leadership of Jerry Wurf, AFSCME began winning elections that eventually made it the strongest public worker union in the city.

In 1961, President John Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988, which legitimized collective bargaining for federal employees and helped create a favorable atmosphere for similar demands from all public employees.

At the 1964 AFSCME convention, Jerry Wurf, director of District Council 37, was elected the new International President. Wurf campaigned on a platform of more aggressive organizing, pursuit of collective bargaining rights for public employees, and union reform/union democracy. A year later, a special convention re-wrote AFSCME’s constitution and included a “Bill of Rights for members, a first in the American labor movement.

AFSCME began pushing hard for collective bargaining laws in states across the country. By the end of 1965, several states had enacted such laws and the union’s membership soared to over 250,000. AFSCME and other unions achieved notable success at the bargaining table. They gained breakthrough in living standards which greatly exceeded those achieved by non-union workers.

 

Militant Demands For Respect. In the mid-1960’s, American society as a whole was shedding it inhibitions. Militant demands for change became more acceptable. Students and Southern civil rights activists led the charge and many other groups followed in their tracks. AFSCME was no exception. Leaders and members alike pressed the demand for collective bargaining rights for public employees. In city after city, AFSCME members took action to gain recognition of their union. Responding to the union’s insistent call for fair and equal treatment, several states passed general collective bargaining laws.

Power Through Political Action. AFSCME turned to increased political action for two reasons: as an instrument to help organize new members; and, as a way to increase AFSCME’s clout on behalf of its members. Over the next two decades, AFSCME applied the lessons it had absorbed from years of dealing with state legislatures. A Political Action Committee (PEOPLE) was created in the 1970’s and today is one of the largest PACs in America. All across the country, at every level of government, candidates for public office learned they had to pay attention to AFSCME’s political muscle.

AFSCME grew by over 400,000 in a single decade. By 1975, there were over 680,000 AFSCME members. Even in the face of an onslaught against public workers (led in the 1980’s by Pres. Ronald Reagan), AFSCME-endorsed candidates were elected and the union helped pass laws that advanced members’ rights.

During this time, AFSCME also enjoyed phenomenal success in affiliating independent associations of public employees. Almost 60 associations, representing over 450,000 members, have joined the AFSCME family by affiliation or merger. With the affiliation in 1978 of the Civil Service Employees Association of New York, AFSCME membership eclipsed the one million mark.

In September, 1981, the AFL-CIO organized Solidarity Day, a massive demonstration in the nation’s capitol demanding fair treatment for American workers, AFSCME’s 60,000 member delegation, the largest from any single union, led the march.

Solidarity Day was the last major public appearance for Jerry Wurf, who died in December, 1981 after a long illness. Meeting in special session, AFSCME’s International Executive Board elected Gerald W. McEntee as the union’s third president. McEntee had led AFSCME’s successful organizing drive in Pennsylvania in the early 1970’s and had served ad director of Pennsylvania Council 13.

In 1990, AFSCME membership topped the 1,200,000 mark and the union’s strength and numbers have continued to grow in the years since. AFSCME has become a powerful voice on national political and social issues, as well as “bread-and-butter” concerns of public employees. The views of President Gerald McEntee and Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy – who was first elected to that post in 1972 – help shape the debate on issues affecting American working people.
Meeting Future Challenges. Over the course of six decades, in their enduring battle for dignity and respect for public workers, AFSCME leaders have confronted adversity and employer opposition – and they have successfully adapted the union to changing circumstances. The union began as an effort to save civil service jobs. It prospered by picking up the banner, “collective bargaining for public employees”. Then arrived a period of militant action to gain respect and equality for AFSCME members. Finally, to further boost its ability to organize new members and fight for public employee rights, AFSCME threw its hat into the political arena – with considerable impact.

Throughout the union’s history, AFSCME leaders have been innovative and creative in meeting the many difficult challenges in their path. This has allowed AFSCME to not only survive in an ever changing world, but to flourish. The challenges that lie ahead are equally imposing, if not more so. There is every confidence that our union will continue to enjoy success, driven by fresh new ideas and approaches developed by you, the AFSCME leader of today – and tomorrow.