As a national president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Jerry Wurf stood out as the twentieth century’s most influential leader in organizing U.S. public employees.
Born in New York on May 18, 1919, the son of immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jerry Wurf developed polio at age 4. Later in life he lamented that, when it comes to health, he suffered from more afflictions than Job. Despite these many maladies, Jerry Wurf became a forceful communicator known for a foghorn voice and a steely determination to reshape the labor movement.
Transforming the Legal Architecture for Public Service Employees
While head of AFSCME District Council 37 in New York City, he persuaded Mayor Robert Wagner Jr. to issue Executive Order 49, which in 1958 gave unions the right to organize the city’s employees and the ability to serve as exclusive bargaining agents. Wurf prevailed, despite the vociferous opposition of Fred Q. Wendt, president of the Civil Service Forum, who called the order the “Wagner Slave Labor Act,” which would “put caviar on the table of money-hungry union leaders.”
In January 1962, President John F. Kennedy delivered an Executive Order granting organizing rights to a wide range of federal workers. Modeled on the New York precedent, JFK’s Executive Order empowered employees who sought unionization and collective bargaining. Prior to this time, only a puny percentage of public employees belonged to unions.
Building the New York Union Local
In New York, District Council 37 had fewer than 1,000 members when Wurf was hired as an organizer in 1947. It had 38,000 members by 1964. He energized the local, succeeded in winning the checkoff of union dues from the salaries of city employees, and spurned the practices of labor leaders who became dependent on politicians for petty favors. On the last point, Wurf explained how his predecessor at the helm of District Council 37, the city chauffeur Henry Feinstein, had actually convinced the Mayor to hire someone to drive him around in a limousine: “Can you imagine that, a chauffeured hauffeur?” Wurf thought that unions for public employees should have higher aspirations, and he sought to overcome the cramped negotiating posture of public sector labor leaders that he called “collective begging.”
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