Jerry Wurf

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Jerome Wurf
Born(1919-05-18)May 18, 1919
DiedDecember 10, 1981(1981-12-10) (aged 62)
OccupationUnion leader
Spouse(s)Sylvia (Spinrad) Wurf (divorced)
Mildred (Kiefer) Wurf
ChildrenTwo daughters, one son
Parent(s)Sigmund and Lena (Tannenbaum) Wurf

Jerome "Jerry" Wurf (May 18, 1919 – December 10, 1981) was a U.S. labor leader and president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) from 1964 to 1981. Wurf was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr., and was arrested multiple times for his activism, notably during the Memphis Sanitation Strike[1] and was released just in time to hear Martin Luther King Jr's 'I've Been to the Mountaintop' oratory at the strike, assassination the next day, and attend his funeral.


Wurf was born in New York City in 1919. The son of immigrants (his father was a tailor and textile worker) from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he developed polio at the age of four. As a young man growing up in Brighton Beach, he was inclined towards radicalism by his family's poverty and by communists he met. For some time he joined the Young Communist League; he subsequently left it for the Young People's Socialist League. He was a critical of both groups, but preferred the YPSL due to his dislike of Soviet totalitarianism.[2]


He enrolled at New York University but dropped out to pursue radical organizing.[3] He got his start in the labor movement by working cafeterias and organizing the workers, forming Local 448, Food and Cashiers Local of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), in 1943. Local 448 was becoming powerful when HERE leadership incorporated it into Local 325 (Cooks, Countermen, Subdispensers, Cashiers and Assistants), then fired Wurf. Wurf believes that hostile union leaders caused him to be systematically denied work in the following years.[2]

AFSCME District Council 37[edit]

AFSCME president Arnold Zander hired Wurf to the union in 1947, after it became clear that Wurf was not welcome in HERE. At this point, AFSCME was not very powerful, and Wurf recalls being treated with contempt by other local organizers. He was generally disillusioned by his union's apparent capitulation to the anti-communism of the AFL–CIO and to the desires of local politicians.[2]

On the brink of quitting his job in 1952, Wurf was appointed, again by Zander, to the presidency of New York's District Council 37. This upset various established local union leaders, who in many cases tried to leave AFSCME for other unions. Nevertheless, District Council 37 achieved some concrete victories for workers under Wurf's leadership.[2]

In 1958, Wurf wrung from mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. an executive order giving the city's workers the right to form unions, and providing for elections which could establish these unions as exclusive bargaining agents for the workers in various city agencies. (This order was a model for President Kennedy's Executive Order 10988, which recognized the right of federal employees to collective bargaining.[3][4] ) District Council 37 won many of the ensuing elections, making it into one of the large public employee local unions in the world.[5]

Wurf broke with Zander over his allegiances to the AFL–CIO and to the Mafia[citation needed]. He also questioned Zander's growing authority over individual Locals through trusteeships. After the union's 1958 convention, he decided to seek its presidency.[2]

Election campaign[edit]

Wurf and others unhappy with Zander's leadership formed COUR, the Committee on Union Responsibility, as an opposition party. The organization gained popularity, and received a number of votes in 1962 even though hundreds of "international" delegates were directly controlled by Zander. Zander also benefited from rules limiting any one Local's representation to 5 delegates (with one delegate per hundred members), rules which substantially decreased the power of larger urban Locals. Wurf himself did not campaign actively in 1962, although he did receive a nomination for president. Even so, the final vote was close (1490 to 1085). Zander, surprised by the result, subsequently lost face at the convention during unsuccessful efforts to increase union taxes on the Locals.[2]

Over the next two years, Zander tried to expel Wurf and other members of COUR from the union. This proved difficult due to their popular support. Zander and his supporters also published negative stories about Wurf in the union's newspaper, denying COUR access to the mailing list for its distribution.[2]

In 1964, Wurf unseated Zander by just 21 votes, despite Zander's active use of his incumbent position to control the election procedurally. According to the Milwaukee Sentinel: "Zander's supporters attempted to prevent Wurf's backers from reading results of the election into the convention records. The struggle from the floor, with Zander guiding the fight from the podium continued into the afternoon session."[6] COUR won ten out of eleven seats on the executive board. After the announcement of his narrow victory, Wurf surrounded himself with bodyguards and sent three people to the union office in Washington to change the locks. He also moved to designate Zander 'president emeritus' and provide him with a full salary and expenses until retirement age.[2]

Wurf became the first challenger to defeat a president of a major AFL-CIO international union since Walter Reuther had done so in 1946.[5]

Arrival in Washington[edit]

When Wurf arrived at AFSCME offices at 815 Mount Vernon Place in Washington, they were trashed inside and outside. One floor of the building had been leased to a pizza bakery. After examining the account books, Wurf also realized that AFSCME was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Wurf sold the building and moved the union to a smaller office.[2]

Also soon after arriving, Wurf discovered and ended an ongoing CIA program within AFSCME.[7] This program funneled around a million dollars to British Guiana between 1957 and 1964 for the purpose of supporting Forbes Burnham over Cheddi Jagan.[8]

Constitutional convention[edit]

In 1965, Wurf called a constitutional convention for AFSCME in Washington. The convention passed amendments that increased representation from large Locals (allowing them more than five delegates, though only one for every additional thousand), decreased the central office's ability to control Locals through trusteeships, and required that union vice presidents be elected locally and not paid members of the "international" office. The convention did increase the powers of the union president, authorizing him or her to "employ, terminate, fix the compensation and expenses, and direct the activities of such office staff, administrative assistants, technical and professional assistants, field staff, organizers, and representatives as are required to carry out effectively the functions of his office."[2][9]


Wurf's election in 1964 began an area of growth and racial inclusion for the union.[5][10]

Through energetic organizing and aggressive bargaining, AFSCME grew rapidly under his leadership from about 220,000 members to just over one million in 1981.[11]

Wurf presided over strikes in New York (1965),[12] Lansing (1966),[13] Memphis (1968),[14] Baltimore (1974)[15] and more.

Wurf was a frequent dissenter to the policies of the AFL-CIO and its president George Meany.[3]

Civil rights movement[edit]

Wurf was extremely active in the civil rights movement. He helped establish the first New York State chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in the late 1940s. He was a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was attending a strike of public employees when he was assassinated in 1968. "Let us never forget that Martin Luther King, on a mission for us, was killed in this city. He helped bring us this victory," Wurf later said.[16] Although Wurf did not back the strike initially, due to the violent atmosphere, he supported it after it went into effect.[17]

After AFSCME presidency[edit]

Wurf died of a heart attack at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. on December 10, 1981.[11] Gerald McEntee succeeded him as president of AFSCME.

Wurf's legacy as AFSCME President is documented in the AFSCME Archives at the Walter P. Reuther Library in Detroit as the AFSCME Office of the President: Jerry Wurf Records, 1959–1981, as well as many other AFSCME departmental collections.


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Goulden, Joseph C. (1982). Jerry Wurf: Labor's Last Angry Man (1 ed.). New York: Atheneum. ISBN 0-689-11291-2.
  3. ^ a b c Serrin, William (12 September 1982). "A Leader for the Little Guy". New York Times. Retrieved 4 August 2012.
  4. ^ Siegel, Fred (25 January 2011). "How Public Unions Took Taxpayers Hostage". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 4 August 2012. Running for re-election in 1961, Mayor Wagner was opposed by the old-line party bosses of all five boroughs. He turned to a new force, the public-sector unions, as his political machine. His re-election resonated at the Kennedy White House, which had won office by only the narrowest of margins in 1960. Ten weeks after Wagner's victory, Kennedy looked to mobilize public-sector workers as a new source of Democratic Party political support. In mid-January 1962, he issued Executive Order 10988, which gave federal workers the right to organize in unions.
  5. ^ a b c Billings, Richard N. and Greenya, John. Power to the Public Worker. Washington, D.C.: Robert B. Luce, Inc., 1974. ISBN 0-88331-067-8
  6. ^ Golz, Earl (1 May 1964). "Zander Ouster 'Agonizing'". Milwaukee Sentinel. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
  7. ^ Harwood, Richard (23 February 1967). "Public Service Union Abroad Aided by CIA" (PDF). Washington Post. Retrieved 4 August 2012. His successor in the American union, Jerry Wurf, disapproved of the subsidy and canceled it, Zander said.
  8. ^ Waters Jr., Robert Anthony; Daniels, Gordon Oliver (1 January 2006). ""When you're handed money on a platter, it's very hard to say, 'where are you getting this?'": The AFL-CIO, the CIA, and British Guiana". Revue belge de philologie et d'histoire. 84 (4): 1075–1099. doi:10.3406/rbph.2006.5061. Retrieved 4 August 2012. Wurf subsequently learned that the union had funneled $878,000 to Latin America from 1957-1964 (other sources give varying amounts, but all are in the million dollar range).
  9. ^ "Article V - The International President". AFSCME Constitution. AFSCME. 1965. Retrieved 10 August 2012.
  10. ^ Honey, Michael K. (2007). "Struggles of the Working Poor". Going down Jericho Road the Memphis strike, Martin Luther King's last campaign (1 ed.). New York [u.a.]: Norton. p. 71. ISBN 978-0-393-04339-6. After Wurf's election as president in 1964, an insurgent group—which included Catholics, Jews, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans—took over. AFSCME integrated its staff, no longer organized white and black workers separately, and began to build a solid core of organizers.
  11. ^ a b Robert D. McFadden, "Jerry Wurf, Leader of Federation of Municipal Workers, Dies at 62", New York Times, 11 December 1981.
  12. ^ "Prospects Bleak in Welfare Row". The Evening News. Associated Press. 12 January 1965. Retrieved 13 April 2015. Prospects appeared bleak today for an immediate settlement of the eight-day-old strike of some 7,000 city Welfare Department employes [sic], despite new appeals to Mayor Robert F. Wagner by two union leaders. Jerry Wurf, international president of the State, County, and Municipal Employes, sent a telegram to Wagner late Monday asking the mayor to meet with a committee to consider ways of resolving the dispute.
  13. ^ "Lansing Employes on Strike". Owosso Argus-Press. Associated Press. 18 July 1966. Retrieved 13 April 2015. Bargaining ended Sunday night after Jerry Wurf, international president of the AFSCME, claimed he had been assaulted by an attorney for the city and accused the city of using tape recorders and plainclothes policemen to harass the union.
  14. ^ Riesel, Victor (20 April 1968). "Strike Reveals New Labor Leader". The Portsmouth Times. Retrieved 13 April 2015. It was the 48-year-old Jerry Wurf who, as national president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employes, AFL–CIO, actually gave the signal for the garbage strike of 1,300 predominantly Negro garbagemen in Memphis last Feb. 12, Lincoln's Birthday.
  15. ^ D'Adamo, Charles (Fall 2007). "The 1974 Police Officers Strike". Indypendent Reader. Retrieved 4 August 2012. AFSCME’s International President Jerry Wurf defended the action of the strikers in an editorial in the Sun . Wurf argued that without the strikes of the city’s blue collar workers for 15 days and of the police for 5 days, there would not have been the negotiated pay increases.
  16. ^ Joseph C. Goulden, Jerry Wurf: Labor's Last Angry Man. New York: Atheneum, 1982, p. 56.
  17. ^ Honey, Michael K. (2007). "On Strike for Respect". Going down Jericho Road the Memphis strike, Martin Luther King's last campaign (1 ed.). New York: Norton. p. 109. ISBN 978-0-393-04339-6. Although not welcoming the strike, the AFSCME national office took it very seriously. By Monday night, it had an interracial team in Memphis...

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Arnold Zander
President of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
Succeeded by
Gerald McEntee