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AFSCME Office of the President: Jerry Wurf Records

Identifier: LR001987

Scope and Content

Important subjects in the collection: AFL-CIO Public Employee Legislation Civil Rights Vietnam National Democratic Party Deinstitutionalization Democratic Party national politics Coalition of American Public Employees (CAPE) Coalition of Public Employee Organizations (COPE) Privatization PEOPLE Tax Reform Important correspondents in the collection: Moshe Bar-Tal Heinz Kluncker Joseph A. Beirne Coretta Scott King Jimmy Carter William Lucy Cesar Chavez Olga Madar Patrick Cheney George Meany Elizabeth H. Dole Arnold Miller Paul Hall David Selden Gunnar Hallstrom Albert Shanker Norman Hill William Welsh John C. White
Series Description: Series I, Jerry Wurf Housing Files Series II, AFSCME Internal Administration Files Series III, AFSCME State Files, Councils and Locals By State Series IV, AFSCME Convention Files Series V, AFL-CIO Files Series VI, Cape and Association Files, A-Z


  • 1959 - 1981
  • Majority of material found within 1968 - 1980


Language of Materials

Material entirely in English.


Collection is open for research.


Refer to the Walter P. Reuther Library Rules for Use of Archival Materials. Restrictions: Researchers may encounter records of a sensitive nature – personnel files, case records and those involving investigations, legal and other private matters. Privacy laws and restrictions imposed by the Library prohibit the use of names and other personal information which might identify an individual, except with written permission from the Director and/or the donor.


The AFSCME President’s Office comprises the Federation’s Executive Department and is located within AFSCME’s headquarters building in Washington, D.C.

Jerry Wurf was born May 19, 1919 in the Bronx in New York City. At age four he contracted polio, which left Wurf with a crippled left foot. He suffered through a series of painful and ineffective corrective operations. Wurf’s partial disability caused him to become an avid reader.

Jerry Wurf began his career of political activism while in high school. He joined the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL, members known as “Yipsels”) in the 1930s. Wurf’s ideological mentor was socialist Norman Thomas. At the same time, he also developed a disdain for the Communist element of the political left: he considered this group prone to hate-mongering tendencies.

Upon graduation from James Madison High School Wurf hoped to attend Tufts and become a lawyer. Instead, Wurf attended New York University (NYU), and eventually dropped out. Out of school and living in Greenwich Village, Wurf worked in a cafeteria. He soon became active in socialist organizing, and organized a cafeteria cashiers’ local. The local later merged with Local Union (LU) 325 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Union. Wurf’s concern over the administration and leadership of the LU 325 made enemies for him, and Wurf was ousted from the union.

In the post-war period, Jerry Wurf went back to work as a cafeteria cashier. He was soon fired at the behest of the union because he was a non-union worker in a closed shop. He fomented a cafeteria workers’ strike against the union that represented the rank and file.

Wurf learned about AFSCME and its New York operations after being fired from cafeteria work. AFSCME was chartered to organize public employees by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) but competed with the Teamsters, assorted craft unions, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in New York. AFSCME’s District Council 37 office was charged with organizing public employees in New York City.

Wurf met with Arnold Zander, the first president of AFSCME. Zander offered him a job as an organizer for AFSCME District Council 37 (DC 37) in New York in 1948. Soon Wurf became disenchanted with AFSCME politics in New York City. Several times he threatened to quit the union but was persuaded by Zander to stay. Finally, frustrated after confrontation with the director of District Council 37, Wurf quit AFSCME. Arnold Zander offered Wurf the position of director of DC 37 to stay with the union. Subsequently, Wurf stayed, and developed a loyalty to Arnold Zander.

Under Wurf’s administration, DC 37 showed significant gains. By the late 1950s membership had grown from around 400 in 1948 to approximately 25,000 a decade later. Wurf’s disillusionment with AFSCME now focused on Arnold Zander. Since the early 1950s, AFSCME headquarters took control of struggling locals and councils by “special arrangements.” By AFSCME Constitutional mandate (1950) this gave the AFSCME president trusteeship over individual bargaining units—locals and councils turned over their treasuries to headquarters, and the president could hire and fire local staffers. Further, AFSCME headquarters involvement with nefarious partners in low cost housing developments was questionable. Wurf sided with Zander in 1958 when AFSCME officials attacked the practice of special arrangements. However, Zander’s frequent absences due to overseas trips proved irksome to Wurf.

Wurf went off the international payroll in the late 1950s and worked directly with DC 37 as its executive director. DC 37 had a dissident faction headed by Al Bilik, Victor Gotbaum, Joe Ames, Robert H. Hastings, and Norm Schut. Wurf sat in on dissident meetings and reported to Zander.

The dissident movement continued to grow. During the 1960 convention, the Committee on Union Responsibility (COUR) was formed. Part of the dissatisfaction with incumbent leadership stemmed from the union’s shaky fiscal condition. The Federation bordered on bankruptcy from 1957-1962. By the 1962 convention, COUR backed Wurf as an AFSCME candidate for president of the Federation. Jerry Wurf did not actively campaign and came within 500 votes of defeating Zander. Four of the eleven vice-presidents elected to the AFSCME International Executive Board (IEB) were COUR candidates. COUR sympathizer Gordon Chapman was elected as secretary-treasurer.

In the aftermath of the 1962 convention, Zander attempted to oust his opponents from AFSCME. Still, Wurf defeated Zander in the 1964 union presidential election by a narrow margin of 21 votes.

The main tasks for the new president-elect were to carry out the COUR reforms and expand union membership by organizing. And he had inherited a union that was effectively bankrupt. Wurf soon succeeded in ending AFSCME’s involvement in the housing development fiasco. He also cleaned out AFSCME’s International Affairs Department: the office had been controlled and staffed by U.S. government intelligence agencies since the 1950s for the purpose of controlling third world labor movements. Wurf also created the Staff Intern Training Program (SITP), which trained local union members to be organizers.

The situation in Memphis, Tennessee in early 1968 upstaged other AFSCME organizing union activities in the North during the 1960s. Jerry Wurf’s role would prove to be vital. Memphis garbage men had attempted to organize since 1963 and eventually formed an AFSCME local, 1733. The local union called a poorly planned and executed strike in 1966, which failed. A new city mayoral administration in 1968 provided a chance for both union recognition and a dues check-off system.

Negotiations in early 1968 were attempted but failed. Jerry Wurf went to Memphis to intervene on behalf of the workers during the 65-day strike. Striking workers staged a sit down protest at city hall in early February. A mini riot ensued and the city issued an injunction against the strikers. Jerry Wurf was given a 10-day jail sentence but was released on bond.

A labor and civil rights alliance began to develop. Black ministers in the city asked Dr. Martin Luther King to give his support to the striking workers and join marches on March 28 and April 5. During King’s visit, he and Wurf met. King was assassinated the evening prior to the second march. Jerry Wurf was in Washington when he was notified of King’s death. Wurf asked for federal intervention to end the strike while riots occurred around the country in response to King’s murder.

The federal government did intervene. James Reynolds, U.S. Under Secretary of Labor, served as chief negotiator. An agreement was finally reached, and Local 1733 ratified a new contract on April 16, 1968.

In October 1969, Jerry Wurf was elected to the executive council of the AFL-CIO as a vice-president. Wurf’s ascension to AFL-CIO leadership ranks proved to be rocky for both he and AFSCME. Wurf was already critical of AFL-CIO policies and its president, George Meany. Unlike Meany, Wurf was strongly opposed to the war in Viet Nam. Another source for Wurf’s discontent was Meany’s resistance to create a Public Employee Department within the AFL-CIO.

The U.S. presidential election of 1972 served to further strain relations between Wurf and Meany. Jerry Wurf and AFSCME supported George McGovern. The AFL-CIO repudiated McGovern as the Democratic candidate because Meany’s organization viewed him as unfriendly to labor. A relative split developed between AFSCME and the political arm of the AFL-CIO, the Committee on Public Education (COPE) over choice of candidate. AFSCME formed its own political action group, Public Employees Organized to Promote Legislative Equality (PEOPLE).

The mid-1970s continued to be another dynamic period for Wurf and AFSCME. A public worker strike in Atlanta failed in 1976. AFSCME supported Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential race. Wurf met with Carter and received assurances that public workers’ right to collective bargaining would be guaranteed by federal legislation under the new administration. AFSCME endorsed Carter as Democratic candidate for president at the Federation’s 1976 biennial convention prior to the Democratic National Convention. Jerry Wurf also joined the board of The Twentieth Century Fund, a New York-based organization that commissioned public policy studies.

During the mid- to late-1970s a rift developed between Wurf and others in AFSCME national leadership, which bore dissention. Wurf imposed a trusteeship over a Rhode Island DC office in mid-1977. The Judicial Panel and its chairman, Joe Ames (now a policy advisor to the union president), reviewed the situation and did not uphold Wurf’s actions. In the past, the Judicial Panel authorized such actions. Consequently, Wurf questioned the constitutional authority of the Judicial Panel to overrule an executive decision. The situation escalated when Ames reminded Wurf that the panel was independent of the president’s office and wishes and, further, would tolerate no interference from the president. Wurf’s hostile split with Ames regarding AFSCME administration also destroyed their personal friendship. Throughout the remainder of the 1970s, the legacy of the split alienated old COUR members of the IEB and Wurf friends as well. Victor Gotbaum, director of DC 37, started to campaign against Wurf for the presidency of the union. In the meantime, the CSEA lost representational rights to some of its membership and was being raided by the Public Employee Federation (PEF). CSEA and AFSCME merged in 1978 with Wurf at the helm. The merger increased AFSCME membership to 1,000,000 public employees. Gotbaum was defeated. Ultimately, the term of the Judicial Panel Chairman was reduced and the powers of the panel lessened by amendments to the AFSCME Constitution at the 1980 convention.

The Carter presidency proved to be a disappointment to AFSCME and Jerry Wurf. The new administration, while distancing itself from so-called “Washington insiders,” did not seek input from AFSCME on public employee issues and did not heed union advice. Two major issues were urban revival and welfare reform. The new administration planned to create 1.4 million jobs in the public sector, all of which would be staffed by former welfare recipients who would be paid minimum wage. At the same time the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) would be cut. Future jobs for CETA-trained public workers at economic parity with other fully trained public employees were at stake. Although AFSCME stood to greatly expand its membership in such a case, Wurf did not accept the idea of public employment as a system of welfare.

By 1979 Wurf was publicly critical of the president AFSCME supported in the 1976 race. President Carter invited national leaders to talks at Camp David to discuss economic and social problems in July,1979. Wurf was among those invited. He told the president that U.S. domestic policy was adrift in lieu of consideration of international affairs. AFSCME half-heartedly supported Carter’s re-election bid in 1980 since the union’s first choice, Sen. Edward Kennedy, did not receive party endorsement at the national nominating convention.

The early 1980s found Jerry Wurf in declining health. Years earlier he had developed emphysema. By 1981 stomach ailments sapped much of his physical energy. Jerry Wurf died December 10, 1981. Gerald McEntee succeeded Wurf as AFSCME president.


185 Linear Feet (180 SB, 9 MB)


This collection focuses on Jerry Wurf's tenure as AFSCME International President from 1964 until his death in 1981. Some information appears on an AFSCME affordable housing project that began prior to Wurf's election to the presidency. This housing project was one of the issues that led to a rift among AFSCME members and to Wurf's winning the presidency from incumbent president Arnold Zander. The bulk of the collection, though, represents the Office of the President's records during Wurf's tenure.

Information appears on International Executive Board (IEB) meetings; AFSCME councils and locals; the Committee on Public Education (COPE); the Coalition of American Public Employees (CAPE); Public Employees Organized to Promote Legislative Equality (PEOPLE); public employee legislation; international public employee unions; the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers' strike; the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination; Wurf speeches; the Vietnam War; Wurf and AFSCME's relations to larger AFL-CIO issues; AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy; AFL-CIO President George Meany; and Communication Workers President Joseph Beirne.


Arranged in 9 series. Folders are arranged alphabetically.


The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees designated Wayne State University as the official repository for its inactive, historical records in 1974. The Federation deposited the papers of Jerry Wurf in the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs through a series of thirteen shipments from approximately 1975 to 1984.

Processing History

Processed and finding aid written by Walter P. Reuther Library.


Guide to the AFSCME Office of the President: Jerry Wurf Records
Processed by Walter P. Reuther Library.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
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Repository Details

Part of the Walter P. Reuther Library Repository

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