AFSCME 75 - Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

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75th Anniversary Exhibit

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has fought for its members and played a leadership role in the labor movement for 75 years. In doing so, AFSCME has grown to become one of the largest labor unions in the United States. This exhibit tells the story of the men and women of AFSCME.

75th Anniversary Exhibit

AFSCME Is Created in Madison, Wisconsin

On May 16, 1932, a group of civil service employees met in Madison, Wis., to solve a problem. Laws existed to prevent newly elected officials from firing civil service employees and hiring their own supporters instead. Yet in many places, politicians were moving to overturn these laws, making civil service jobs vulnerable to election cycles. The group meeting in 1932 formed the Wisconsin State Employees Association (WSEA), now AFSCME Council 24, and worked to preserve and strengthen a civil service where employees were hired based on merit rather than political affiliation. In a few short years, 19 other states had formed similar groups.

In 1936, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) chartered the national American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Arnold Zander, one of the founders of WSEA, was elected AFSCME's first president, and AFSCME grew quickly. Its first confrontation was in 1938 when garbage collectors in Philadelphia held a strike to protest layoffs. The striking workers were successful, and AFSCME leadership signed the first bargaining agreement between the union and a major U.S. city. AFSCME spent much of the 1930s and 1940s organizing across the nation, fighting to strengthen civil service laws and creating pension plans for public workers.

Growth and Expansion

AFSCME continued to expand in the 1950s. In 1956, following the merger of the AFL and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), AFSCME absorbed the CIO's Government and Civic Employees Organizing Committee, and membership surpassed 100,000. As a result of the growth in membership,

AFSCME moved its headquarters from Madison, Wis., to Washington, DC, in 1957. AFSCME also found organizing success in New York City. In 1958, Jerry Wurf, a young organizer with New York City District Council 37, led a successful campaign resulting in Mayor Robert Wagner's executive order granting collective bargaining rights to municipal employees.

A few years later, in 1961, Pres. John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988, which granted collective bargaining rights to federal employees. While AFSCME still had to win such rights from state and city governments, Kennedy's Executive Order improved the overall atmosphere for organizing public employees.

In 1964, Jerry Wurf was elected to succeed Arnold Zander as International president. Zander had served for nearly 30 years. Wurf had led a reform coalition within AFSCME that sought to shift from a civil service organization to a trade union with a greater commitment to aggressive organizing, the pursuit of collective bargaining rights and union democracy. One of his first acts of leadership was to call a special Constitutional Convention in 1965 where delegates rewrote the constitution to include a Bill of Rights for union members and a Judicial Panel, both unique among labor unions at that time and rare even today. Wurf served as president until his death in 1981.

AFSCME Promotes Civil Rights

AFSCME was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. In 1968, African-American sanitation workers in Memphis struck for recognition of their union, AFSCME Local 1733. They fought for the right to bargain collectively. Using the simple but powerful slogan, "I AM A MAN," workers fought for dignity, respect and a living wage. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., emphasizing the connection between civil rights and economic rights, gave his full support to the striking workers. While in Memphis for a rally for the strikers, Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. About a week later, the city of Memphis settled with AFSCME negotiators to recognize Local 1733 and signed a contract that greatly improved working conditions for the strikers.

One of the organizers AFSCME sent to Memphis to help with the strike was William Lucy, who became an executive assistant to President Wurf afterward. In 1972, Lucy was elected International secretary-treasurer, a position he held until his retirement in 2010. A strong labor and civil rights leader, he founded the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) in 1972.

AFSCME's commitment to civil rights continues into the 21st century. In June 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor inducted the 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers of AFSCME Local 1733 into the department's Labor Hall of Fame. Their induction marked the first time a group of workers has been included in the Hall of Fame for taking collective action. In October 2011, AFSCME co-sponsored a rally and march in Washington, DC, to coincide with the dedication of the national memorial honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. AFSCME members contributed more than $1 million to fund the construction of the memorial. AFSCME Sec.-Treas. Lee A. Saunders, who serves as treasurer of the Leadership Coalition on Civil and Human Rights, was among the speakers, along with Pres. Barack Obama, at the dedication ceremony.

Organizing in the 1970s

AFSCME continued to grow throughout the 1970s. During the decade, several independent public employee organizations affiliated with AFSCME, including the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) and Hawaii's United Public Workers (UPW) in 1971, and the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) in New York state in 1978.

In the 1970s a young Pennsylvania organizer, Gerald W. McEntee, led a successful movement that resulted in a statewide collective bargaining law. Following the law's enactment, he led a large-scale organizing campaign that earned AFSCME more than 70,000 new members, created Pennsylvania Council 13 to oversee the state's AFSCME operations and resulted in a comprehensive statewide public employee contract signed in 1973. In 1981, McEntee became the union's third International president, a position he holds to this day.


Women have been an important part of AFSCME since its beginning. Leadership at the 1935 AFSCME Convention included Irma Hochstein of Milwaukee, Wis. Hochstein was a librarian who spent her career in Wisconsin and Washington, DC, and she helped AFSCME plan for the fledgling union a year before it even received its AFL charter. Once chartered, one of the first International vice presidents was Mary Bannon of Seattle who served 1937-1938.

The delegate lists from the early conventions include numerous women's names, and in the 1960s, female representation on the International Executive Board became a mainstay.

AFSCME’s Proactive Approach to Women’s Issues

A resolution from the 1972 AFSCME Convention established the Interim Committee on Sex Discrimination to study the state of women in AFSCME and how the union might meet their needs. In response to women members' concerns, the Committee published a sex discrimination checklist for members to apply to their workplaces, as well as other written materials to raise awareness of women's issues.

In 1974, the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) was founded. AFSCME has been a strong supporter of CLUW from its inception. In 1979, AFSCME began holding Women's Regional Conferences around the country to help train female members to be leaders. In the early 1980s, the Coordinator of Women's Activities was moved to the Public Policy Department. In 1983, the Women's Rights and Community Action Department was founded, which existed until 1989 when the Women's Department split into its own entity. In 2007, its duties were subsumed by the AFSCME Education Department.

Pay Equity

One of the most pressing issues identified by AFSCME's Interim Committee on Sex Discrimination in the early 1970s was that of sex discrimination on the job, most often expressed in the form of lower pay for women. AFSCME began a long campaign to challenge this through collective bargaining and legislation. In 1973, AFSCME Council 28 in Washington state partnered with then-Gov. Daniel Evans to conduct a study of the state's job classification system and pay scale. The results conclusively showed that jobs typically held by women were compensated at much lower rates than jobs typically held by men, even when the skill and education levels required were comparable. While Washington had voluntarily conducted the study, getting the state to implement changes to address the inequities took a lawsuit and more than a decade.

AFSCME launched similar campaigns across the country. In 1981, Local 101 in San Jose, Calif., became the first union to go out on strike as a method to push the city government to fix the disparities reported in its compensation study. That July strike 30 years ago compelled the city of San Jose to raise salaries for positions typically held by women.

AFSCME was a founding member of the National Coalition on Pay Equity, and has worked to pass pay equity legislation at the federal level. While the 1963 Equal Pay Act requires equal pay for equal work, no federal law currently mandates pay equity. AFSCME celebrated in 2009, when the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act strengthened the 1963 law by allowing employees to challenge unfair pay practices with each new, unequal paycheck, rather than requiring that they raise the issue only at the initial pay decision.

Child Care and Equality

At the 1974 Convention, delegates adopted a resolution supporting comprehensive child care, regardless of parents' income, to be negotiated by each local. In 1985, AFSCME established a child care task force, and, soon after, became a founding member of the Alliance for Better Childcare (ABC), the primary organization pushing for universal child care legislation in the years following. All along, AFSCME also sought to protect those workers providing child care. Despite AFSCME's best efforts, legislation providing child care for all has still not passed. AFSCME has succeeded, however, in establishing employer-provided child care services through collective bargaining in many locations around the country and in giving child care providers union representation.

AFSCME has worked on countless other women's rights issues over the years including sexual harassment; domestic and workplace violence against women; women's health; gaining insurance coverage for women's contraceptives; abortion rights; passage of the Equal Rights Amendment; maternity and family leave; ergonomic standards; and developing women leaders. AFSCME has also organized jobs typically held by women, most notably clerical employees and health care workers, with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) affiliating with AFSCME in 1987 and the National Union of Hospital & Health Care Employees (NUHHCE) affiliating in 1989.

National and International Solidarity

The 1980s also saw AFSCME lead the way in national and international solidarity. With 60,000 members attending, AFSCME boasted the largest delegation at the first national Solidarity Day in 1981 in Washington, DC, held to protest President Reagan's treatment of striking air traffic controllers.

Sec.-Treas. William Lucy was a founding member of the Free South Africa Movement, and AFSCME leaders like Lucy and President McEntee participated in demonstrations to protest apartheid at the South African Embassy. This anti-apartheid support was not forgotten: on Nelson Mandela's first trip to the United States after being freed from prison, one of his few stops was the 1990 AFSCME Convention in Miami.

Fighting for Health Care for All

AFSCME's commitment to health care reform goes back decades, including support of the creation of programs like Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s, and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in the 1990s. In the early 1990s, AFSCME was also a strong supporter of First Lady Hillary Clinton's attempt to pass health care reform legislation. In 1997, Pres. Bill Clinton asked AFSCME Pres. Gerald W. McEntee to serve on the National Commission on Health Care Quality. In 2007, AFSCME formed a coalition, called Health Care for America NOW! (HCAN), which includes more than 80 labor, community, online, health activist, women's, and other groups committed to health care reform.

After years fighting to achieve health care for all, AFSCME mounted the largest issue mobilization campaign in union history to win passage of Pres. Barack Obama's 2010 health care reform legislation. AFSCME members marched, rallied and generated hundreds of thousands of e-mails, phone calls, and cards to members of Congress. AFSCME dispatched a converted RV to visit 10 states and 20 cities in a month. The "Highway to Health Care Reform" RV attracted thousands and helped them contact their members of Congress to press them to fix health care. AFSCME created a national television ad campaign featuring AFSCME nurses and sponsored other advertisements with HCAN.

Pres. Barack Obama signed the bill on March 23, 2010. U.S. News and World Report recognized AFSCME's efforts in this historic achievement. In its list of who made the biggest impact during the fight, AFSCME came in first.

The Campaign to Protect Retirement Security

In 2005, Pres. George W. Bush proposed a plan to change the Social Security system by replacing a portion of it with private investment accounts. Many disagreed with this proposal, and AFSCME emerged as a leader in the effort to protect Social Security as it had stood for 70 years. That year, President Bush went on a "60-cities-in-60-days tour" to promote his idea. In response, AFSCME formed a coalition of 200 progressive organizations called Americans United to Protect Social Security. In each city Bush visited, AFSCME members and coalition partners were there to demonstrate against privatizing Social Security. Facing such strong opposition, Bush ended the tour after 26 cities.

Fresh from that victory, AFSCME led efforts to block California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's similar 2005 scheme to replace the state's public employee pension system with a 401(k)-style plan run by a private investment company. AFSCME and other public employee unions formed another coalition: California Families Against Privatizing Retirement. Through rallies and lobbying, the coalition pressured the governor to drop his support for a ballot initiative changing the state's pension system. Today, AFSCME continues to fight to protect Social Security, public pensions and social safety net programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

A Main Street Movement (part 1)

In February 2011, nearly 200,000 Wisconsin public service employees, including more than 60,000 AFSCME members, lost the right to bargain collectively over health care, retirement and working conditions. In response, tens of thousands of protestors demonstrated at the Capitol in Madison for months. A recall campaign was mounted that ultimately resulted in two Republican state senators being unseated from office. The large-scale reaction in Wisconsin inspired AFSCME members and their allies throughout the nation to take to the streets to defend the right to have a voice in the workplace.

A Main Street Movement (Part 2)

Legislation to remove collective bargaining rights for public employees appeared in states other than Wisconsin in 2011. In Ohio, Senate Bill 5 (SB 5) targeted collective bargaining for public workers. AFSCME members, working with other unions and coalition partners, gathered enough signatures to place a repeal referendum on Ohio’s November 2011 ballot. Ohioans overwhelmingly voted to repeal SB 5 and to protect collective bargaining for public employees. In Michigan, a law passed that allows the governor to appoint emergency financial managers for counties, municipalities and school systems who, in turn, have the power to void collective bargaining agreements and to dissolve locally elected governments. AFSCME and allies mounted a petition campaign to place a referendum to repeal this law on the next statewide ballot. In several other states, AFSCME members have engaged their elected representatives to keep protections in place for the middle class.

Diversity in Action

AFSCME’s working and retired members come from countless, diverse occupations. From accountants to zookeepers, public safety officers to sanitation workers, transportation workers to public administration employees, corrections officers to librarians, health care workers to educators, emergency service providers to public works employees, and child care providers to those who care for the sick and elderly, AFSCME members can truly say, “We Make America Happen.”

AFSCME is diverse in other ways. Women make up the largest group within AFSCME, and through the Next Wave, AFSCME members age 35 and younger are sharing their energy and becoming a growing force in the union. Diversity has been important to AFSCME since the early days, with nondiscrimination statements appearing in the International Executive Board minutes as early as the 1940s. This commitment is apparent in AFSCME’s actions, as well as in its participation in outside groups devoted to various identities in the labor movement including, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement; the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU); the A. Philip Randolph Institute; the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA); the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW); and Pride at Work – the AFL-CIO’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

For the last 75 years, AFSCME has worked to improve the lives of its members through strengthening the civil service, earning collective bargaining rights for public employees and negotiating contracts that provide fair wages and good benefits. Recent developments in many states put these 75 years of achievement in jeopardy. AFSCME’s vision and strategy remain clear: to secure improvements in the working conditions of its members and to take the lead in preserving public services. Drawing on their 75-year legacy, AFSCME members are engaged across the country in fighting for the Main Street Movement.






Curator: Johanna Russ, AFSCME Archivist
Walter P. Reuther Library
Wayne State University

Graphic Design: Jose Noda

Project Staff: Gregory King, Carol L. Burnett, William Wilkinson, Clyde Weiss, Tiffanie Bright, Felica Ross-Thompson

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