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AFSCME: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

From October 2011 to October 2012, AFSCME will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

From October 2011 to October 2012, AFSCME will celebrate its 75th anniversary. AFSCME WORKS will pay tribute to the union’s history with special features about the people who are key to AFSCME’s past, present and future.

AFSCME International was born in 1936 in Madison, Wis., at a time when the country was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression and unions held a vital key to rebuilding the middle class. By the end of that year, AFSCME had just 10,000 members. But public service workers then — as they do now — understood the power of collective bargaining. So AFSCME steadily grew — reaching 73,000 in 10 years. As it grew stronger, so did the middle class.

The Green Machine is now the largest union in the AFL-CIO. To express our pride in our accomplishments through the years, AFSCME will spend the next year recognizing past, present and future contributions that our members have made — and will make to America. We’ll honor the activists who are on the frontlines of our Main Street Movement to respond to attacks against public service workers, their rights and their unions.

In addition to publishing photos of AFSCME’s history, AFSCME WORKS will engage in a number of other activities to celebrate our legacy. Although some of those events have not yet been announced, they will include a traveling exhibit to commemorate the union’s critical role in key historic moments, such as the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike, and its contribution to victories on the issues of pay equity and national health reform.

Members who have made contributions to their communities will be honored. We will mount a social-networking campaign, and we’ll post historic content on our website, AFSCME.org.

That is just a preview of what’s to come. Meanwhile, take a look at these images reflecting our past accomplishments, and join with us as we create new ones.

Our Beginning

AFSCME’s first biennial convention

In September 1936, delegates (shown here) met at Detroit’s Book-Cadillac Hotel for AFSCME’s first biennial convention. At the time, the nation was in the midst of the Great Depression. On Oct. 16 of that year, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) chartered a new international union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL.

But AFSCME was actually born four years earlier, in 1932, in Wisconsin. Out of concern that the state’s civil service system might be weakened following elections that year, Wisconsin personnel director Col. A. E. Garey suggested to Gov. Phillip LaFollette (who led the Progressive Party) that a state employee union should be created. With LaFollette’s blessing, Garey began recruiting members. His first recruit was state personnel examiner Arnold S. Zander, who was later elected financial secretary of the fledgling Wisconsin Administrative, Clerical, Fiscal and Technical Employees Association. The AFL chartered the new union in May 1932 as Federal Labor Union 18213. AFSCME International was then formed in 1936, with Zander elected as its president. The Wisconsin union was then renamed the Wisconsin State Employees Association, AFSCME Local 1.

Making History

Philadelphia’s Amalgamated Local 222

One of the most significant strikes in AFSCME history, involving members of Philadelphia’s Amalgamated Local 222, lasted just four days. But it ranks among the first strikes in a major American city.

It began in 1938 after management laid off 264 workers, and proposed cutting the wages of remaining employees by 30 percent. Some 3,000 workers took their fight for justice to the streets.

“While all of the strikers were out there in front, the strikebreakers were escorted out in the streets by cops,” recalled the late William J. McEntee, Local 222's first business agent (and AFSCME Pres. Gerald W. McEntee’s father) in an oral history.

The strikebreakers’ efforts proved futile. City officials quickly abandoned their proposed pay cut, the laid-off workers were rehired and just eight days after the strike began, the two groups crafted the first collective bargaining agreement between AFSCME and a major city.

District Council 33 grew out of that dispute and, in 1943, William McEntee became its first president. The council hired Gerald W. McEntee as an organizer and negotiator. The young McEntee went on to lead a historic drive that brought union rights to 75,000 state workers in Pennsylvania Council 13, and he was elected executive director at Council 13's founding convention in 1973. A year later, he became an AFSCME International vice president and, in 1981, was elected president of the national union — a post he has held ever since.

Respect Demanded and Won

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and AFSCME Pres. Jerry Wurf
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meets with then-AFSCME Pres. Jerome “Jerry” Wurf.

In 1968, 1,300 Memphis sanitation workers went on a successful strike for union recognition, better wages and benefits and something more fundamental — respect in the workplace. The African-American workers — members of AFSCME Local 1733 — became enraged after two sanitation workers were killed in an accident involving a city trash truck. They went on strike 11 days later, holding their iconic signs, “I Am A Man,” for the entire nation to see. It sent a message that more was at stake than a raise.

Memphis sanitation workers
Photo by Richard Copley

“We felt we should be treated like human beings,” Robert Beasley, the local’s first recording secretary, recalled in a 1998 interview with AFSCME WORKS. “We had the right to be recognized by the city of Memphis. So we decided we would go on strike, change some of that.”

In April 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to Memphis to support sanitation workers. On the evening of April 3, he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a packed room of supporters. The next day, he was killed by an assassin while standing on the balcony of his motel room. Dr. King had been planning to lead a protest march for the strikers.

Dr. King “didn’t die in vain,” says Alvin Turner, one of the striking sanitation workers who participated this year in a U.S. Department of Labor ceremony where all 1,300 strikers were inducted into the Labor Hall of Fame. “If it hadn’t been for Dr. King coming to Memphis,” he explained, “we wouldn’t have won the strike.”