AFSCME was founded during the Great Depression on a simple idea – that a professional civil service is essential to a strong democracy. The business of the people should be carried out by individuals dedicated to serving their communities, not those who have close connections to politicians. This idea has sustained AFSCME through nearly nine decades, as it has grown from a fledgling organization of a few thousand people to one of the most potent forces in the labor movement.

Fighting for Civil Service



A small group of white-collar, professional employees in Madison, Wis., fearing they would lose their civil service jobs to political patronage, formed the Wisconsin State Employees Association (WSEA), which would later become Council 24 (Wisconsin State Employees Union).


WSEA members hold meetings, march, demonstrate and lobby hard in the state Legislature to defeat a bill that would have dismantled the state civil service system.


Similar employee associations emerge in 19 states; at the American Federation of Labor (AFL) convention, the group, now known as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), is made a “department” of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).


AFSCME is granted a charter by the AFL; Arnold Zander is chosen as AFSCME’s first International president after he formed a coalition of 20 public sector locals around the country.


2,000 sanitation workers in Philadelphia go on strike to protest layoffs and pay cuts and win AFSCME’s first bargaining agreement with a major city.


AFSCME focuses on lobbying in state legislatures to pass or strengthen civil service laws; membership increases from 10,000 to 73,000.


World War II ends; the postwar period is marked by a wave of strikes as workers — 3.5 million in 1945 and 4.6 million in 1946 — strike for higher wages in the postwar economy; there is also unrest in the public sector as city employees strike in several cities.


Eight states pass laws that would penalize striking public workers; Congress passes the Taft-Hartley Act, which restricts private-sector unions and makes it easier for employers to break strikes.


AFL and CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) merge to form the AFL-CIO; AFSCME membership passes 100,000.

Bargaining for Rights


A series of strikes and demonstrations in New York City pressures Mayor Robert Wagner to sign an executive order granting collective bargaining rights to unions representing city employees; under leadership of District Council 37 President Jerry Wurf, AFSCME begins winning elections that make it the strongest public worker union in the city.


President John Kennedy issues Executive Order 10988, legitimizing collective bargaining for federal employees and creating a favorable atmosphere for all public employees.


Jerry Wurf — running on a platform of aggressive organizing, fighting for collective bargaining rights for public workers, and union reform/union democracy — is elected the second International president at the biennial AFSCME Convention.


A special AFSCME Convention rewrites AFSCME’s Constitution and includes a Bill of Rights for union members, a first in the American labor movement.

By year’s end, several states enact collective bargaining laws for public employees; AFSCME membership reaches 250,000.

Militant Demands for Respect

Mid 1960s

More states pass collective bargaining laws; AFSCME’s demands for respect for public workers become linked with the civil rights movement and progressive groups that protest economic, racial and social injustice.


Sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., strike for union recognition and against the city’s discriminatory practices; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., marches with the striking workers and is assassinated; the city agrees to recognize the workers’ union, AFSCME Local 1733.


William Lucy is elected secretary-treasurer of the International union; a lifelong civil rights activist, Lucy worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tenn. and led labor’s delegation to South Africa after the election of Pres. Nelson Mandela.


In Pennsylvania, some 46,000 AFSCME-represented state workers strike for fair wages — the first legal, large-scale strike by public employees.

Power Through Organizing and Political Action

Mid 1970s

Over 60 independent employee associations affiliate with AFSCME.


The New York Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA), with 250,000 members, affiliates with AFSCME and pushes membership over the 1 million mark.


In an era of anti-public worker sentiment, AFSCME greatly increases its political activism and visibility and helps elect AFSCME-endorsed candidates at all government levels; collective bargaining rights are won in three new states: Illinois, Ohio and Nebraska.


President Ronald Reagan breaks a strike by PATCO (Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization), beginning an era of attacks on workers in both the public and private sectors.

AFSCME’s 60,000-member delegation, the largest from any single union, leads the AFL-CIO Solidarity Day — a massive demonstration in Washington, DC, demanding fair treatment for American workers.

City workers in San Jose, Calif., members of AFSCME Local 101, wage the first strike in the nation’s history over the issue of pay equity for women workers.

AFSCME President Jerry Wurf dies. Following his death, union members and friends create the Wurf Memorial Fund to honor his life and legacy. It provides support for research, scholarship and leadership development to promote public sector unionism and strengthen union leaders’ capacity to meet 21st century challenges.

Gerald McEntee is chosen as the union’s third International president. He began his AFSCME career in 1958 as a member and continued as an organizer and leader in Pennsylvania. He led the drive to unionize more than 75,000 public service workers in Pennsylvania — the largest union mobilization in the United States at that time.


The National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees (NUHHCE) affiliates with AFSCME and solidifies the union as the leading voice for the rights of health care workers.


AFSCME membership surpasses 1.2 million.


Delegates at AFSCME’s Convention commit to a bold program of aggressive organizing.

AFSCME in the 21st Century



60,000 public service workers in a dozen states and Puerto Rico organize with AFSCME — the largest single year of organizing in three decades.


Another 55,000 workers join AFSCME; membership reaches 1.3 million.


AFSCME Convention delegates passed the 21st Century Resolution, creating a committee to examine every aspect of the union and to make recommendations to the 2006 AFSCME Convention.


AFSCME increased its ranks to 1.6 million members.

The 21st Century Power to Win plan was adopted at 37th AFSCME International Convention, and delegates participated in a town hall meeting to discuss implementation of the plan.

Due to grassroots efforts across the country, AFSCME helped stop the Bush administration from privatizing Social Security.

Through concerted efforts, the union helped win six governors’ houses and took back legislative chambers in 10 states, and won back the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Congress.


The union created a new brand and identity which included the new logo and tagline: We Make America Happen.


40,000 volunteers mobilized to elect Pres. Barack Obama and Vice-Pres. Joe Biden.


AFSCME was the top organizing union in the AFL-CIO.

AFSCME played a major role in winning health care reform and getting fiscal relief for states through the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA).

AFSCME convened the first ever national Next Wave Conference, for new and young leaders of local unions and councils. Close to 600 Next Wavers converge on Chicago, Illinois. 


Lee A. Saunders was elected International secretary-treasurer in July at the International Convention. Saunders joined the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (OCSEA) when he worked for the state of Ohio in his 20s. Saunders has worked for AFSCME in many capacities since 1978, most recently as executive assistant to AFSCME Pres. Gerald McEntee. In that role, he was responsible for managing the most effective political and legislative operation in the history of the American labor movement.


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.

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.


Lee A. Saunders is elected International president in June at the International Convention, becoming the union’s first African American president. Saunders succeeds Gerald McEntee, who served the union as president for more than 30 years and oversaw AFSCME’s growth in membership and political power. Under Saunders’ leadership, the union engages in its largest electoral mobilization ever to reelect Pres. Barack Obama.

The right-wing assault on workers’ rights continues, as anti-union politicians in Indiana and Michigan enact right-to-work laws intended to weaken union power.


AFSCME continued to aggressively organize new members, adding thousands of emergency medical services workers and 7,500 Vermont home care providers, who later won raises of up to 30% in their first contract.


AFSCME initiates the 50,000 Stronger program to organize new members, relying in large part on volunteer member organizers, or VMOs. The International Union and affiliates not only meet that goal, but nearly double it – adding 92,155 members by the time of the International Convention in July.


Pres. Saunders initiates AFSCME Strong, a comprehensive expansion of the 50,000 Stronger campaign to strengthen the union in the workplace and add new members, in order to overcome attacks from anti-union billionaires and politicians.


Pres. Saunders is re-elected at the 42nd International Convention. A New York Times profile that summer highlights the change AFSCME Strong represents, calling it an “ambitious undertaking” that is “already paying dividends,” crediting Pres. Saunders for his “attention to the [AFSCME] rank and file.”

By an overwhelming margin, workers from Public Employees Union, Local 1 in Northern California vote to affiliate with AFSCME, adding more than 6,500 new members.


Republicans assume full control of the legislature and governor’s office in Iowa and quickly go about eliminating collective bargaining rights for public employees. House File 291 sharply limited the scope of what AFSCME and other unions can bargain over and required biased elections to recertify unions that count those who don’t vote as “no” votes. Nevertheless, Iowa public workers have voted by more than 90% margins to keep their union in each of the three years since the law took effect.

Elissa McBride becomes secretary-treasurer of AFSCME. McBride has served the labor movement for three decades as a member, organizer, trainer and leader. From 2001 to 2017, she was the director of AFSCME’s Education and Leadership Department.


Thousands gather in Memphis to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Sanitation Workers’ Strike and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was in the city to support the workers, leading a call to action for economic and social justice for all working people.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a partisan 5-4 decision in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, overturns a four-decade precedent, ruling that public sector workers covered by collective bargaining agreements can avoid paying their fair share of the cost of union representation. The Janus case, funded by wealthy corporate special interests, is an attack on the freedom of working people, the culmination of a decades-long orchestrated campaign to destroy the power of unions. But because of the groundwork laid by the AFSCME Strong campaign, the union retains 94 percent of the workers it represents and experiences growth of more than 9,000 dues-paying members and 18,000 dues-paying retirees over the previous year.


AFSCME continues to expand the rights of public service workers by securing collective bargaining for 40,000 family child care providers in California and 20,000 state employees in Nevada, the largest expansion of collective bargaining rights for state workers anywhere in the country in 16 years.