Jerry Wurf, the Rise of AFSCME, and the Fate of Labor Liberalism, 1947-1981
Hower, Joseph E.
This dissertation explores the political ramifications of the rapid advance of public employee unionization after World War II through a study of Jerry Wurf (1919-1981), organizer, local leader, and eventually national union president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the largest and yet least studied unions in postwar American history. Drawing on union records, personal papers, and a wide range of printed sources, it argues that the growth of unions like AFSCME simultaneously bolstered liberal forces and contributed to the emergence of popular conservatism. Organizing around government workers' aspirations for equity and dignity, AFSCME surged to the forefront of a burgeoning public sector labor movement that fought for civil rights for African Americans and comparable worth for women, rebuilt the Democratic Party in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and reinvigorated class-based, state-centered liberal social and urban policy.But Wurf's very success in building AFSCME set in motion developments that frustrated his union's hopes and complicated the broader liberal project. First, by winning improved wages and benefits through collective bargaining and political mobilization, unionization imposed new budgetary obligations that came under bitter attack in the poisonous fiscal climate of the 1970s. Second, the growth of unions like AFSCME transformed popular perceptions of organized labor, replacing the sympathetic figure of an exploited industrial or farm worker with the less romantic image of a government employee insulated from economic downturns, thus weakening public support for unions overall. Third, the emergence of public sector unions like AFSCME interjected an increasingly visible intermediary--the organized public employee--into divisive debates about taxes and services, creating an inviting target for the emerging tax revolt. Building on recent work that looks to the 1970s as the "critical decade" in postwar history, this dissertation shows that the growth of the public sector labor movement played an important and largely unrecognized role in lending popular legitimacy and political credibility to a discourse that pitted taxpayers against tax recipients and thrived on assaults on government programs--a discourse that still resonates decades later.
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