As president of the nation’s largest union of public employees—the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)—Jerome Wurf provided the support of his union to various civil rights causes, including the October 1958 Youth March for Integrated Schools, an event co-chaired by Martin Luther King. In a 4 December 1958 letter to Wurf, King expressed his gratitude: “The support given to the Youth March by Local 420 and the other local unions of District Council 37, and their success in achieving such wide participation by their members and the children of their members, offers eloquent testimony to the fact of their devotion to the cause of human freedom and the brotherhood of man” (Papers 4:544).
The son of immigrants, Wurf was born in New York City in May 1919. Following his graduation from New York University in 1940, he took a job working in a cafeteria. After working in the cafeteria for three years, Wurf organized his fellow workers into Local 448 Hotel and Restaurant Employees. His experience organizing labor convinced AFSCME President Arnold Zander to hire Wurf in 1947 to build District Council 37, the public employee’s union in New York City. In 1964 Wurf defeated Zander for the AFSCME presidency, a position he held for 17 years, until his death in 1981.
Throughout his career, Wurf worked to provide union representation throughout the United States. In 1964 he helped form Local 1733, which included black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, who were protesting racial discrimination and poor job conditions. When Local 1733 went on strike in 1968, Wurf and others attempted to negotiate with city officials refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the union. At the urging of James Lawson and another AFSCME official, King reluctantly agreed to come to Memphis to show his support of the striking workers.
The day before King’s assassination on 4 April 1968, Wurf addressed several thousand people at Mason Temple in Memphis. Nearly two weeks after King’s death, the city council finally recognized that Local 1733 was the rightful bargaining agent of the sanitation workers. At the ratification meeting, Wurf paid homage to King: “Let us never forget that Martin Luther King, on a mission for us, was killed in this city. He helped bring us this victory” (Goulden, 181).
In 1969 Wurf was named American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) vice president despite his sharp criticism of the Vietnam War, which put him at odds with much of domestic labor leadership, including AFL-CIO President George Meany. In 1978 AFSCME became the largest unit of the AFL-CIO when it merged with the Civil Service Employees Association of New York.