JERRY WURF: Labor's Last Angry Man by Joseph C. Goulden

JERRY WURF: Labor's Last Angry Man

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For a book initiated by its subject and underwritten by his union, Goulden's account of Jerry Wurf (1919-81) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is a very decent piece of work: the roses with the thorns. How did a Jewish socialist from Brooklyn, with a lame leg and a hot temper, become the most effective labor leader of the Sixties and Seventies? How did a beggarly public employees union, based in the Midwest and without recognized rights (or public approval), organize workers nationwide at the rate of more than a thousand a day? Goulden doesn't provide an integrated treatment, or an analysis, but his separate sections do add up. We see Wurf--struck by polio at four and subject to painful, futile operations--as a wheelchair-bound youngster closeted in books. We see him, in 1947, as a sometime-cashier and blacklisted union organizer (a worker without skills, ""a professional agitator without a cause""), find a temporary job with the feeble AFSCME. We cut to the 1932 foundation of a Wisconsin civil-service-workers association as a shield against the incoming Democrats; the emergence of Arnold Zander, ""conservative both professionally and personally""; the 1936 chartering of the AFSCME, with Zander as president and 9,737 members. Under the militant Wurf, Zander's unlikely protegÉe, N.Y.'s District Council 37 grows--through the recruitment of lowly laborers and hospital workers, the conning of Robert Wagner Jr. into proclaiming a ""little Wagner Act"" for city employees, the identification of the AFSCME with civil rights. Inevitably, Wurf and Zander split; and in 1964--after ""four years of savage guerrilla warfare""--Wurf becomes union president (because, say some of his then-allies, ""he said 'me-or-else'""). He rebuilds the union--applying his cagy, tough District 37 organizing tactics throughout the country. There are specifics on lesser engagements (Wurf vs. Rocky, for one), but the big set-piece is the spontaneous, untimely 1968 Memphis garbagemen's strike--which pitted Wurf, his ""radical"" colleagues, some ""dumb blacks,"" and the local black ministers against the city's Southern-gentry establishment (and led, of course, to the death of Martin Luther King). There's not much recent US labor history worth writing, so, even as a provisional report, this is something of a must--especially for those who believe in a labor movement.

Pub Date: July 22nd, 1982
Publisher: Atheneum