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PEP April 2009
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Public Employee Press

Part 1 in a series:

Turning points in DC 37 history
Born in struggle


City workers in DC 37 marched and struck in the 1950s to advance from “collective begging” to collective bargaining.

By JANE LaTOUR

The earliest years of District Council 37 were rocky and unpromising. Private sector workers won the right to organize and bargain in 1935, but there were no provisions for public employee unions and strikes were illegal.

Founded in the Midwest in 1936, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees had but a handful of weak, disconnected locals in New York City. AFSCME sought to unite them, first by issuing a charter that put them together intoDC 37 in 1944, and then in 1947 by handing the helm to a fiery, brilliant, idealistic young socialist civil rights and labor advocate, native New Yorker Jerry Wurf.

Wurf’s mission was to shed the vestiges of “collective begging,” break the municipal labor relations pattern of private political deals with City Hall, weld DC 37’s locals into a powerful union and fight for real collective bargaining. He and a small band of dedicated organizers — staff and local leaders — set to work building the foundations of local unions inside every department and city hospital.

In 1952 Wurf replaced outside lawyers — who had made a racket of representing prevailing-rate employees in multiyear proceedings and claiming part of the workers’ raises as their fees — with a quick, simple union-run system that brought large raises. Laborers Local 924 gained 4,000 members, mainly in the city parks, and became DC 37’s battering ram in the fight for bargaining rights.

Repeated demonstrations finally convinced Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr. to issue an executive order establishing a labor relations code of rights for city workers on July 21, 1954. The order stopped short of calling for collective bargaining, but employees were officially entitled to join unions and agencies were directed to set up mechanisms to hear workers’ grievances.


First DC 37 Executive Director Jerry Wurf, a fiery, aggressive organizer, built the union by leading members in the struggle to win bargaining rights.

Fighting oppression on the job
City departments resisted implementing the order — led by the toughest administrator, anti-union Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. Moses ran a quasi-military operation, built a network of internal spies, forced a 72-hour workweek on employees, and threatened to fire union members.

DC 37 fought Moses, one of the most powerful individuals in the state, with a demonstration that in all but name was a one-day strike.

Over 2,000 employees began Nov. 3, 1955, by filing leave-of-absence forms at Parks headquarters in the Arsenal building on Fifth Avenue in Central Park, then picketing and blocking traffic. They captured the attention of the press and the public with a truck bearing members in a large cage labeled “Bob Moses Zoo.”

Getting no response, they reassembled at City Hall and chanted, “Which Bob is boss?” until the mayor called Wurf inside and, in his presence, telephoned Moses and ordered him to meet with the union and implement theexecutive order.


Challenged by autocratic, anti-union Commissioner Robert Moses, Parks Dept. workers (above) voted 4,097 to 173 for DC 37 on Jan. 27, 1956.

Direct action moves Moses
Despite the evidence of the huge demonstration, Moses insisted that the union prove that it represented the workers. On Jan. 27, 1956, the first collective bargaining election among city employees was held: The Parks Laborers chose DC 37 by a vote of 4,097 to 173.

The union proved that directaction could work, gave teeth to Wagner’s executive ­order, and established itself as a power on the city labor scene. Later that year, DC 37 won the 40-hour week for hospital and park workers, voluntary dues checkoff began in 1957, and on March 31, 1958, Wagner agreed to collective bargaining in Executive Order 49.

In the crucible of struggle for workers’ rights, DC 37 was born. The eight-hour job action and the election marked a historic turning point in municipal labor relations, not only for the Laborers but for all New York City workers and for public employees nationwide. DC 37 grew to 25,000 members by 1957 and was poised for the battle to make bargaining a reality.

 

 

 
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