Part 1 in a series:
in DC 37 history
Born in struggle
in DC 37 marched and struck in the 1950s to advance from collective begging
to collective bargaining.
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.
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.
mission was to shed the vestiges of collective begging, break the
municipal labor relations pattern of private political deals with City Hall, weld
DC 37s 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
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 37s battering ram in the fight for
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.
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.
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.
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 Wagners 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.