Part 2 in a
series: Turning points in DC 37 history the 1960s
wave, dramatic growth, huge gains
By ALFREDO ALVARADO
DC 37 launched its greatest
organizing drives and won huge advances for municipal workers amid the social
progress and tragedies of the turbulent 1960s.
The sit-ins and Freedom
Rides, the March on Washington, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964
and 1965 showed that sometimes making gains required defying bad laws and sparked
hope among minorities and working people that was not quenched by the heartbreaking
assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr.
In New York City, poorly paid municipal employees
like the striking AFSCME sanitation workers King was supporting when he was killed
wrote a new chapter in American labor history as they struck repeatedly
and won unprecedented collective bargaining victories.
and achievements reverberated nationwide, inspiring public employees around the
country to organize and fight for rights, pay and benefits to match private-sector
Lindsay signed Office of Collective Bargaining bill with Jerry Wurf (4th from
l.)and Vic Gotbaum (r.).
District Council 37 built momentum and began developing
into a labor powerhouse in the late 1950s, winning strikes for recognition and
pay increases in cultural institutions and negotiating the 40-hour week for hospital
and park workers.
Transit Authority clericals in Local 1655 kicked off
the 1960s by becoming the first to win a written agreement. When Local 983s
negotiations broke off in 1962, 2,000 Motor Vehicle Operators defied the anti-strike
Condon-Wadlin Law. Their two-week strike achieved a major breakthrough
the first welfare fund for non-uniformed city employees as well as a wage
and benefit increase that doubled the citys last offer before the walkout.
victories led to organizing gains and city workers joined DC 37 in droves. In
1963 alone, Local 372 won bargaining rights for 6,200 school lunch employees and
a majority of the citys 5,000 engineers and architects joined Local 375
and won a written memorandum of agreement.
Luther King Jr. and AFSCME chief Jerry Wurf talk strategy during 1968 Memphis
sanitation workers strike.
fiery DC 37 Executive Director Jerry Wurf led these struggles. In 1964 he took
the helm of DC 37s national union, the American Federation of State, County
and Municipal Employees, and built it into one of the most powerful unions in
the United States. After eight years of organizing for AFSCME in Chicago, Brooklyn
native Victor Gotbaum who led DC 37 to some of its greatest victories and
built it into the largest union of municipal workers in any city in the country
became executive director in 1965.
He was immediately thrown into
action as 8,000 members in the Welfare Dept. (now the Human Resources Administration)
walked out on the first workday of a frigid January 1965.
Fed up with oversized
caseloads and low pay, the workers hit the bricks when the city refused to negotiate
on workload and other key issues. Two locals led the strike, the militant, independent
Social Services Employees Union, which had just won bargaining rights for 6,000
Caseworkers, and DC 37s Local 371, which represented Supervisors
as well as clericals, who showed magnificent solidarity by striking even though
they could not gain directly.
Mayor Robert Wagner fired all the strikers
and threw 19 leaders in jail for two weeks.
strike leaders leave mens civil jail on
Feb. 1, 1965. Women leaders were
983 struck for two weeks in 1962 and won the first welfare fund for non-uniformed
It was a very exciting time, because I had never
been involved with something like that, recalled jailed Local 371 clerical
leader Patricia Caldwell. We were successful because the union offered members
a better life. The locals won the 28-day strike the longest by public
employees in the history of New York City with picket line solidarity and
support from organized labor and the civil rights movement.
won a comprehensive written contract with 9 percent raises, impartial arbitration,
the first 100 percent city-paid health insurance for civilian employees, the first
union education fund for city workers, and the right to bargain on a wide range
The historic strike produced a revolution in collective bargaining
as the city centralized its dealings with unions by starting the Office of Labor
Relations in 1966 and worked with the unions to form the impartial Office of Collective
Bargaining in 1967. In 1969, SSEU and Local 371 united to form one of the largest
locals in DC 37.
The most important collective bargaining election in DC
37s history came on Dec. 3, 1965, in an organizing drive led by Executive
Director Lillian Roberts, a former Chicago Nurses Aide who was then director
of the Hospital Division.
That election was a major turning point,
because back then we were considered more of an association than a union,
said Roberts. We were talking about 22,000 members and if we were going
to be taken seriously and considered major players in New York City we had to
win that election. The Teamsters were fighting to represent the same workers.
Things got very nasty, she recalled.
Roberts won the election
for DC 37 by offering the workers a dream beyond better pay and working conditions
dignity on the job through a strong union and hope for a better future
through union training and upgrading programs.
strikes in the 1950s and 60's to win union recognition at many cultural
victory in the Hospital Dept., then the citys largest, gave DC 37 bargaining
rights for all hospital aides and a citywide majority among clerical workers.
These gains produced a DC 37 majority among non-uniformed city employees that
allowed the union to negotiate pensions and other non-pay issues for 100,000 city
The next year, the clerical-administrative employees, who united
in the new Local 1549, and hospital aides won their first contracts, and in 1967
bargaining began for a citywide non-wage agreement. Settled in 1968 through mediation
by the Office of Collective Bargaining, the pact made giant strides for city workers
the Tier 1 pension plan, with a 40 percent increase in retirement checks,
higher meal and mileage payments, and the first cash overtime pay, shift differentials,
and days off for Saturday holidays.
The unions growing power did
not go unnoticed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. The successful 1965 strike had proved
the Condon-Wadlin Law unenforceable, and the governor pushed the new anti-labor
Taylor Law, with harsh penalties on striking unions and workers, through the Legislature.
protest, DC 37 and other unions filled Madison Square Garden with 25,000 members
on May 23, 1967, but Rockefellers attacks on public employees including
jailing Lillian Roberts intensified in the following years (see next PEP).
The dramatic gains of the 1960s resulted from sacrifice and struggle,
said Caldwell. We have to keep fighting today to protect these victories.