American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, District Council 37 is an umbrella group of 56 local unions representing public employees in New York City. Chartered in 1944, DC 37 has grown from an organization of less than a thousand employees in the city's parks, hospital, finance, and health departments to the country's largest federation of public employees, with more than 125,000 members working in the city's agencies and cultural institutions.
District Council 37 was chartered by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in November 1944, bringing together a group of small locals representing employees of New York City's public hospital, parks, finance, and health departments. The new council represented only a fraction of the city's overall workforce and vied for new members with competing unions, including the United Public Workers, the Building Service Employees International Union, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), and International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). Under the early leadership of Henry Feinstein, the union relied primarily on its political connections to Tammany Hall to maintain job security for existing members. Hoping to expand AFSCME's foothold in New York, AFSCME president Arnold Zander appointed a new set of international representatives to organize additional public employees into DC 37. Walter Pasnick and John Boer made inroads with hospital workers, but DC 37 began achieving significant growth only after the arrival in 1947 of Jerry Wurf (1919-1981). A New York City native, Wurf had been serving as an AFSCME representative in Illinois. In 1952, when Feinstein transferred half of DC 37's 800 members to a new group, IBT Local 237, Wurf was left with approximately 400 members and no staff. Undaunted, he began aggressively organizing, and over the next five years, DC 37 formed 55 new locals or organizing committees. By 1957, Wurf claimed a membership of 25,000 members in 33 agencies and departments.
In the 1940s and early 1950s, municipal workers had few of the benefits and protections enjoyed by union members in the private sector. With wages often well below market rate, they also lacked Social Security coverage, paid higher costs for their health insurance and pension contributions, and--especially among hospital aides and blue collar workers--worked more than 40 hours a week. In addition, public employees lacked the rights to organize and collectively bargain. DC 37's efforts to overcome these obstacles received a significant boost in 1954, when Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. issued an interim order recognizing the right of city workers to organize and requiring city agencies to establish grievance procedures. One of the Council's earliest challenges, however, arose when Robert Moses, New York's powerful Commissioner of Parks, refused to comply with Wagner's order. Under Wurf, DC 37 became known for boisterous and publicity-grabbing demonstrations, and after a series of large demonstrations of parks workers at City Hall demanding the eight-hour day, Wagner finally ordered Moses to address their grievances. Believing that DC 37 did not represent as many "parkies" as it claimed, Moses called for an election. The election, which took place in January 1956, was the first to be conducted by the city's newly created Department of Labor, and DC 37 won by a vote of 4,097 to 173. This victory helped DC 37 begin to consolidate its power in the city.
The union grew through organizing, mergers, and consolidation. In 1954, all hospital locals at different institutions were united into Local 420, the Municipal Hosptial Workers Union. The AFL-CIO merger in 1955 brought the Council new members, when the Government and Civic Employees New York Joint Board (CIO) was dissolved and DC 37 absorbed what would become several of its largest locals: Welfare Local 371, School Lunch Local 372, Quasi-Public Local 374, and Civil Service Technical Guild (CSTG) Local 375. Voluntary dues check-off, which began in 1957, provided another way to expand membership more quickly.
One of the Council's major goals in its early years was to achieve access to collective bargaining. In 1958, Mayor Wagner, relenting after years of pressure from DC 37, signed an executive order granting exclusive collective bargaining rights to an organization that could prove--through dues check-off cards or an election--to represent a majority of workers in a unit. DC 37 already had a majority among some groups of workers whose titles were concentrated in a single agency, and by 1959 employees in the Parks Department and cultural institutions began to see significant gains in their wages and benefits through collective bargaining.
The 1950s also witnessed increasing militancy on the part of DC 37 members under Wurf's leadership, in spite of the Condon-Wadlin Law prohibiting public employee strikes. When the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, Bronx Zoo, and Coney Island Aquarium refused to recognize or bargain with DC 37 locals, workers initiated several strikes in 1958 and 1959 (sometimes bringing baby elephants and trained monkeys to the picket lines to attract publicity). They won recognition of the union and raises for workers in 33 titles. In 1962, 2,000 motor vehicle operators, who had recently achieved majority representation with Local 983, went on strike for two weeks, resulting in establishment of the first welfare fund for non-uniformed employees. These and other successes swelled the ranks of city workers who wanted to join DC 37, and soon a host of new titles--from psychologists to water plant operators-were organized into new locals.
When Wurf left DC 37 in 1964 to become president of AFSCME, his deputy, Calogero Taibi, became executive director. Taibi soon resigned due to ill health, however, and Victor Gotbaum (b. 1921), a Chicago-based AFSCME representative, stepped in to lead DC 37. Gotbaum's first challenge, even before he had been officially elected as executive director, was the welfare strike of 1965. The bargaining demands of DC 37's Local 371 and the Social Service Employees Union, an independent union of social workers, included repeal of the career and salary plan, formation of an impartial labor-management committee to negotiate contracts, and the right to bargain on a range of issues such as caseloads. When the city declared most of their demands "unbargainable," the two unions began a 28-day strike, resulting in mass dismissal of 5,400 welfare workers and the jailing of 19 strike leaders. Eventually, Mayor Wagner appointed a fact-finding panel to resolve the dispute, and the resulting agreement included most of the unions' original demands. This victory set the pattern for future collective bargaining, paving the way for the 1967 formation of the Office of Collective Bargaining as an impartial arbiter for negotiations.
Gotbaum brought with him from Chicago a talented organizer, Lillian Roberts (b. 1928), who had been a nurse's aide and vocal shop steward prior to joining Gotbaum's AFSCME staff in Illinois. Roberts' organizing skills and rapport with members were immediately put to the test upon her arrival in New York, when IBT Local 237 challenged DC 37's Local 420 for representation of aides in the city's hospitals. In the midst of a confrontational election campaign, Roberts promised that Local 420 and DC 37 would aggressively seek educational opportunities for the aides, whose low-paid jobs rarely offered any chance for career advancement. This incentive drew a majority of votes for Local 420, and in 1968 a first class of nurse's aides began studying to become licensed practical nurses (LPNs). Their success led to similar efforts for other employee groups. Roberts was appointed associate director of the union in 1968, making her one of the highest-ranking African-American women in the labor movement. In addition to building Local 420, she served as field director and was instrumental in bringing federally-funded city workers into DC 37's ranks. The Local 420 election, along with a successful election among hospital clericals, put DC 37 over the threshold needed for a citywide majority of career and salary plan employees. In September 1967 DC 37 membership surpassed 50,000, giving it the clout to negotiate citywide issues for the first time.
Like other AFSCME leaders, Gotbaum encouraged members to embrace social movement unionism by linking their struggles for higher wages and benefits to other economic, social, and political issues. In 1968 DC 37 sent a delegation to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers. Martin Luther King, Jr., who pledged support of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to the predominantly African-American strikers, was assassinated just days before a joint march between labor unions and civil rights activists. The planned march became a memorial event for King, with 500 DC 37 members in attendance.
The number of strikes by public workers in the 1960s led state lawmakers to revise the ineffective Condon-Wadlin Law. Governor Nelson Rockefeller's administration and the state legislature passed the Taylor Law in 1967, increasing fines and penalties against public employee strikers. DC 37, the Transport Workers Union, and the United Federation of Teachers teamed up on May 23, 1967, to stage a massive protest rally at Madison Square Garden. They vowed to help re-elect lawmakers who had opposed passage of the Taylor Law and to defeat those who had voted for it. This vow presaged DC 37's growing political strength in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1969, DC 37 helped re-elect Mayor John V. Lindsay, who had supported the collective bargaining process. Election operations were accompanied by intensified lobbying efforts in Albany, achieving major legislative gains such as the agency shop and political action check-offs.
The council faced major challenges in the 1970s as New York City descended into a deep fiscal crisis, threatening municipal workers with layoffs, wage freezes, and benefit reductions. When state officials resisted pension improvements negotiated with Mayor Lindsay in the union's 1970 citywide bargaining sessions, a showdown between DC 37 and the state legislature ensued. Members of ten DC 37 locals in the blue-collar division, along with bridge tenders in IBT Local 237, went out on strike on June 7, 1971, effectively shutting down portions of the city until a temporary agreement was reached. By 1974, Abraham Beame's first year as mayor, a national recession, coupled with inadequate federal and state aid to the city, took a toll; Beame announced layoffs for 4,000 workers, including 2,000 permanent civil service employees. Labor leaders responded by taking their fight to the national level, organizing a massive "March for Jobs" in Washington, DC, in 1975. President Gerald Ford failed to send additional aid to New York, however, and that year the city announced 9,000 additional layoffs, affecting 5,000 DC 37 members.
With public criticism of the union mounting, Gotbaum and advisor Jack Bigel set out to negotiate a settlement that would prevent layoffs and protect the collective bargaining process while also helping the city avoid default. A compromise agreement, reached on July 31, 1975, in which the union agreed to defer a six-percent wage increase while the city abandoned most of its layoff plans. To stave off the city's default, DC 37 agreed to invest 2.5 billion dollars from its pension funds in city bonds. That pledge, along with last-minute state and federal aid, prevented the devastating consequences that would have resulted from default. The 1976 fiscal year brought another round of bad financial news, however, precipitating a strike of 18,000 hospital workers from Local 420 that stopped some of the threatened layoffs. By 1977, the city's budget began to stabilize, and after coalition bargaining with other municipal unions, DC 37 was safe from additional layoffs. In spite of these difficult years, DC 37 nevertheless managed to surpass the 100,000-member mark in 1975.
Some of DC 37's most significant activities in the early 1980s were in the arena of women's rights. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that the New York City Employee Retirement System could no longer set gender-specific levels for pension contributions and payments. This case, Women in City Government United v. City of New York, had taken ten years to resolve. Female municipal workers who had been required to overpay because of their expected longevity were refunded some of their past pension contributions. Another victory for women's rights came in 1984 with a suit filed by DC 37 challenging the lower wages of largely female 911 operators in the Police Department as compared to the higher wages of male Fire Department operators performing similar work. This successful case exemplified the "comparable worth" movement that sought equal pay for women performing similar work to men even when their job titles differed. AFSCME played a leading role in this movement. AFSCME locals in San Jose, California, led the country's first strike over pay equity issues, followed by a successful lawsuit against the state of Washington that won retroactive upgrading of historically-low salaries in female-dominated titles (the decision was later overturned on appeal, but it influenced state and local governments around the country to include pay equity measures in new contracts).
The 1980s also witnessed significant leadership changes at DC 37. Gotbaum unsuccessfully challenged Wurf for the AFSCME presidency, creating tension between DC 37 and its parent union. This conflict played a role in internal DC 37 politics as well; when Lillian Roberts accused Local 420 president James Butler of failing to account for large sums of the local's money, Wurf sided with Butler against Gotbaum and Roberts, nearly causing the disaffiliation of Local 420 from DC 37. In 1981, Roberts left DC 37 when Governor Hugh Carey appointed her to become New York's Commission of Labor, a position she held until 1987. Her longtime fellow associate director, Edward Maher, also left DC 37 for a position in the department of labor. Stanley Hill (b. 1936), a veteran union leader from Local 371, SSEU and a DC 37 field representative, was appointed as associate director. In 1986, Gotbaum retired after 21 years as executive director, during which time DC 37 had become the country's largest union of municipal workers. Hill succeeded Gotbaum as executive director, a position he maintained until 1998.
Under Hill, the council continued to win refinements to members' benefits, including increased protection for provisional workers, pensions for part-time employees, and a law requiring disclosure of on-the-job safety hazards to workers. The council also continued its social activism, taking a leading role in convincing the city's pension system to divest itself of stocks from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. Recognizing its diverse membership demographics, DC 37 began union-wide celebrations of Black History Month, recognized other ethnic groups, and formed a Disability Advisory Committee in 1982, followed in 1985 by activities for Women's History Month, a public stance in favor of gay rights in 1986, and programs for Puerto Rican Heritage beginning in 1989.
Although DC 37 supported the 1990 election of David Dinkins, the city's first African-American mayor, the council was soon at odds with its longtime ally. As another national recession hit New York City, Dinkins called for a wage freeze and 15,000 layoffs in his first round of negotiations with the city's public employee unions. DC 37 avoided the wage freeze, but in early 1991, the city went forward with the first mass layoffs since the 1970s, terminating close to 900 city workers. More layoffs followed that summer. City budget gaps persisted through the 1990s, and DC 37 repeatedly battled with the next mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, over privatization of public hospitals, reduction of public services, and workfare initiatives that placed welfare recipients into city jobs.
DC 37 faced some difficult challenges in the late 1990s, when investigations by the Manhattan District Attorney revealed multiple instances of corruption inside the council and its locals. Especially damaging were revelations in 1998 that senior union officials had rigged a ratification vote on the controversial 1996 contract, which included wage freezes for the first two years. AFSCME placed DC 37 in a trusteeship and named as administrator Lee Saunders, a longtime aide to AFSCME president Gerald McEntee. Stanley Hill took a leave of absence in December 1998 after two of his top deputies admitted involvement in the vote fraud, and retired in early 1999.
The trusteeship lasted for three years under Saunder's leadership. Among the reforms he initiated were new financial reporting and auditing systems, as well as the use of a neutral party to count ballots in council-wide elections and contract ratification votes. In 2002, Lillian Roberts was elected to serve as executive director of DC 37, returning after a twenty-year absence. Her election ended the trusteeship of DC 37 and returned control of the council to its executive director, executive board, and delegates.
AFSCME, District Council 37, How We Built a Great Union. New York: DC 37, 1994.Bernard and Jewell Bellush, Union Power and New York: Victor Gotbaum and District Council 37. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1984.Joseph C. Goulden, Jerry Wurf: Labor's Last Angry Man. New York: Atheneum, 1982.Steven Greenhouse, "Union officer is said to admit vote fixing." New York Times. December 3, 1998, A1.Steven Greenhouse, "Vowing to go from scandal to strength, city union looks for a fight." New York Times, July 12, 1999, B1.Norma M. Riccucci, Women, Minorities, and Unions in the Public Sector. New York: Greenwood Press, 1990.Evelyn Seinfeld, "Chronology of the New York City Fiscal Crisis, July 18, 1974 to April 4, 1977." DC 37: Department of Research and Negotiations, 1977.