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United States 1975


In July 1975 some 55,000 members of Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) walked out on strike against the state of Pennsylvania. The strike lasted four days before the union and the state returned to the bargaining table. The union won a wage increase of 12 percent over three years for state workers. The strike was the first full-blown strike by a union against a state government and exemplified AFSCME's increased militancy after the 1960s.


  • 1955: African and Asian nations meet at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, inaugurating the "non-aligned" movement of Third World countries.
  • 1965: Power failure paralyzes New York City and much of the northeastern United States on 9 November.
  • 1969: Assisted by pilot Michael Collins, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin become the first men to walk on the Moon (20 July).
  • 1972: On 5 September, Palestinian terrorists kill eleven Israeli athletes and one West German policeman at the Olympic Village in Munich.
  • 1975: Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge launch a campaign of genocide in Cambodia unparalleled in human history. By the time it ends, with the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, they will have slaughtered some 40 percent of the country's population. Cambodia is not the only country to fall to Communist forces this year: the pro-Western governments of South Vietnam and Laos also succumb, while Angola and Mozambique, recently liberated from centuries of Portuguese colonialism, align themselves with the Soviet Bloc.
  • 1975: U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz spacecraft link up in space.
  • 1975: Two assassination attempts occur on President Ford in September.
  • 1978: Terrorists kidnap and kill former Italian premier Aldo Moro. In Germany, after a failed hijacking on behalf of the Red Army Faction (RAF, better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang), imprisoned RAF members commit suicide.
  • 1980: In protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter keeps U.S. athletes out of the Moscow Olympics.
  • 1985: In a year of notable hijackings by Muslim and Arab terrorists, Shi'ites take a TWA airliner in June, Palestinians hijack the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in October, and fundamentalists take control of an Egyptian plane in Athens in November.
  • 1995: Bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, kills 168 people. Authorities arrest Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

Event and Its Context

The Formation of AFSCME

The roots of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) extend back to 1932, when a group of white-collar state employees in Wisconsin formed the Wisconsin State Administrative, Clerical, Fiscal, and Technical Employees Association, soon renamed the Wisconsin State Employees Association. This group turned to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) for help in defeating a bill in the state legislature that would have dismantled Wisconsin's competitive civil service system. Soon, similar unions formed in other states, and together they formed a national affiliate union, AFSCME, in 1935. In 1936 AFSCME was granted a separate AFL charter and became a fully independent union under the leadership of Arnold Zander.

Growth of the organization was slow at first. By the end of 1936 AFSCME had about 10,000 members. Ten years later membership was up to about 73,000. After World War II many public employees, like their counterparts in private industry, pressed for higher wages to recoup on some of the sacrifices that they had made during the war years. The climate for organized labor was not favorable, however, for the public had grown increasingly impatient with the large number of postwar strikes in the steel, meatpacking, and other industries. Through the early 1950s AFSCME chapters in many locations were, in the words of one observer, "harassed, coerced, dismissed—or entirely ignored." Nevertheless, AFSCME continued to grow—to 100,000 in 1955, 250,000 in 1965, and 680,000 in 1975. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the union had 1.3 million members.

A New Militancy

In its early years AFSCME was in no sense a militant union. When Zander assumed the presidency, only 11 states had genuine civil service merit systems rather than political patronage or "spoils" systems. Zander saw the union's role primarily as one of expanding the civil service and strengthening existing state laws governing civil service systems. Although the union never formally renounced the right to strike, it regarded striking as counterproductive and focused its attention on public issues as well as civil service reform.

By the mid-1950s, though, many AFSCME members, particularly those from big cities with a history and tradition of trade unionism, began to agitate for collective bargaining to improve their economic position. In the years that followed they made significant gains. In 1958, under pressure from AFSCME, New York City mayor Robert Wagner issued an executive order recognizing the right of city workers to bargain collectively. President John F. Kennedy's 1961 executive order recognizing the right of federal workers to bargain collectively created a climate much more favorable for AFSCME. Then, at the 1964 AFSCME convention, the union turned to more aggressive leadership. Jerry Wurf, then the director of District Council 37 in New York, was elected president on a platform that promised more energetic organization drives and pursuit of collective bargaining rights. Under Wurf's leadership, AFSCME also became connected with the civil rights movement; it was in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 to support an African American sanitation workers' organizational drive when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated there. Shortly thereafter Memphis agreed to recognize the workers' union, AFSCME Local 1733.

A Right to Strike

Restrictions on the right of municipal workers to strike date back to the years after the Boston Police Strike of 1919, when many cities, including Philadelphia, passed antistrike ordinances. After World War II nine states, including Pennsylvania, passed antistrike laws similar to the Taft-Hartley Act's prohibition of federal strikes. By 1983, 39 states had outlawed public employee strikes by statute or court opinion. However, some states, beginning with Vermont in 1968 and Pennsylvania in 1970, passed more permissive laws that allowed public-employee strikes under some circumstances. Still, at the beginning of the twenty-first century the majority of collective bargaining agreements contained no-strike clauses, typically because public-sector workers provide vital services that their private-sector counterparts do not.

Despite these restrictions, state and municipal employees struck with some regularity, often paying court-ordered fines for their trouble. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, throughout the 1960s there were 85 state work stoppages involving a total of almost 41,000 employees and 1,097 municipal work stoppages involving 657,000 employees. Throughout the 1970s these numbers increased: a total of 288,000 state employees took part in 352 strikes and 1.65 million municipal employees took part in 3,866 strikes. These strikes, though, were generally staged by small, local unions against narrow sectors of the affected states and municipalities.

AFSCME Council 13

One of these strikes, however, was more far-reaching in its effects. It took place in 1975 in Pennsylvania when Council 13, the statewide local of AFSCME, which was organized in 1973 and was at that time the nation's largest state employee union with 70,000 members, became the first public union to walk out en masse against a state government.

The events that led to the AFSCME strike in July 1975 began earlier in the year when Governor Milton Shapp submitted his budget to the state legislature. Claiming tight fiscal conditions, Shapp offered state employees a 3.5 percent salary increase at the expiration of their contract the following year. Given the inflation of the early 1970s, this increase was wholly inadequate for Council 13 executive director Gerald W. McEntee, who believed that Governor Shapp was trying to break the union and who pressed for a double-digit percentage increase. In response to unofficial talk about a possible strike, Shapp directed the preparation of requests for preliminary injunctions for delivery to the courts should a strike materialize.

While negotiations remained at an impasse, the union virtually shut down the state government on 9 June. Planned for that day was a union protest at the state capitol building in Harrisburg. Union leaders urged members to stay away from work in a show of solidarity. The union demonstrated its clout when 25,000 protesters jammed the steps of the capitol building and flowed into the streets. Newspaper columns about the protest expressed bewilderment, citing gains state employees had made in recent years.

Both sides remained adamant, and at 12:01 A.M. on Tuesday, 1 July, AFSCME Council 13 went out on strike. Though no precise figures are available, it is estimated that at least 55,000 employees, possibly as many as 60,000 including nonunion employees, walked off their jobs.

The Shapp administration sprang into action and was in court before most Pennsylvanians had had their morning coffee. State troopers, armed both with riot gear and an injunction against the strike, actually beat union members to a picketing site on Tuesday morning. The court had already issued an injunction ordering essential state employees—prison guards, security guards for prisoners at mental hospitals, and others—back to work. Also that day, state troopers made 17 arrests on such charges as obstructing highways or state buildings and disorderly conduct, all seemingly for the delight of press photographers. On Wednesday the court limited the number of picketers at the entrances to the capitol complex to 15 and ordered all prison employees and nurses at state hospitals back to work. By the time the strike ended on 4 July, the courts had ordered 28,000 state employees back to work. In all, the Shapp administration requested 11 injunctions and won 10; the 11th was still under consideration when McEntee accepted the administration's promise to bargain in good faith and the strike ended.

Public Response and Outcomes

Council 13 received very little support for the strike. The state legislature remained virtually silent. Governor Shapp won the public relations battle by convincing the public that acceding to the union's wage demands would result in higher taxes and by charging that union members were guilty of vandalism.

Most disappointing to Council 13 was the lukewarm support of private-sector unions. Earlier in the year, several hundred Council 13 delegates had walked out during the Shapp's speech at the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO convention to protest the governor's public discussion of ongoing bargaining talks with AFSCME. AFL-CIO officials, political supporters of Shapp, took offense at the council's actions and, instead of backing the strikers, urged the state labor relations board to invoke the fact-finding provisions of Act 195. AFL-CIO President Harry Boyer offered this tepid comment: "We are in support of the members on strike to receive a decent settlement. It would be decidedly imprudent for me to suggest that either side is right. If the employees feel the need to strike, that is a right they may exercise."

After returning to the bargaining table, Governor Shapp's negotiators offered a 9 percent wage increase over two years. The union responded with a counteroffer calling for a $1,500 across-the-board increase during the second year of the new contract, but later lowered this figure to $1,000. The state accepted, and in the final agreement the parties agreed on an immediate 3.5 percent increase, then increases averaging 2.5 percent beginning 1 January 1976, and 6 percent beginning 1 July 1976.

In response to the strike, Shapp appointed a legislative commission to study the effects of collective bargaining on the state's economy. After 18 months of study, 13 days of public hearings, and 100 witnesses, the commission issued a report that had little impact. It did, however, support antilabor forces in the state legislature in their opposition to the union's claim that it had a right to receive compensation from "employees who, for whatever reason, elect not to support the union through the payment of union dues" but who benefit from gains for which the union fought and paid.

Key Players

McEntee, Gerald (1935-): McEntee was born in Philadelphia and began his labor career as an AFSCME organizer there. He was elected executive director of Council 13 when it was founded in 1973 and international vice president of AFSCME in 1974. He was elected president in 1981 and continued to hold that post in 2002.

Shapp, Milton (1912-1994): Shapp was born Milton Shapiro in Cleveland, Ohio. After serving in the army, he founded a highly successful electronics company and gained a reputation as a hard-headed businessman. As an insurgent Democrat, he was elected governor of Pennsylvania and served from 1971 until 1979.

Wurf, Jerome (1919-1981): Wurf was born in New York City and as a young man was active in the Young People's Socialist League. While working for the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union in New York in 1947, AFSCME president Arnold Zander hired Wurf as an organizer for the New York district. He rose through the ranks of AFSCME until he was elected president in 1964, a post he held until his death.

Zander, Arnold (1901-1975): Born in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, Zander began his career as a civil engineer with an interest in city planning. His first involvement with labor was as an examiner for the Wisconsin Civil Service Department. In 1934 he became secretary of the Wisconsin State Employees Association and was elected president of AFSCME in 1936.

See also: Boston Police Strike; Taft-Hartley Act.



Bent, Alan Edward, and T. Zane Reeves. Collective Bargaining in the Public Sector: Labor-Management Relations and Public Policy. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, 1978.

Brutto, Carmen. The History of Council 13, AFSCME.Harrisburg, PA: Council 13, AFSCME, 1998.

Kearney, Richard C. Labor Relations in the Public Sector.New York: Marcel Dekker, 1984.

Levitan, Sar A., and Alexandra B. Noden. Working for the Sovereign: Employee Relations in the Federal Government. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.


AFSCME, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees AFL-CIO Home Page. "About AFSCME" [cited 24 October 2002]. <>.

Jerry and Mildred Keifer Wurf Collection, 1936-1982 [cited24 October 2002]. <>

—Michael J. O'Neal