WFSE Civil Rights

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Economic justice and social justice are inseparable.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?” Since the beginning, WFSE has fought for the dignity of workers as full people.  

During the Civil Rights Movement, WFSE took a leading role by aggressively organizing across economic, racial and social lines to guarantee that anyone could find fair pay, dignity and respect in the public sector. 

Even before AFSCME established a committee for civil rights at the international level, WFSE had one to fight workplace discrimination in Washington. In 1961, WFSE’s Executive Board created the Civil Rights Committee, which lives on today as the WFSE Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.  

As the committee’s first chairman, WFSE member Walter Hundley was tasked with “ensuring that state laws prohibiting discrimination in employment and promotion because of race, religion and national origin and/or because of age are fully complied with.” 

Hundley was hired as the first African-American counselor at the Department of Corrections’ Monroe Correctional Complex in the late 1950s, and was elected president of WFSE Local 452 in 1960, likely the first African-American ever to hold such a position in a WFSE local. He would go on to serve as Seattle’s Superintendent of Parks and Recreation and Director of Management and Budget.  

"The union was really ahead of most other institutions at that time," Hundley said. "So I was proud of that. I never recognized I guess that I was leading a vanguard or anything, I was just trying to person-by-person-by-person move 'em ahead. And that's what makes me proud." 

WFSE not only fought discrimination here in Washington, we also helped ensure that AFSCME became a fighting force for civil rights nationwide.  

Several years after being hired as WFSE’s first Executive Director in 1952, Norm Schut joined several other AFSCME activists in founding COUR, the Committee on Union Responsibility. 

COUR was modeled on the pioneers of nonviolent direct action in America’s civil rights struggle, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). COUR’s mission was two-fold. First, it aimed to put more power into the hands of rank-and-file AFSCME members. Its second goal was more complex.  

AFSCME in 1960 could be described as a white-collar dominated, civil-service focused reform organization. COUR aimed to turn AFSCME into a militant, collective-bargaining focused industrial union that would aggressively organize blue-collar workers and lend its muscle to the civil rights movement.

COUR’s leader was Jerry Wurf, the radical president of AFSCME’s District Council 37 in New York City, with WFSE’s Norm Schut considered its second most influential figure.  

While COUR began as a vehicle to advocate for these reforms, following the 1960 AFSCME International Convention, it became an opposition group to Arnold Zander, AFSCME’s first international president.  

At AFSCME’s 1962 and 1964 conventions, these two competing visions for AFSCME’s future were clearly laid out for AFSCME members in the elections for International President. After losing a close race in 1962, Jerry Wurf won in 1964.  

Under Wurf, AFSCME surged to the forefront of the labor movement and became organized labor’s most outspoken allies of the Civil Rights Movement.  

Fortune magazine, hardly a friend to organized labor, marveled that AFSCME had “an exuberant atmosphere reminiscent of the C.I.O. organizing drives of the Thirties.” There was, the magazine noted, “an élan to the organization, an air of bustle and excitement, a sense of great plans underfoot, and an evangelical zeal that one rarely encounters these days in the stately mansions of Big Labor.” 

AFSCME’s new platform of lifting up the hardest-worked, least-recognized, workers directly aligned our union with the growing Civil Rights Movement.   

In 1965, a special AFSCME convention rewrote AFSCME’s Constitution and included a Bill of Rights for union members, a first in the American labor movement, which protected members’ rights regardless of their “race, creed, color, national origin, ethnicity, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, immigration status, or political belief.” 

The melding of labor rights and civil rights was most dramatically expressed in fighting for the dignity of Memphis sanitation workers in 1968. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while in Memphis to bolster the striking AFSCME workers. 

By the end of the 1960s, AFSCME had succeeded in interracial organizing where others had failed. A third of AFSCME’s members were African American, dwarfing even the most progressive unions like the United Auto Workers. 

As a member-run organization, this diversity was reflected in our union’s leadership. At the 1972 AFSCME Convention, Norm Schut had the honor of nominating William Lucy to the post of AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer, a position he won, and a post that made him the highest ranking Black official in any major union in the country.  

The sense that WFSE and AFSCME had a higher social purpose than simple material benefits was forged during the civil rights struggle. It set us apart from other unions and positioned us to play a leading role in the burgeoning struggle for women’s equality. 

Learn more: WFSE Fights for Gender Pay Equity and Wins 

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