WFSE's Early Years and Civil Service Reform

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Our union’s yesterdays began in 1938 during the Great Depression.

Across the country and right here in Washington state, organized labor was reshaping the relationship between employer and employee and reshaping the national economy in the process.

Traditionally, workers had organized their unions based on a particular craft or trade. Who got the benefit of being in a union often depended on your race, gender and the perceived “skill” of the job you did.

That changed in the 1930s. By organizing industrially – by bringing everyone in a company into one union – and engaging in mass strikes, workers tipped the balance of power in their favor with unprecedented speed. Entire industries were organizing seemingly overnight.

In the public sector, things were slower to take hold. To begin with, there weren’t that many state and local government jobs. The New Deal, the sweeping series of programs and legislation enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt between 1933 and 1939 to pull us out of the Depression, started to change that.

We take it for granted today that state and local government jobs are what underpin the economy. Safe roads to keep goods flowing. Healthy communities. Clean air, water and food. Support for businesses. Assistance for job seekers. And a safety net to raise people out of poverty. But this was a novel concept in the 1930s.

With the New Deal’s surge in funding for state and local governments came the Washington state Welfare Department, created in 1937 to provide relief and social work to struggling Washingtonians. With unemployment near 20 percent, there was plenty of work to do.

The “visitors” who provided that assistance worked a grueling schedule: evenings without extra pay, full seven-day weeks, and just two days off a year. Neville Crippen, a Welfare Department visitor in Tacoma, decided to gather his coworkers and organize.

While President Franklin D. Roosevelt thoroughly supported the unionization of the private sector, his attitude toward government workers organizing was more ambivalent. In 1937, he wrote “militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of government employees.”

Crippen and about a dozen other employees met secretly from October 1937 through January 1938 to plan to affiliate with a new union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which had been formed in 1935 as a coalition of 20 public sector locals around the country.

In 1938, WFSE’s first local, Local 53 was born. Empowered by their local and affiliated with a true member-run union in AFSCME, Crippen brought a lawsuit against the state that established $100 a month minimum wage and won $750,000 in back pay. Like we say, life is better in a union.

Hearing of Local 53’s success, state employees across the state began forming their own locals at other agencies, including the State Highways Department, Labor and Industries, Institutions, and Human Services.

But organizing was fragmented until 1941 when the decision was made to band Washington’s state employee together as an AFSCME Council.

On Aug. 2, 1942, representatives from 18 state employee locals met in the old Elks Hall in Olympia and voted to formally create an AFSCME state employees council. On November 18, 1943, the Washington Federation of State Employees was chartered by AFSCME as Council 28. Neville Crippen was elected council president.

WFSE Arrives

With all of WFSE’s locals joined together as a council, and the hiring of WFSE's first Executive Director Norm Schut to oversee day-to-day operations, statewide cooperation and coordination allowed the union to grow.

In our first three years, WFSE quadrupled the union’s membership and launched a successful drive for minimum retirement benefits. We established policy committees to join members together who did similar work and had similar concerns.

In 1953, WFSE accomplished its biggest feat to date: a 40-hour workweek for institutions workers. In many ways, it marked our union’s arrival in Washington’s community of organized labor.

But most of our union’s attention during the 1950s was focused on laying groundwork for an assault on the most critical issue facing Washington’s public employees: the spoils system.

Civil Service Reform: Toppling the "Spoils" System 

Washingtonians depend on qualified public workers to keep their communities running. But before our union won Civil Service Reform in 1960, state jobs were won based on who you knew rather than what you know.

Every new governor would fire most of the state employees from the previous administration and replace them with political supporters, friends and family members. Who was hired, fired or promoted depended on political loyalty rather than merit.

It was called the “spoils system” because to the victor of the governor’s race went the spoils, including thousands of state jobs.

This system was bad for state employees, who were vulnerable to autocratic and abusive treatment, but it was also bad for Washingtonians who couldn’t depend on qualified or experienced public servants.

The spoils system was also bad for trying to organize a union and improve working conditions. With no official protections, being seen as sympathetic to the union was enough to get you dismissed. Esther Stohl, secretary to Norm Schut from 1954 to 1974, recalled workers “sneaking into somebody's house to have a meeting one by one instead of it being like they were holding a meeting.”

Many state employees went years without taking a vacation for fear somebody else would be occupying their desk when they came back to work.

After trying and failing to put an end to the spoils system through multiple legislative sessions and governors, our union decided to bring the issue directly to the people via an initiative. This was no small task as we needed 90,319 signatures to make the ballot.

WFSE kicked off its campaign for a civil service initiative in January 1960. Having established a reputation for ourselves with our 40-hour workweek win, organized labor and the League of Women Voters were behind our effort. So were young folks interested in politics. Seattle University students collected signatures on ferries crisscrossing Puget Sound and outside the major retail stores in downtown Seattle.

But it was an uphill fight. Neither party, Democrats or Republicans, would get behind Initiative 207.

"I never had so many doors slammed in my face in my life," said Wanda Riley, a WFSE Local 443 member working for the Department of Labor and Industries. WFSE members reported wearing out multiple pairs of shoes pounding the sidewalks to get signatures.

"Frankly, there were many times I didn't think we would get enough signatures," said George Masten, a WFSE member at Labor and Industries who had joined the union as staff the year earlier and would go on to become our union's Executive Director in 1974. "There were times when I went to local union meetings and frankly when they would ask me how it was doing and I would tell them, 'Great, it just needed a few more'... and the truth was we weren't even close."

The signature drive came down to the wire.

On the deadline day to submit enough valid signatures, our union chartered a helicopter to fly the final civil service initiative petitions from Seattle. Local 443 member and state capitol gardener Joe Lewis arranged for the helicopter to be landed on the capitol lawn.

After a massive statewide campaign driven by WFSE and supported by organized labor, the civil service initiative passed by a margin of 606,511 to 471,730 on Nov. 8, 1960, the same election night when John F. Kennedy was elected president.

Civil Service Reform provided a baseline of stability, dignity and respect on the job that our union built from in the coming years.

Learn more: WFSE Leads AFSCME into the Struggle for Civil Rights 

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