A Selected History of AFSCME, WFSE, and Local 1488
By Paul Schurr
“We were always fighting for the dignity of the workers. We weren’t fighting just for the money. You didn’t get money very often. So you had to have the worker – black worker, white worker – feel hope, feel that they weren’t just a zero on their job. With the union around, solving grievances, they felt a certain amount of more power and dignity.”
- George Starkovich, former University of Washington gardener and former
President of Local 1488. May 15, 2002 interview.
In April of 2001, the Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) launched a ten-week campaign of rolling walkouts. It was the first such action in WFSE’s history and, despite a looming state budget crisis, it was very successful. In July, the union declared victory; it had won a salary increase of 3.7%, gained better health care benefits, reduced the number of proposed layoffs, and prevented privatization of state highway maintenance. Just eight months later, in April of 2002, the union won the right to collective bargaining for the first time. These victories didn’t happen over night – they were the product of more than sixty years of organizing history.
WFSE was chartered as Council 28 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in November of 1943, but its history begins about five years earlier. Organized labor in Washington, a state with one of the strongest labor movements in the country, won a $100 per month minimum wage for state employees in the late 1930s. In 1938, a group of Pierce County welfare caseworkers, known as “visitors,” began to agitate for a salary increase, arguing that they were in fact state workers and were thus entitled to the newly won minimum wage. Under the leadership of a visitor named Neville Crippen, they took over a management-sponsored employee association and sought affiliation with AFSCME, which at this time was rapidly organizing public workers throughout the country. With AFSCME’s help, the visitors filed suit against the state. While the case wound its way through court, AFSCME helped other Washington State workers to organize. A declaration by Governor Arthur Langlie that state workers had the right to unionize facilitated the effort. By 1941, when the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in favor of AFSCME and the Pierce County visitors, another seventeen state locals had formed in Washington covering employees in Labor and Industries, Institutions, Transportation, and Human Services. Representatives from these locals met with representatives from the visitors’ local, Pierce County Local 53, in August of 1942. They voted to band together and form an AFSCME state employee council. On November 18, 1943, the Washington Federation of State Employees was officially chartered as Council 28 of AFSCME.
The 350 members of Council 28 joined a national organization that was growing at a phenomenal rate. AFSCME was established as an independent American Federation of Labor (AFL) charter in 1936 and in the following decade its membership grew over 700% – from 10,000 to 73,000 members. Organized labor was growing all over the country at this time but AFSCME enjoyed particularly impressive success.
WFSE was part of this explosive growth for a while. Edwin Alexander of Olympia was elected the first president and Neville Crippen was elected vice president at the 1942 meeting. Together they worked on growing the union’s membership. The following year, Crippen was elected president and then from 1944 to 1946 he served as the union’s sole paid organizer. In just three years the number of members grew to about 1,800 – an increase of more than 500% – but a period of internal strife brought this growth to a halt. In the five years from 1945 to 1950, WFSE had no fewer than six presidents, Crippen returned to his state job, membership fell to about 500, and the union was nearly bankrupted.
This dismal trend was finally reversed in 1950 when a group of union officers led by Wilbur Rice was elected on a platform of union reform. Rice hired Norm Schut, former aide to Governor Langlie, as Executive Director in December of 1952, a position he held for the next twenty years. Rice and Schut refocused the union on the core issues that affected its members: hours, wages, benefits, and working conditions. At that time, Schut recalled, “the wages [of state employees] were very low. The fringe benefits were next to nothing. The status of a state employee in the minds of the public, but mostly in the minds of the rest of the labor movement and of the news media … was nothing. The legislators treated [state employees and the union] as something that wasn’t worthy of being given consideration.” Many members were working very long hours and WFSE focused its first lobbying efforts on this problem, scoring a major legislative victory in 1953. The passage of a bill extending the 40-hour workweek to state employees did a lot to increase the status of the union in the eyes of potential members. Recruiting accelerated and soon the membership had more than made up the losses of the late 1940s, reaching about 2,500 by 1954.
WFSE next turned its attention to the elimination of the so-called “spoils system” of state employment. The spoils system, the practice of hiring and firing state employees based on political loyalty rather than merit, made union organizing particularly difficult. Many workers were afraid to organize, afraid even to be noticed at all, because every four years when a new governor was elected they were liable to lose their jobs. The new governor could reward political supporters with state jobs and state employees could be fired for supporting the losing candidate. Under these conditions, many employees chose to keep their political views private. In fact, Wanda Riley of Olympia Local 443 recalled that at Labor and Industries in the pre-civil service days, “[you] didn’t say a word about anything. You just worked. [You’d] be fearing for your job every four years. And if the supervisor didn’t like you, it might be sooner than four years.” The union lobbied hard throughout the 1950s for a merit-based civil service employment system, through the administrations of Republican Governor Langlie and Democratic Governor Rosellini alike, but it was to no avail.
A merit-based employment system, however, was not just in the interest of state employees; it was in the interest of the public as well. It was simply a much more efficient way to run state government. Frustrated by the lack of progress in Olympia, WFSE decided to take their case to the voters. In January of 1960, the union filed a petition for what would become Initiative 207, the Civil Service Initiative. Getting the more than 90,000 signatures required to put the initiative on the November ballot required help from the rest of Washington’s labor movement and WFSE worked hard to convince the Washington Labor Council to join the battle. With their help, enough signatures were gathered by the June deadline and, in November of 1960, Washington voters passed the initiative.
This success bolstered union organizing and the 1960s saw huge gains in WFSE membership, as well as in AFSCME membership nationwide. It also saw a big expansion in Washington’s public higher education system. The number of Washington State college students more than tripled in two decades and this necessitated a big growth in the number of employees at Washington colleges. When George Starkovich (quoted above) arrived as a gardener at the University of Washington in January of 1965, WFSE Local 1488 was poorly organized and had only about 150 to 200 members – a small fraction of the university’s employees. Starkovich was an experienced union member who had served as secretary of a miner’s union and shop steward at a plywood plant in Bellingham. He joined Local 1488 and, with president Fred Rollins, began to work on growing the union. “You had to persuade people to join,” Starkovich recalled, “and you had to persuade them ideologically because it was the rare increase you got.” There were simply too few members for the union to have much power. “In those days, you had to go over to the administration building and, as the old saying goes, hat in hand, beg for whatever you wanted,” he said. “The union had no contract and it was several years before we got one. They sort of recognized us but not in legal terms. They would sit down with us, they would hear us out, but they were not under pressure to do anything like say at Stillicum State Hospital where they were 100% union or the Highway Department where they were 100% union. So those workers all got better wages than at the university.”
The situation created a catch-22 for Local 1488. The membership was so small that the university workers were a low priority for the WFSE leadership. As Starkovich recalled, “the union wasn’t sending an organizer in. They said ‘you’re on your own, we go where the union members pay their dues.’” WFSE’s emphasis on serving current members, the “servicing model” of union operation, made it difficult for Local 1488 to grow. At the same time, the low wages meant that there was a high turnover rate for university employees and this made organizing even more difficult. Of the employees that stayed at the university some were reluctant to join the union for fear of losing their jobs but many more, according to Starkovich, were just “very opportunistic.” “Their attitude was ‘when you get something for me, I’ll join,’” he said. Little by little, however, the local was able to grow the membership and become a force on campus. Starkovich estimates that by 1970, they had about seven or eight hundred members.
Starkovich realized early on that in order to expand, the local would have to do a better job of including women and minorities:
“One of the things I found out was that in the janitorial department there were at least two or three white bosses that were anti-black, they were racist actually. I decided to deal with that situation and recruit some blacks to deal with the problem with me. About the time that black students were fighting for the right to enter the university on scholarships I proposed to the management that they set up a committee with us so that we could start making it more fair for black employees to get jobs in various departments. [Then University of Washington President] Odegaard agreed to it around 1968 or 70. I went out of my way to work with the blacks in janitorial and a couple other places. And then some blacks came to work at the gardening department, and they started being much more active in the union.”
He also worked to recruit women into the union. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the mostly female dormitory housekeepers were paid less than the mostly male janitors that Local 1488 represented despite the fact that they did almost the same work. The local lobbied the university administration to raise the housekeepers' pay and even won them a two-year back pay settlement. This success brought some of the women into the union. “We always kept agitating that what was good for one person was good for another,” said Starkovich, “that it was good for us even though comparative worth helped people who weren’t yet in the union.”
This approach was not endorsed by all of the WFSE members, however. There was, in fact, a growing frustration among many dues-paying members throughout the state that co-workers who didn’t join the union still enjoyed the fruits of union success. In 1973, Norm Schut quietly lobbied the legislature and the Evans administration for a union shop law that would allow workers to vote to require union membership as a condition of employment. The union decided to keep the issue low-key because, in Schut’s colorful words, “[i]t’s frequently better not to break the crust on the manure pile [and] there was going to be enough just basic opposition to a union shop without our broadcasting the fact.” Schut expertly guided the bill through the legislature and the Union Shop Bill was passed in March of 1973. Over the next year WFSE membership took another big jump, reaching 13,700 in 1974.
In 1973, WFSE launched a high profile fight to achieve equal pay for men and women doing comparable jobs. At WFSE’s request, Governor Dan Evans appointed a commission to investigate wage disparities in state employment. The commission found that women earned about 20% less than men doing similar jobs, but the Evans administration did little about it. Governor Dixie Lee Ray, Evans’ successor, did even less; in fact, she actively undid the little progress that had been made. In 1980, WFSE filed a grievance with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOP). In 1982, after the anti-union Reagan administration appointees at the EEOP predictably failed to act on the grievance, WFSE filed suit in the U. S. District Court, charging the state with violating the Civil Rights Act and the Washington Equal Rights Act. In December of 1985, twelve years after WFSE requested the original study, the State of Washington agreed to pay 482 million dollars in back pay and to phase-in a comparable worth program that would begin in 1986 and end in 1992.
The success of the comparative worth fight, and indeed of every fight WFSE has waged in the last two decades, was made possible in part by a struggle that took place at the 1978 State Convention in Spokane. Prior to 1978, a flat fee deducted from the members' paychecks funded WFSE. That meant that the lowest paid state employees paid the same dues as the highest paid, which, in addition to being rather unfair, set a low cap on the amount of money the union could raise. It also meant that the union’s funding could not easily keep pace with inflation since every adjustment to the dues fee had to be negotiated and voted on at a convention. Many local unions charged higher dues and kept the money in their own organizations, building up large local treasuries. According to Starkovich, however, having “a strong local here and a strong local there” was no way to run a statewide organization, especially one that relied on lobbying lawmakers to achieve most of its objectives. “We needed to have a dues structure that helped to build the state organization,” he said. At the Spokane convention, union leadership proposed a percentage dues structure that would keep pace with rising wages. Some of the large institution locals, however, were reluctant to give up power, and the motion was defeated. According to the history published on the WFSE website, George Starkovich convinced President Jorgenson to bring the motion up one more time after the noon recess. During the break, Starkovich and Jorgenson divided up the locals and began lobbying for the proposal. They convinced Bob Sass, president of the Western State Hospital Local 793, to support an amended version of the proposal. The compromise specified that any money left over after expenses would be put into a shared reserve fund to be split between the locals and the state council. After the recess, the amended motion was raised again and passed. Starkovich downplayed his own role but acknowledged the importance of the measure. “In the long pull of things,” he said, “that’s what changed everything. It gave financial stability to the union.”
That financial stability has paid off. Throughout the 1980s while organized labor suffered a string of defeats and union membership declined nationwide for the first time since the Depression, WFSE and AFSCME continued to grow. In fact, WFSE membership increased by about a third in the 1980s while AFSCME membership went up by about a quarter. What were these unions doing right? Starkovich speculates that one reason for their continued success lies in the fact that they got a jump on organizing low paid and vulnerable workers. “These were workers that had never been organized and no one else [in organized labor] wanted to touch them,” he said. There is also sometimes an increase in political awareness that comes with working for the government that can make state workers more aware of what needs to be done to protect their rights. “Our union was always more political than others because we had to get things from the legislature,” said Starkovich. He and other AFSCME members often campaigned for sympathetic legislators and were sometimes able to turn that support into gains for their union. “Everything moves at a snail’s pace,” he said, “[but] we kept chipping away at it and the average pay and conditions are pretty good for state employees now.”
The danger is that these hard-fought gains could be eliminated in the future. Indeed, one of the most striking things about WFSE’s yearly list of legislative accomplishments is the sheer repetitiveness of the issues that the union has to fight against. The same destructive proposals surface year after year; efforts to contract-out state work, to reduce employee benefits, to pass “right-to-work” legislation, or to lay off state workers are mounted in nearly every legislative session. Union officials have to fight the same battles over and over again and it’s hard to believe that the constant struggle wouldn’t get discouraging. “You gotta believe in it,” said Starkovich. “They use the word labor movement; it’s like a political movement. And luckily, a new generation of workers comes along when the old generation gets tired.”
Starkovich points to John Frazer, current president of Local 1488, as evidence of the energy of the new generation. He played a key part in bringing about the rolling walkouts of spring 2001 and is actively preparing to capitalize on the opportunities offered by the new collective bargaining law. While some in his generation may agree with Norm Schut when he said that “nothing is more boring than for somebody my age to try to tell them the history, how hard we fought and won these battles…” Frazer is aware that part of the power of the union today is the product of its long history of organizing. “I know that the history is important,” he said, “but, to tell you the truth, I prefer to focus on the present. We have power because of what happened in the past but how we use it is what counts.” By being ready to strike, by knowing the contract inside out and filing grievance after grievance, by maintaining high visibility to the members and the administration the union under Frazer acts as it did in Starkovich’s day; it provides a measure of dignity for the workers. “We don’t let them dump on the least powerful,” he said, “we are the team that can fight back.”
©2002 Paul Schurr
 See Appendix.
 Norm Schut, quoted in “Marching to the Future: The first 50 years of WFSE/AFSCME: From small beginnings to brink of civil service,” (accessed April 10, 2002).
 Wanda Riley, quoted in “Marching to the Future: The first 50 years of WFSE/AFSCME: Part 2: From civil service to comparable worth,” (accessed April 10, 2002).
 See Appendix.
 Carlos Schwantes, The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. p449).
 George Starkovich, interviewed at his home on May 15, 2002.
 Norm Schut, quoted in “Marching to the Future: The first 50 years of WFSE/AFSCME: Part 2: From civil service to comparable worth,” (accessed April 10, 2002).
 See Appendix.
 “Marching to the Future: The first 50 years of WFSE/AFSCME: Part 2: From civil service to comparable worth,” (accessed April 10, 2002).
 “What Has WFSE/AFSCME Done for You in the Legislature,” (accessed June 1, 2002).
 John Frazer, lecture at University of Washington History 450 Class, April 10, 2002.
 Norm Schut, quoted in “Marching to the Future: The first 50 years of WFSE/AFSCME: From small beginnings to brink of civil service,” (accessed April 10, 2002).
 JohnFrazer, interview at University of Washington, April 10, 2002.
These articles were written in Spring 2002. For problems or questions contact James Gregory.