OU'VE PROBABLY SEEN the institutional ads that

the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has been running on television. Smiling workers, trying to take the curse off the term "civil servant," reminding you that AFSCME embraces many occupations (dietitians, nurses, therapists, writers, accountants, engineers, mechanics, photographers and chemists to name a few) and that you need them.

They number a million, now--the largest single union in the AFL-CIO. It's an impressive statistic, hammered into the record by AFSCME's departed chief, Jerry Wurf, a contentious and dedicated union warrior who died last December.

Joseph Goulden's profile of Wurf is an "authorized" biography, though Goulden insists that Wurf wanted a "warts and all" portrait and kept his hands off. And, though there is a kind of shadowy ambiguity about the details of Wurf's feuding with old allies, Goulden has not spared his subject. Wurf emerges as a mixture of visionary and autocrat, which is to say like most builders of institutions, whether we're talking about Samuel Gompers or Walt Disney.

In a nationally based and heavily blue-collar union Wurf had to struggle with the fact that he seemed the stereotypical New York Jewish radical. Born to immigrant parents in the Bronx in 1919, he was partially crippled by childhood polio, and thereby forced into bookishness, aggressive competition for attention, and youthful socialism. He gave up the socialism when he got into union organizing on behalf of cafeteria workers, and then, in 1947, for AFSCME, a new and small union at the time.

By 1960 Wurf was the leader of New York's District Council 37 of AFSCME and had already shown bruising power in dealings with the city's hierarchy. In 1963 he and others staged an insurgency within AFSCME which resulted in Wurf's replacing Arnold Zander as the union's president. Thereafter Wurf blazed a stormy path to nationwide success. Goulden takes special and sympathetic note of Wurf's commitment to the civil rights and anti- Vietnam movements--the latter over the strong objections of George Meany (whose biography Goulden has also written). That kind of stance was in the tradition of organized labor's earliest years, when leaders assumed that unions, in order to protect their members' gains, had to be concerned with overall issues of social justice. There was also a practical basis to this idealism in Wurf's case. A large share of AFSCME's membership was black, and hardest hit by the diversion of funds from Johnson's Great Society programs into the war in Southeast Asia.

But like many democratic reformers, Wurf was a czar in his own house. Though he began as a great believer in union democracy, he gradually came to exert an increasing control over the locals, and eventually broke sharply and brutally with early supporters like Joseph Ames, the union's secretary-treasurer and Victor Gotbaum, his successor at the helm of District Council 37, when they took issue with him. When he died of illnesses due to years of overwork, he left a strong union and a great many bodies buried in the headquarters offices.

But why should any of us care about this story? Mainly because of the issues that resound in the background of Wurf's life as explored by Goulden. One is how we respond to the reality of swelling public payrolls and what they mean. The fact is that the tasks of government have become larger and more complex in our megalopolitan era. We tend to resent it, and politicians like Howard Jarvis and Ronald Reagan have exploited our discontent. But if we slash public spending (especially at state and local levels), it is simply bedrock truth that those who can't afford private educational, health, recreational and transportation services will confront a shabby future. What's fair? What--and how--should we tax our private purses to create healthy democratic communities? The greening of AFSCME, so to speak, is a reminder of the urgency and intractability of the question.

What do we owe our public servants? Goulden reminds us, in his strong chapter on the 1968 Memphis garbage strike, that many of them are not "bureaucrats," but hardworking and hard-driven laborers. How much justice is there in strikes by sanitation personnel, police and fire officers, teachers? None you say? They have no right to imperil the public welfare? Fine, but without the right to withhold their labor, can they be anything but second- class citizens? And if your answer is compulsory arbitration, are you willing to vote into office politicians who will fight for the funds to sustain awards even over your objections to new taxes?

And what about justice within the unions themselves. Can they be run democratically? Goulden is up front in demonstrating how presidential patronage, control of the union paper, and retention of the key to the treasury, make union presidents mini-Hitlers if they choose to be. And within the AFL-CIO itself the infighting over members (who, for instance, should organize carpenters working in city buildings? AFSCME or the Brotherhood of Carpenters?) is at root a corporate power game as remote from membership influence as U.S. Steel board meetings are from the influence of the small shareholder.

And yet the unions are not quite corporations. They have different goals, and their leaders share a special tradition, a profane camaraderie with blue-collar roots, an awareness that struggle is a dynamic of labor's past. Goulden's story raises issues as old as the Progressive era and as new as last year's air controllers' strike. As he says, most newspapers (and other media) are indifferent to what happens in (and to) unions. It's important that the information barrier be breached, and there's a good start here.