JERRY WURF has been a phenomenal success. He took a small, unimportant association of underpaid state and local government workers and turned it into the largest union in the AFL-CIO. In the process, its members have plummeted in public esteem, right down there next to politicians at the bottom of the list.

Undiscouraged, Wurf says it has all been a misunderstanding. He is the craggy, volatile president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employes and he likes to boast that his 1 million members are everywhere in government and better paid than ever before. The brewing taxpayer revolt, however, is telling Jerry Wurf that in both of those ways he may have been too successful.

"We've grown in spite of the laws," Wurf said in an interview at AFSCME's convention in Las Vegas last week. "Most of the law that effect us are anti-AFSCME, not pro. We've made it the hard way, and we've made a few enemies along the road."

The California vote slashing property taxes 57 percent, public employes be damned, occurred at the moment when Wurf's union has come of age. Speaking for garbage collectors, health inspectors, city clerks, truck drivers and numerous others, he refuses to let them take the vote personally. The tax revolt that will put many of them out of work, he says, will bring them justice in the long run as the society realizes it needs their services.

"As taxpayers, we share the public's anger, but as government employes, we suffer the most severe consequences," Wurf told the 3,500 convention delegates."What has happened in California could spread. It is not 'tax rebellion.' It is a public outcry for fair play."

The union's response nationwide will be political, he said. "Only tax reform can answer it. Let the big shots pay!" Later, he added, "We've been a little too tolerant of politicians who feel they can walk both sides of the street at the same time."

Wurf has never been shy about choosing political sides, and he is not going to start now.

"We're going to go into every community and every state to deal with the situation on a state-by-state basis," he told reporters in Las Vegas. "We're looking for allies - the League of Women Voters, tax reform groups, academia, retirees, the council of mayors, anybody - to see that the reasonableness that exists in some states becomes universal."

This, he translated, means the union will try to transfer blame for tax unrest to politicians who set up the tax structure; it will push for the graduated state income tax everywhere; and it will work with city officials to try to minimize the impact of cutbacks on its members.

For the first time in memory, sunburned delegates lined up in the cavernous convention center to discuss the particulars of AFSCME's tax reform resolutions and even complained when Wurf shut off debate.

"Even people who knew tax reform was important tended to go to sleep when we talked about it before," remarked Jim Savarese, AFSCME's director of public policy analysis. "At least that change is good." A Different Kind of Union

GEORGE MEANY, chief of the AFL-CIO and personification of labor for a half a century, once said public employes were not meant to be unionized, and they are excluded from most benefits in legislation that big labor bled for over the years. All but half a dozen states prohibit public employe strikes altogether; only a dozen have what Savarese called meaningful laws allowing collective bargaining.

From the union viewpoint, city clerks cannot be farmed out to open jobs, like plumbers in hiring halls. Public employes are paid by transit authorities, sewage councils, hospital boards and mosquito districts as well as towns, counties and states; their wages come out of crazy-quilts of budgets made up of federal grants, state allocations and local taxes sewn raggedly together with great stitches of politics. Only Wisconsin guarantees that wage pacts with such bodies must stand. By comparison, negotiating with the profit-loss machine that is U.S. Steel is simplicity itself.

"If we have 5,000 members in Wayne County (Mich.), it means a dozen units of a couple hundred each," said AFSCME's governmental affairs director, William Welsh. "A field worker there can have 25 contract negotiations going on at the same time and spend a third of his time in his car."

Those basic differences between public and private employe unions mean AFSCME is more decentralized and loudly democratic than other unions. Members collar Wurf at cocktail parties to complain about incessant internal disputes; executive board sessions are often shouting matches. Wurf has been creative in trying to be a unified voice, and that has made him a pain in the neck to the rest of organized labor.

When Wurf graduated from New York University in 1940, AFSCME has barely risen from its Wisconsin roots to win an AFL charter. Wurf had gone to work as cafeteria busboy and dishwasher, helping to organize a New York food workers' local union, and his efforts got him a job offer from the man he was later to overthrow, AFSCME president Arnold Zander. Wurf's first $60 weekly paycheck, cashed in 1947, is framed in his paneled office at AFSCME's new Washington building at 1625 L St. NW.

"I was Zander's hatchet man, but he lost interest in the basic goals of trade unionism," Wurf recalled. "As a young man, I was enamored of Norman Thomas and the Young People's Socialist League . . . I wanted to remake the economic and political system. But you can diddle away your life seeking to develop a whole new social order . . . I saw the trade union movement as a vehicle for bringing a measure of equity into the lives of those who didn't get their fair share."

Wurf took that hoary union platitude to the last great unorganized mass of American labor, the one in six workers whose salaries come from taxpayers.

When he ousted Zander in 1964, AFSCME had 240,000 members concerned mostly with civil service perks. He brought in trade union tactics - organizing, bargaining, striking and going to jail. He appeared frequently in the headlines, and he won. The union had mushroomed with the expansion of government services in the postwar period, but Wurf quadrupled its size, extending it especially to blacks and to the dirtiest and most thankless of public jobs. Wherever AFSCME went, wages and conditions improved, and, to pay for this, taxes rose.

There would have been no problem, AFSCME leaders insisted, if politicians had listened to labor's long-standing plea for tax reform to ease the burden on middle-income citizens. "We missed the boat in California," said AFSCME's vice president for that state, John Seferian. "If we'd put in a lot of effort in tax reform and told the politicians, 'Hey, we'll bring the roof down on you without it,' things would have been different," he said. A Stormy Relationship

TAXPAYER RESENTMENT is changing many things in labor's outlook and has become a new factor in Wurf's stormy relationship with George Meany. Wurf has often been to the left of Meany on political questions, and Meany regards him as "unnecessarily abrasive," according to a high AFL-CIO official. "Wurf has been a loner up to now," he said.

"Jerry's big problem with the tax thing lies in convincing the rest of the trade union movement of the legitimacy of the positions he has taken," this leader went on. Since the nation's 14 million AFL-CIO members are, in a sense, the taxpaying employers of Wurf's members, he suggested, Wurf will have to seek their support and, by extension, the backing of the AFL-CIO hierarchy. "Wurf has to become a part of the trade union movement," the official said.

This rationale was greeted at AFSCME with open contempt. "You go back and tell that ass that I've been in the trade union movement since day one," Wurf exploded. "While he was busy trying to make brownie points and climb pantlegs, I was busy being a trade unionist . . . Some of the people around Meany are so second-rate it's painful."

Subordinates hooted that the AFL-CIO would have trouble delivering a newspaper. "The AFL is a paper tiger," scoffed Welsh. "Their handling of the labor law reform bill was inept, just stupid."

Wurf and his staff are careful to exempt Meany himself from their scorn, insisting, as do many in labor, that Wurf's isolation is exaggerated by Meany's palace guard. "I respect Meany's competence, his knowledge, his ability. In fact, he's so competent in areas where he's wrong that it disturbs me," said Wurf, grinning.

He insists he is not part of the jockeying to succeed "the old man," who is 84. "First of all, I don't think it's possible . . . My constituency is different. I can say and do things I couldn't as president of the AFL-CIO. I don't want to make those accomodations, and there's nobody breaking down any doors to ask me to make them, either."

If anything, Wurf's troops suggest, it is the AFL-CIO that needs AFSCME. Meany long resisted Wurf's pleas for a special department on public employes, so Wurf went outside the AFL-CIO. He set up the Coalition of American Public Employes (CAPE) in 1972 with the National Education Association, a non-AFL-CIO union that with 1.8 million members is second only to the Teamsters in size.

With nurses, social workers and other units, CAPE has nearly 4 million workers, and there was talk for a while that AFSCME would leave the AFL-CIO and make CAPE an open rival.

Instead, Wurf seems content with having emasculated by his absence the Public Employes Department that the AFL-CIO finally did set up. CAPE director James Farmer, a prominent civil rights leader in the 1960s, is conciliatory in his remarks about big labor and says CAPE's mission now is to coordinate public employes' efforts to stop California-style tax revolts and to ease the impact where they do occur. It won't be easy.

"The irony of all this," said Ron Coleman, California union district council president, "is that we'll be working to save the jobs of the people we represent, and if we're successful then Jarvis looks great in the rest of the nation." Howard Jarvis, the father of Proposition 13, scoffed at politicians' cries beforehand that its passage would mean massive layoffs and cuts in services.

Public service workers themselves often did not believe their jobs were at stake, and polls showed that 40 percent of them voted for Proposition 13.

Dennis Johnson, 62, of Oakland, was one of them. A cement finisher for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which provides the Oakland area with water, Johnson was attending his fourth AFSCME convention last week. He said he had held his job 24 years and feared nothing except the shadow of bankruptcy by property taxes on his house after his imminent retirement. I'll save $1,500 and that's a heckuva lot," he said."The politicians were lying through their teeth. Now they're finding all kinds of money."

Savarese said all but two states ended the fiscal year last week with surpluses, totalling $30 billion, which AFSCME wants to help them spend. "It's Made Them More Militant"

AFSCME has only about 30,000 workers in California, where the major public employe union is the Californis State Employes Association. AFSCME's strength is concentrated in New York, which has a third of its members, and in traditional union areas such as Michingan, but Wurf brags that the union has "cracked the South" and is growing steadily while most AFL-CIO unions are having trouble holding their own.

The tax revolt, most labor insiders agreed, will probably strengthen AFSCME and other public sector unions. "We're saying we're not going to just lie back and take it. There is fat, but we've called in a research operation to look for it honestly," Coleman said of California. "We've got a legislative program to remedy the situation. It's the first time anywhere that large numbers of government workers face layoffs and it's made them more militant already."

Although other union leaders have privately forecast a sharp rise in strikes, walkouts and othe job actions as public sectors workers try to protect their jobs, that kind of talk was not popular in Las Vegas. "We're not stupid. We know the resentment a public worker strike creates," said Saverese.

Wurf has insisted he opposes strikes and will do anything to avoid them, but that he has to have an alternative in the case of negotiation impasses. AFSCME is alone in calling for compulsory, binding arbitration as a last resort; other unions have never wanted it and city officials adamantly oppose putting their financial futures in the hands of non-experts.

So AFSCME and other government worker groups have struck, causing 350 work stoppages between October 1975 and October 1976, the latest Census Bureau figures showed. The threat of police and firemen's strikes provides opponents of public employe collective bargaining with their main issue.

Backlash from the Atlanta garbage worker strike last year is credited with helping to reelect Mayor Maynard Jackson. "A militant black mayor becomes a lot more acceptable to the white business community when a labor leader throws rocks at him," a Washington urban labor expert commented.

"You don't really win in a strike," said Welsh. It's much better to deal with politicians on their ground, the political arena."

To that end, Welsh spent about $1.7 million out of AFSCME's $20 million budget last year lobbying Congress ("I have everything stopped in this Congress that I have to have stopped") and running political training programs for the rank and file.

Slide shows and cartoons teach workers how to run voter registration campaigns and what approaches make politicians salivate; a sophisticated econometric analysis team often comes up with revenue and cost analyses that city and state officials admit are as good or better than their own.

Wurf was busy talking politics in his backslapping passafe from meeting to meeting in Las Vegas, accompanied by his second wife, Mildred, a vocal union activist whom Wurf calls "a major weapon." AFSCME is "prepared for confrontation but eager for cooperation," he preached. "Jerry Brown can't find [Proposition] 13 bad in May and glorious in June. It is was wrong then, it's wrong now."

Tough talk, but Wurf was not prepared to endorse the California governor's opponent for reelection, Republican Evelle Younger. "I haven't heard enough from him yet," he said. "More Abrasive Than Necessary"

TOUGH TALK is Wurf's specialty. His critics worry that his tendency to counter disagreement with personal insult and a high decibel level may hurt the union's cause in the difficult period ahead.

"Jerry is so smart and so dedicated that it's tragic he can't see the way he inflicts permanent damage on people all the time," said a former close associate. "Anybody with self-respect can't take that for very long, and Jerry has lost a lot of very good people." Wurf has made a habit of dressing down subordinates in front of outsiders, and one count puts the casualty list at five executive assistants, eight personal secretaries and 17 editors of the house organ, Public Employe, since Wurf took over in 1964.

One open enemy still in the union is Joseph Ames, the head of AFSCME's judicial panel that resolves internal disputes. A self-described hatchet man of Wurf who helped engineer Wurf's takeover in 1964, Ames traced their falling out to what he said was Wurf's insistence on 100 percent agreement from his entourage. "I don't get along with him at all. He's a competent, professional, intelligent union organizer, but as a human being I find him to be the most contemptible person I've ever known."

Other long-time associates trace Wurf's admitted abrasiveness to his childhood polio, which left him with a pronounced limp, and say that without his forcefulness, he could never have built AFSCME. "I've worked 14 years with Jerry Wurf and I'm just as tough as he is," said Tom Fitzpatrick, conceded to be the union's top organizer. "Some people new to him and his dedication take it personally when he blow up."

Mayors and other public officials generally praise Wurf's skills at the negotiating table. "He knows that we know that he only blows up when he's back against the wall," said one, "so a lot of it is theater." Wayne F. Anderson, executive director of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, said he was opposition to government tax cuts, and predicted "a highly differentiated response" from state and local governments nationwide to varying tax initiatives.

wurf himself admits to being "sometimes a little more abrasive than necessary. I've been too loud . . . but I have no desire to trim my sails. My fuse may be longer than it used to be, but it isn't eliminated."

At 59, Wurf is eligible for two more four-year terms as union president before the mandatory retirement. Although no open opposition to his reelection in 1980 has emerged, the name most frequently mentioned as a possible rival is that of Victor Gotbaum, 56, the lanky, soft-spoken chief of the 10,000-member New York City District Council 37. While joining in Wurf's calls for tax reform, Gotbaum places more emphasis than Wurf does on improving the quality of public sector performance.

"We've got to get into the whole area of the efficient delivery of service," he said. "We can't say 'that's a management job'; it has to be our job." Gotbaum advocates labor-management councils within government units to work on improving worker morale and performance, an idea that flies in the face of traditional union opposition to such councils. "Who the hell says I'm traditional?" he responded.

Gotbaum is widely viewed as having most of Wurf's virtues and intelligence with none of the personality problems, but he disavows any interest in going after Wurf's job. His power base as New York boss is in some danger with the April merger of the Civil Service Employes Association of New York and its 260,000 members in AFSCME. In one day the move boosted AFSCME membership from 750,000 to the 1 million mark, and Gotbaum acknowledged that the merger is requiring accommodation on both sides.

Like the rest of AFSCME, however, Gotbaum regards being number one in the AFL-CIO in terms of size as an advantage. Three AFL-CIO chieftains, including Meany's secretary-treasurer and heir apparent, Lane Kirkland, spoke at the Las Vegas convention, more Big Labor attention than ever before.

"It goes to show something of what being the biggest can mean," observed Wurf's executive assistant, Bill Hamilton.

The union, for all its internal heat and dissent, is reasonably together on the goal of swinging its weight in the political process. "It's not public employes that caused this tax revolt, it's teh elected officials that created the mess," said the union's Calfornia leader, Seferian. "Like Jerry says, public employes aren't going to be the victims of this one."