Jerry Wurf, 62, a dynamic, deep-voiced and craggy-faced labor leader whose hard-driving and often abrasive style served in the 1960s and 1970s to organize and build the largest public employe union in the nation, died last night at George Washington University Hospital.
Mr. Wurf, leader of the million-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, entered the hospital about six weeks ago for ulcer surgery. His death, which came about three weeks after the operation, was attributed to cardiac arrest.
The explosive growth of vigorous public employe unionism has been in the past two decades one of the most significant developments in the history of both the American labor movement and of American local government. During those years, no union and no leader better symbolized that growth and those developments than AFSCME and Mr. Wurf.
Elected AFSCME's president in 1964, he saw the union grow under his militant leadership from 220,000 members when he took office to 700,000 members a decade later. Now claiming 1 million members, AFSCME is the third largest union in the AFL-CIO.
Although public employe strikes were forbidden for much of Mr. Wurf's tenure and in most of the places where his union had members, Mr. Wurf as much as any man made them a fact of life.
Brash and outspoken,Mr. Wurf went to jail himself in a Baltimore police and garbage workers strike in 1974 to win higher pay and benefits for his members.
A member of the executive council of the AFL-CIO who was also active in Democratic Party politics, Mr. Wurf was known as a forceful spokesman for liberal causes.
"We've lost one of the best friends we've ever had," said Geraldine P. Boykin, executive director of AFSCME District Council 20, which represents 16,000 workers in the Washington area, "and we've lost one of the strongest labor leaders we've ever had."
Mr. Wurf, whose given name was Jerome, was born in New York City and attended public schools.A shy boy, he was challenged to speak better to pass an English course, and began to speak at public meetings, eventually becoming an assured and fiery orator.
After graduation from New York University in 1940, Mr. Wurf, who limped as a result of a childhood bout with polio, became a cafeteria cashier.
Dissatisfied with working conditions, Mr. Wurf organized fellow employes into a union, which eventually led him in the late 1940s to become national representative in New York for AFSCME, then small and struggling.
Building the union was slow. Mr. Wurf recruited laborers and nonprofessional hospital workers.
As the 1950s went on, Mr. Wurf began scoring victories. The right of union membership was recognized. Park employes won the right to their first union representation election. Other New York successes won national attention. In 1964, Mr. Wurf won the presidency of his national union.
Mr. Wurf took a tough stance at the bargaining table and his union began making rapid gains. In one famed episode, members of the union's Memphis local, many of them black, walked off their jobs Feb. 12, 1968, to protest alleged racial discrimination.
Mr. Wurf spent most of the spring in Memphis helping plan union strategy. The union won out only after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, who had gone to Memphis to support the strikers, was assassinated there April 4.
In the 1970s, often out of dissatisfaction with eroding buying power, public employes swelled AFSCME's ranks, making it for a time the AFL-CIO's largest union.
Although he was made a vice president of the AFL-CIO in 1969, Mr. Wurf's influence in the federation was never commensurate with his union's size, possibly because he seemed a sharp-tongued gadfly and maverick, who often stood alone against his fellow union chiefs.
Survivors include his wife and three children.