HAD AMERICA'S public servants gone to Cen tral Casting for someone to play the role of their union leader, they could not have found a better caricature--or a more effective, passionate organizer, thinker and spokesman for their cause--than Jerry Wurf. Mr. Wurf, who died here Thursday at the age of 62, was as tough, loud and hard-driving as they come, but those were merely the most obvious attributes. Because he could organize thoughts as well as people, he got results as well as members. And few were ever ambivalent about his impact in, as well as on, the American labor movement.
His accomplishments were all the more impressive in that they were achieved in an era of declining union influence. It helped, of course, that the union he was organizing had a ripe and growing constituency in the Great Society days of expanding government--not only in Washington but in the state houses and city halls all across the country. But as president and ubiquitous organizer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees--AFSCME, or as Americans everywhere would learn to say it, "Aff-Smee"--Mr. Wurf was also a forceful spokesman for progressive causes that transcended old-fashioned labor-management matters.
His persistence and irreverence extended right into the innermost chambers of the AFL-CIO's "Marble Palace" here, where Mr. Wurf's sharp tongue spared no colleague--not even the equally blunt Boss of Organized Labor, the late George Meany. The growth of AFSCME proved just as explosive, as the ranks swelled from 220,000 members when he took office as president to 700,000 a decade later to 1 million today.
With this increased influence of civil service-employee unions came strikes and all of the problems connected with such threats to orderly government. Mr. Wurf led his share of walkouts, though he repeatedly stated that he did not favor strikes for their own sake; instead he stressed a preference for arbitration in such situations. On many labor movement issues, Mr. Wurf reserved his right to differ-- and exercised it: "On some issues," he said a few months ago, "there is knee-jerk solidarity and on other issues there is no solidarity."
That was what made Jerry Wurf's familiar foghorn voice worth listening to, and why his presence on the American labor scene was so formidable.