Members of the Philadelphia Municipal Workers Union protesting layoffs in 1938

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With over 9,000 current members, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees District Council 33 is one of the largest unions in Philly. It was the outgrowth of the first official coordinating body for municipal workers in Philadelphia, started in the Great Depression and growing in scope as the 20th century went on.

Like many unions, DC 33 was established through a protracted series of organized militant demonstrations — in this case, sanitation strikes.

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The union emerged from decades of Philly power politics, and was an early example of Black American workers connecting the struggle for economic justice and civil rights, a synchrony that solidified in the Civil Rights Movement a few decades later.

Its establishment in 1938 Philadelphia also set a nationwide precedent.

The city’s first chapter, Local 222, “was the first AFSCME chapter formally recognized by a major U.S. city,” professor Francis Ryan, director of the Master of Labor and Employment Relations Program at Rutgers’s Labor Studies Department, told Billy Penn.

A clash over trash — and political patronage

AFSCME Local 222 was founded in the wake of a devastating strike by sanitation workers called the Garbage Riots of 1938.

That September, over 260 workers for the Street Cleaning and Highways Bureau were fired. They were political casualties: The 1933 election of Democratic Mayor S. Davis Wilson was a major blow to the Republican control that defined Philly through the Gilded Age, and the mass firing was a purposeful strike in a decades-long party patronage war.

Democrats were targeting workers who had yet to switch their political affiliation, but instead of everyone falling in line, they turned to collective organizing.

The fired staffers appealed to the Municipal Workers Union, a body formed the year before, as sketched out in Ryan’s book “AFSCME’s Philadelphia Story: Municipal Workers and Urban Power in the Twentieth Century.”

The book points to several reasons for the MWU’s formation. noting how in 1935 the U.S. Department of Labor found that Philadelphia workers were a rare case, as a municipal workforce that didn’t receive overtime pay. A report documented that Philly sanitation workers toiled for 60 hours a week regularly, far from the norm in the country.

The MWU wasn’t yet a union in the modern sense. It collected no dues and was not independent from city administration. And a rival body was formed by garbage truck driver and leader Bill McEntee, which allied itself with the local Teamsters union and wider Congress of Industrial Organizations efforts.

But the abrupt firings of that fall united divergent factions, and set an 8-day strike in motion. When Mayor Wilson amassed a group of scab workers, the strikers (and their children) let loose, fighting them in the streets and sabotaging their work.

Sentiment among ward leaders, city councilmembers, and major media outlets was clear: break the strike.

“The right to strike does not belong” to municipal workers, read an Inquirer editorial at the time, asserting they were “servants of the public.”

In one instance, 400 workers tussled with police officers and scabs. Elsewhere, Molotov cocktails ignited full garbage trucks, and a riverboat police patrol allegedly found a one truck in the Delaware River. Workers relied on the support of their neighbors for food and refuge when fleeing police. The most militant of strikers were Black workers, per Ryan’s history of the strike.

On the strike’s second day, it was joined by nearly 800 Water Bureau staff — including those who worked at sewer treatment plants, distribution centers, and water main divisions. Firefighters were forced to post up at pumping stations around the city to ward off possible sabotage.

On the third, most violent day of brawls, the 6-year-old AFSCME granted a charter to the Philly strikers to form Local 222. Mayor Wilson immediately recognized the chapter, which repped workers in the Sanitation, Street Repair, and Water Bureaus. But the strike didn’t cease until all the fired municipal employees were rehired four days later.

But Local 222 was not long for this world.

Including workers from three different departments in one union “led to a lot of confusion,” Ryan said. In 1942, a disputed union election led the Street Cleaning segment to stop recognizing the authority of Local 222 President William Donohue.

McEntee, the garbage truck driver-turned-organizer, ran against Donohue for the leadership role in 1943, and beat him after what appeared to be an attempt by Donohue to rig the vote.

In the fallout from the election, the group split into three locals for the three kinds of workers involved:

  • Local 427 for the Street Cleaning Bureau
  • Local 394 for Water Bureau
  • Local 403 for the Highways Bureau

How District 33 came to be

From that seed grew District Council 33, which — in a sign of the transformative power of work stoppages — was also formed in the wake of a sanitation strike, this one in 1944.

Municipal workers had successfully won concessions from the city through a 1942 reform package that reclassified more than 15,000 civil service employees, leveling pay rates and locking in cost-of-living income increases.

When Mayor Barney Samuel promised a significant raise for city workers, they helped him win reelection in 1943, only for news to break that the raises were impossible, as City Council had not budgeted for them. After a few years of seeing a call for strikes achieve their objectives, workers made the decision to go further.

AFSCME DC 33 headquarters at 3001 Walnut St. Credit: Flickr Creative Commons / Christina Cantrill

Against new president McEntee’s anti-strike proposals, the locals struck in tandem in January of 1944. The wartime labor action was met with little popular support, and risked the fiscal viability of the unions after previous president Donohue had left the organization in financial ruin.

The strike ended without the demanded wage raises being achieved, but it did result in action from national AFSCME officers: they created District Council 33, an umbrella organization for the three locals.

While allowing local chapters autonomy, the organization was formed to “coordinate negotiating, media relations, and organizing,” according to Ryan’s history of the union.

After DC 33’s formation, `”other locals from the Recreation Bureau and Airport were soon added, and a range of others in almost all city blue-collar divisions,” Ryan said.

A union named for a labor giant’s graduation date

In an enduring sign of his legacy, union president Bill McEntee’s son Gerald went on to inspire the name for a DC 33 local chapter decades after his father led the organization through its formative years.

While some unions assign their smaller bodies a number in chronological order, that’s not the industry norm.

“The random selection of local numbers is a standard practice across the American labor movement,” Ryan explained. “Although there are plenty of cases where organizers and rank and file members request a particular number.” Such was the case with Local 1956, the union for School Crossing Guards, named after the younger McEntee.

The young McEntee graduated from La Salle in 1956 with an economics degree, and joined the DC 33 staff as an economic advisor. Joan Gallagher, a 30-year employee of Local 1956 and its president since 2007, confirmed that the local is indeed named after the year that “Jerry” graduated and joined DC 33.

He earned the tribute by leading a furious organizing campaign in the late 60s, not just onboarding the guards of Local 1956 to DC 33, but three other unions, from workers at the Philly Zoo to aides in UPenn’s libraries.

At about the same time, he led the charge for a statewide law loosening restrictions to the right for Pennsylvanian workers to unionize, and then led AFSCME Council 13, which covered all AFSCME workers in the Commonwealth.

Gerald McEntee, who died in July at age 87, served as AFSCME president for 21 years, from 1981 to 2012, leading the union for United States municipal workers in the 21st century.

“He was such a powerful speaker, and his passion for the union just made you feel good,” Gallagher told Billy Penn about Jerry. “[He] made you want to join, made you want to do things and help.”

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...