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This Day in Labor History: March 18, 1970

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On March 18, 1970, postal workers around the nation went on strike. This illegal but pioneering strike of public sector workers not only forced the Nixon Administration to cave but ushered in a decade of working class restlessness against their own staid union officials and a decade of public sector activism that would spur an enormous growth in union organizing among public employees.

Postal workers were deeply frustrated by the late 1960s. They had a union but lacked collective bargaining rights. They had not seen a pay raise since 1967. Many worked second jobs to survive. In 1968, the Kappel Commission recommended postal workers be granted collective bargaining rights, but Congress rejected it. Working conditions were not very good–many of the post offices were old, overheated or freezing cold depending on the season, dusty and dank. Leaders of the National Association of Letter Carriers (James Rademacher was the president of the NALC) were not particularly responsive to the bubbling frustration coming from the rank and file that would mark the 1970s in strikes like Lordstown. When Congress voted itself a raise of 50 percent while refusing to do anything for postal workers and then Nixon did nothing for them in his 1970 budget, this lit the switch of fury at their employers.

The postal workers were poor and they were angry. Over the desire of their union leaders, rank and file activists in New York called for a strike. When Congress suggested a 5.4 percent pay raise, the rank and file flatly rejected it. Union leaders did not want a strike, but they could not control the membership. The president of a New York City local was chased off a podium by his own members when he opposed the strike. Rademacher said on national television that the strikers were members of Students for a Democratic Society and did not represent the good Americans of the postal workers.

When postal workers went on strike on March 18, 1970, it was illegal because they did not have the right to strike. Writing to AFL-CIO president George Meany, Brooklyn postal clerk Steve Parise argued that the illegality of a strike was irrelevant: “Our union and our rank and file feel that the government has forfeited its immunity to a strike, not only because its open disdain for these men, but also the humility of financial hardships they have forced upon our families, such as seeking welfare to survive.” Said another postal worker to the New York Times, “Everybody else strikes and gets a big pay increase. The teachers, the sanitation and transit workers all struck [in violation of the law]. Why shouldn’t we? We’ve been nice far too long.”

President Richard Nixon called for postal workers to immediately return to work and said the government would not negotiate so long as the strike continued. Nixon said, “What is at issue is the survival of a government based upon law,” a statement we also know he applied to his own actions. Yet for the next week, the strike continued to expand, eventually leading to 210,000 postal workers off the job. He directed his Secretary of Labor George Schultz to agree to negotiate with the NALC as soon as the postal workers returned to work. This actually empowered Rademacher, who saw the rank and file rebellion as a direct attack upon his leadership. A wildcat strike that led to a massive victory would hurt him as much as Nixon. The rank and file totally rejected this offer, seeing it for what it was.

By March 25, the nation’s entire postal system had ground to a halt. This was as serious as the railroad strikes of the late 19th century because of the necessity of the USPS for communications in a way hard to imagine today. Like with the railroad strikes, Nixon ordered Operation Graphic Hand, sending the military to operate as scabs and deliver the mail. However, they were incompetent at this task. Moreover, this angered the workers who feared violence. In New York, some of the postal workers were actually National Guard members then called up, and they convinced their fellow troops to not do anything to move the mail. In less militant parts of the country though, the arrival of the military did bolster a back to work movement and some began trickling back.

Nixon was forced to negotiate despite his earlier pledge. What finally did get the rank and file to give up the strike was some dissent within the workers–the New York locals were far more militant than the rest of the country’s unions and many of those returned to work after the military became involved. So when Nixon and Rademacher announced the outline of a final agreement, militants wanted to continue striking but the rank and file generally approved and returned to work. The final agreement gave the postal workers an 14% pay increase (6% retroactive to 1969 and 8% for the next year) and collective bargaining rights on wages and working conditions, although not the right to strike. The workers were not punished for having engaged in an illegal walkout. This was a landmark moment in the history of public sector unionism, ushering in a decade of enormous advances for these workers, until Reagan kneecapped them with the PATCO strike.

The strike led to the Postal Reorganization Act, creating the United States Postal Service out of the old Post Office and guaranteeing collective bargaining rights for postal workers, albeit not the right to strike. The collective bargaining rights led to the creation of the American Postal Workers Union in 1971 from five preexisting unions. Continued rank and file activism against Rademacher’s leadership forced major reforms in the postal union, creating a more democratic organization. Vincent Sombrotto, who was a key leader of the postal workers movement, finally won the union’s presidency as a reformer after Rademacher retired in 1978. Before the 1970s strike, Sombrotto had to work a second job as a truck driver to feed his six children. Rank and file militancy continued in New York and New Jersey locals, led by civil rights activists and Vietnam veterans until 1978 when a wildcat strike led to the firing of 200 workers.

In the 21st century, Congress has undertaken a project to destroy the USPS entirely. The APWU has taken a lead role in fighting for the institution but it is probably doomed thanks to Republican evil.

This is the 99th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Gregor Sansa

    There was an interesting discussion of postal banking in a recent thread. My take-away was that Obama and the Senate need to make good appointments to the USPS Governor’s Board a priority. Of course, that’s hard, because getting a committed 50 in the Senate to nuke a filibuster means you need some of the senators in hock to the usury lobby. But if you could do it, it would be a win/win/win: save poor people money on needed financial services, save good postal jobs, and strike a blow against the most abusive banks.

    • muddy

      I’d like to see electric car charging stations there.

    • We either need postal banking or postal high-speed internet, or both.

      The post office is a good structure for the delivery of a lot of public goods. The problem is the one it actually has a monopoly to deliver (paper messages) is one that is obsolete.

  • Dan

    See? More liberal outcomes under Nixon.

    • Indeed, thanks to thousands of workers going on strike and forcing him to act.

      • Hogan

        Hey, they put it on his desk, he signed it. What more can you ask?

  • Jhoosier

    Thanks for the final paragraph. I appreciate you tying these posts to current events.

  • advocatethis

    Great summary…thanks. When I worked at the USPS I was only vaguely aware of a strike leading to the Postal Reorganization Act granting postal workers collective bargaining rights. When I was a supervisor I would occasionally wonder just what we would do if for some reason the workers again went on strike, or even had a widespread blue flu. The only conclusion I ever reached was that the handful of managers on site couldn’t make a dent in the workload (although we might be able to sell stamps!) and we should just lock the doors and wait for the workers to come back.

  • Thank you for this post. I’ve been bugging folks like Erik for a little light on what is happening to the Postal Service. It’s so much more than an archaic dinosaur dying from technological innovation. Many Progressives don’t know what’s happening or haven’t paid attention. Over the last several years the Postal Service has been self-destructing. Part of that was embedded in the 2006 PAEA (postal accountability and enhancement act) which used an excuse for budget neutrality to saddle the Postal Service with $5.5 billion a year for future retiree health benefits and
    The other problem is a postal management aided and abetted by Congress and various Administrations that has seen privatization as the Holy Grail.
    Steve Hutkins, professor of literature at NYU, saw what was happening and started a Blog
    http://www.savethepostoffice.com to report on postal issues. I’m a now retired postmaster who began writing about the postal service several years ago. I started participating in PRC dockets while still working. Steve has been generous enough to let me contribute to the Blog which details just how much more there is to this story than electronic displacement of letter mail.
    The postal network has been and can continue to be essential national infrastructure but the story now is about busting public unions, the politics of austerity as a means of selling off public goods and public assets, and the monopolization of the mail and package delivery markets.
    Thank you Dr. Loomis for this post. A good reference on the Postal Strike is the autobiography of former APWU president William Burrus “MY Journey”.

  • Joseph Slater

    Yay, labor historians including public-sector unions!!!

  • Mr Anonymous

    Some corrections off the top of my head:

    Rademacher was the President of the NALC (National assoc. of city Letter Carriers)

    The NALC has existed for over 100 years.

    The APWU formed in 1971 after the strike ended, from those other 5 pre-existing unions.

    Right *now* there are 4 Postal unions representing labor. NALC, Rural Carriers, APWU, and Mail-handlers.

    • Those are corrections–it’s a single typo, which I have fixed.

      • Tom Stickler

        How about disambiguating the date of the strike? Is it March or May?

  • Unhinged Liberal

    This illegal but pioneering strike of public sector workers not only forced the Nixon Administration to cave…

    Yeah…how’d that work out for the air traffic controllers when they tried it?

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