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.