When the Mailmen
For eight days in
March 1970 the country was rocked by an unprecedented and shocking national
strike by postal service workers. Starting in New York City, the strike spread
quickly and affected thirteen states, two hundred cities and towns, two hundred
thousand workers, and 671 stations across the country. This action by seemingly
docile and harmless federal workers provoked a crisis so severe that President
Nixon sent twenty-two thousand National Guard troops to New York City to
somehow move the mail and restore order.
Time magazine concluded
that the strike “. . . underscores the helplessness of government in
the face of organized, even if nonviolent, lawlessness.” It went on to warn
that it “could set a pattern of ruinous civil service strikes.” In his speech
authorizing the deployment of the National Guard, Nixon went as far as to claim
that, “What is at issue is the survival of a government based upon law.”
The government was
indeed helpless, and the postal workers achieved an overwhelming victory amid a
broader political climate of protest and working-class militancy around the
country. A look back at the strike is instructive for grasping the current
eruption of teacher strikes, as well as the dilemmas of dealing with hostile
Like many strikes
that seem spontaneous, conditions for strong workplace action had actually been
building among postal workers for some time. For one thing, the pay was
abysmal. Starting salaries were $6,176/year, and workers topped out at
$8,442/year only after twenty-one years of service. Many letter carriers had to
work multiple jobs to get by or were eligible for welfare. By 1970, the annual
starting salary for postal workers was 27 percent lower than for New York City
sanitation workers and less than 50 percent of police and transport worker
Postal workers had
no collective bargaining rights and had to rely on lobbying Congress to pass
legislation giving them a pay raise. These lobbying efforts, cynically referred
to as “collective begging” by some, yielded fewer and fewer results throughout
the 1960s. Workers were particularly angered when Congress voted to give itself
a 47 percent raise while denying them a much more modest one.
Mail sorters had
to work in outdated facilities without heating or air conditioning, referred to
by many as “dungeons.” Management constantly harassed employees as mail volume
steadily increased throughout the 1960s. William Burrus, who would eventually
become president of the American Postal Workers Union (APWU),
characterized the postal service as a “quasi-military place of work.”
from striking as federal workers, small numbers of postal employees began
pushing the limits of the law a few years before 1970. As early as 1966 there
was evidence of a worker slowdown causing a breakdown at the Chicago post
office, the world’s largest. In 1969 both the National Association of Letter
Carriers (NALC) and the National Postal Union (NPU) passed convention
resolutions to explore overturning the no-strike law. Over five thousand postal
workers in Manhattan and the Bronx took part in a demonstration on June 20,
1969. United Federation of Postal Clerks legislative director Patrick Nolan
told Congress that postal union leaders were “sitting atop a live volcano.”
The dynamic really
changed on July 1, 1969, when letter carriers and postal clerks in the Bronx
staged a sick-out. When they were suspended, sixteen additional letter
carriers, in the Throggs Neck Branch, also called in sick. This bold action
electrified members of New York’s NALC Branch 36. It was there that
rank-and-file member Vincent Sombrotto, who would eventually lead the
great strike in 1970, got involved in the union.
At a special
Branch 36 letter carriers union meeting, Sombrotto motioned to pay the
suspended workers two-thirds of their salary. In a foreshadowing of things to
come, all the rank-and-file members voted for the motion while the entire
leadership voted against. The vote was narrowly lost, but it provided a basis
for Sombrotto to develop a cadre of workers who were determined to take action.
After these “mini-wildcats” a Rank-and-File Caucus was formed within the union
to maintain organization among the members. Eventually they prevailed and the
suspended workers were paid.
In December 1969,
NALC president James Radamacher broke ranks with the other postal unions to
make a deal with President Nixon for a 5.4 percent wage increase, tied to a
plan to corporatize the post office. It was then that NALC Branch 36 members
seriously began to talk about a strike.
A strike vote was
scheduled for March 17, 1970. Over 2,600 members showed up to a rowdy and
electrifying meeting. In a room swirling with chaos, Vince Sombrotto took
control of the microphone and led the strike vote. It passed by a margin of
voiced by members of NALC Branch 36 in New York were felt by postal workers
across the country, who quickly responded to their daring act. In Chicago,
around three thousand members of the mostly African-American Chicago NALC
branch packed the union hall and voted to strike while chanting “Postal power!”
The strike spread like wildfire, engulfing thirteen states and causing a major
crisis for the federal government.
The wildcat strike
put union leaders on the defensive and they now scrambled to keep up with
events. Elated workers were testing their power in uncharted territory. William
Burrus, a rank-and-file postal worker in Cleveland at the time, called it a
“carnival-like atmosphere.” Sombrotto described the “euphoria of being up
against the greatest government in the world and they couldn’t do anything
There was no
coordination or central planning by the union. Strikers used personal phone
calls, newspaper coverage, face-to-face meetings, and portable radios to get
the latest updates from around the country. And the Rank-and-File Caucus put
together a platform of demands that included a full government pension,
retirement after twenty years, life insurance, area wages, and the
Only One Thing Worse Than a Wildcat Strike”
The effects of the
strike were immediately felt by a wide range of people and institutions. A New
York nursing home manager said, “I don’t think people realized how much the
post office really meant until the strike.” Census questionnaires had been
scheduled to go out to every family that week and had to be delayed. It was the
effect on the centers of economic power, however, that really concerned the
government. Checks, stock certificates and bonds could not be delivered on Wall
Street. New York Stock Exchange officials considered a market shutdown.
leaders, facing enormous pressure from the government to get their members back
to work, tried to negotiate a settlement acceptable to their uncontrollable
members. Labor Secretary George Shultz argued to NALC president James
Radamacher, “There’s only one thing worse than a wildcat strike — a wildcat
that succeeds.” But postal workers rejected Radamacher’s deal, which offered
pay raises only after they returned to work.
immediate economic impact of the strike, there was the subversive effect of
having government employees openly defying the law and getting away with it.
John Griner, who was head of the American Federation of Government Employees
(AFGE), had to intervene personally to prevent some of his locals from
striking. Time magazine claimed the strike “demonstrates the
deterioration of discipline that has become a major challenge to US society in
On March 23, 1970
President Nixon declared a state of emergency and ordered twenty-two thousand
federal troops to move the mail in New York City. The troops did little to help
Nixon, as they were woefully unprepared to operate a complex postal system.
Many postal workers were also in the National Guard. Soldiers openly
fraternized with the workers, and some even helped in sabotaging mail
government had to concede an overwhelming victory to the postal workers.
Employees were granted an overall 14 percent wage increase, collective
bargaining rights, and a formal seniority system. Instead of taking twenty-one
years to reach top salary, workers could now reach top salary after eight years
of service. Though the government had been pushing for the postal service to be
turned into a private corporation, the Postal Reorganization Act kept
it government-owned. No workers were fined or jailed.
Rank-and-File Caucus remained active and made substantial inroads in reforming
the union. In 1978, strike leader Vince Sombrotto was elected president of the
The Great Postal
Strike of 1970 fed off a broader political climate that was rife with dissent and
working-class militancy. Many strike participants cited the era’s broader
social movements, as well as more localized labor struggles, as inspiration for
their actions. As Sombrotto put it, “authority meant nothing” to many people in
the country at this time.
against the Vietnam War had, of course, been gaining momentum throughout the
1960s, reaching its peak in 1970. Massive demonstrations organized by the
National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (the “New Mobe”)
showed the extent to which people were willing to openly defy their government.
A fascinating appeal from “New Mobe” about the postal strike showed the
potential for struggles to converge in that moment:
It is a mockery of
all human decency that a nation which spends $30 billion on an illegal and
immoral war refuses to find a pittance to provide a living wage to underpaid
letter carriers. As concerned citizens we demand that you cancel war
expenditures and turn from life destroying to life fulfilling efforts.
manifestation of militant defiance that influenced workers was the Civil Rights
and Black Power movements. The strike had significant participation from black
workers, since the postal service has historically been a vital source of
stable employment for black communities. In 1970 around 20 percent of the
postal workforce was black. In major cities like Detroit, Philadelphia, and
Pittsburgh 50-70 percent of the workers on strike were black. Many of them were
young and recently returned from Vietnam. Black workers were especially
militant during the strike, as 91,000 of the 92,265 black postal service
employees were in the lowest pay grades.
The era also saw
an ongoing wave of rank-and-file rebellions in private- and
public-sector unions across the country. Teachers, sanitation workers, and
transportation workers in New York City all had gone out on illegal strikes
before the postal walkout. Public-sector workers across the country were
proving that with enough solidarity it was possible to break the law and win.
Wildcat strikes were also taking place in industries like mining, trucking,
auto, steel, and communications. The postal strike conformed to the general
historical pattern of mass strikes coming in waves, rather than incrementally.
Today, teachers in
West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and elsewhere are showing us again that it’s
possible for workers to defy the law, as well as their own union
leadership, and win. There are many striking similarities between the (largely)
successful actions teachers are taking and the Great Postal Strike of 1970.
The postal strike
worked due to broad solidarity that cut through craft divisions. Letter
carriers, clerks, mail handlers, and truck drivers all joined in. In many
places, there was strong interracial cooperation on the picket lines. It’s not
surprising that the strike failed to take off in historically Jim Crow locals
in the South. Postal workers also enjoyed wide public support throughout the
was the structural power that postal workers were able to leverage. Beyond the
strike’s disruption of everyday life, its ability to shut down Wall Street was
what pushed the federal government to take the situation seriously. It’s no
coincidence that when Nixon sent federal troops, he prioritized New York City.
Virginia teachers showed, the existence of strong workplace leaders makes
a huge difference. The postal strike vote, and its spread to other locals,
happened because of the organizing done through the Rank and File Caucus.
Without credible and daring rank-and-file leaders like Vince Sombrotto, the
strike’s gains would not have been consolidated into overall union
democratization and reform.
1970 also showed
how the broader political environment makes a difference. Working people
can take advantage of volatile political moments to dramatically shift the
balance of power. When teachers today reference the Bernie Sanders campaign or
general anti-Trump feeling, they are tapping into a broader political sentiment
that creates space for their actions. Once the first strike was initiated and
proved successful, the militant feeling showed itself to be contagious.
The Great Postal
Strike of 1970 was an explosive episode in our history. It serves as a reminder
of the stunning achievements that mass workplace action can win. Postal workers
learned through this struggle that their most important weapons were collective
action and an engaged rank and file, not smart lobbying tactics or
relationships with the right politicians. Teachers and other long-embattled
workforces are learning these same lessons again today.
Paul Prescod is a
middle-school social studies teacher and member of the Philadelphia Federation
Donations can be sent
to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD
21218. Ph: 410-
"The master class
has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles.
The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject
class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their
lives." Eugene Victor Debs