Postal Strike and Reorganization: Reinventing the System

“Nobody ever notices postmen somehow.”
–G.K. Chesterton

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Postal Employees on strike, March 1970

The 1970 postal strike began as a wild cat strike called by local New York leaders of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC). It began on March 18, 1970(1) and led to the first national postal stoppage in U.S. history. Approximately 200,000 workers participated in the strike. It was the first and largest walkout ever against the Federal Government.(2)  The strike led to emergency negotiations between management and national postal unions. As a result, postal workers receive the largest pay raise in postal history. Nor did striking postal workers received any penalties for their actions.

The strike began in New York City, and by the end of the week grew to involve postal workers from more than 30 major cities.(3)  Uniformly low wages were cited as the crucial issue. The workers argued for increased salary and retirement benefits, among other things.

The effects of the strike were far reaching. At the time of the strike the postal service handled approximately 270 million pieces of mail daily. Everything from personal letters to draft notices were sent through the mail. One side effect of the strike and the inability of the New York draft board to mail out notices was that approximately 9,000 New York men had a temporary reprieve from the draft. Another government branch was about to run into problems as well. The nation's 1970 census questionnaires were scheduled to be mailed out. In an effort to get the mail moving again, President Nixon called in the National Guard to help process mail in many major city post offices.(4)

Listen to William Burrus explain the build up to the strike

Burrus: We had been engaged, postal employees had been engaged, particularly in congress for a number of years dealing with the adequate wages—that was our number one priority, and congress being what it is, it had its agenda, including a number of priorities and postal was just one of them. We were government employed, we did not pose a threat, we did not rise above the other governmental priorities—that is, building roads, and hospitals, and education, security, all of those are responsibilities of the government. We were just one of many and they did not attend to our demands. Our demand was adequate increases. They kept putting us off. We would come to Washington, D.C. and we would march around the White House, the Capitol, we had candle light vigils. We performed all the political activities trying to get their attention and make them understand how important it was to us. And their attention was somewhere else. So it built up in 1970. Congress had promised us, they were going to attend to our demands, and then they didn’t. They gave themselves a raise, and that was the tipping point.

Listen to William Burrus describe his experience voting to strike

Burrus: Once New York went on strike, then the other locals, large locals around the country, started following suit, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburg, and it came to Cleveland. This was like the day after the strike began. I was with (inaudible) we had just merged in Cleveland. We were all attending the gathering of postal employees, union and non- members alike to determine whether or not we would follow suit. (inaudible)

We voted to strike against the wishes of the leadership.

President Richard Nixon’s Postmaster General, Winton M. Blount, was committed to reforming the Postal Service by adopting the recommendations made by members of the 1968 Kappel Commission. The Commission had called for the creation of a government-owned corporation which would have the power to set postage rates.(5) Fearful of losing the security of their federal jobs, which they foresaw as a result of the Commission, postal unions used their collective bargaining power to persuade Postmaster General Winton M. Blount to reconsider his position.

Although an agreement was not reached between the Nixon Administration and postal unions, the government called for postal workers to return to work before salary negotiations would take place. This expectation, however, was met with resistance by postal employees. Union members refused to return to work without any guarantee of congressional action. While President Nixon acknowledged that the postal workers had legitimate grievances, he declared that the government would not negotiate with the postal workers so long as they continued to strike.

The strike ended when union officials, including NALC President James Rademacher, convinced the strikers that union officials would secure their best interests through negotiations and that strikers should return to work. In response to this show of good faith, the Nixon Administration and the postal unions agreed on an immediate and retroactive pay hike, with another increase to follow after the completion of postal reorganization. The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, included Postmaster General Blount’s provisions.(6) These provisions included an independent financing authority, removal of the postal system from the political realm in an effort to ensure management continuity, and the guarantee of collective bargaining for postal unions. The Act created a corporate structured agency, the United States Postal Service (USPS) and gave postal unions the right to negotiate on wages, benefits, and working conditions. The Act was signed into law by President Nixon on August 12, 1970.(7)

1) The United States Postal Service, An American History 1775-2006, 39.

2) “The Strike That Stunned The Country” Time Magazine, Mar 30, 1970.

3) Ibid.

4) Ibid.

5) The United States Postal Service, 39.

6) Ibid, 39.

7) Ibid, 39.