Steve Hutkins: This week marks the 51st anniversary of the largest wildcat strike in U.S. labor history: The Great Postal Strike of 1970
March 18th marks the day fifty-one years ago when postal workers walked off the job in New York City in what soon became the largest wildcat strike in U.S. labor history. Last March we posted this article by postal historian Phil Rubio, author of Undelivered: From the Great Postal Strike of 1970 to the Manufactured Crisis of the U.S. Postal Service.
The article is as good as ever, so Save the Post Office is posting it again this year.
For eight days in March 1970, over 200,000 postal workers staged an illegal “wildcat” strike — the largest in United States history — for better wages and working conditions. Picket lines started in New York and spread across the country like wildfire. Strikers defied court injunctions, threats of termination, and their own union leaders.
In the negotiated aftermath, the U.S. Post Office became the U.S. Postal Service, and postal workers received full collective bargaining rights and wage increases, all the while continuing to fight for greater democracy within their unions. Using archives, periodicals, and oral histories, Philip Rubio shows how this strike, born of frustration and rising expectations and emerging as part of a larger 1960s – 1970s global rank-and-file labor upsurge, transformed the post office and postal union.
In this post, Dr. Rubio writes about the importance of commemorating the nationwide postal wildcat strike on the day of its fiftieth anniversary. You can also read his 2015 blog post, which includes a more detailed account of the strike, here.
The Great Postal Wildcat Strike Jubilee
“Wildcats” are strikes not authorized by the unions, but this strike was also illegal, as a 1912 law bars federal government workers from striking. Nevertheless, for eight days over 200,000 workers struck the U.S. Post Office Department across the country in a dozen states and hundreds of post offices. They struck for a living wage and job dignity. The strike forced passage of the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act (PRA) that transformed the post office into a self-supporting government/corporate hybrid called the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) in 1971. President Richard Nixon and Congress ended further strike threats by extending pay raises and full collective bargaining rights to postal workers—the only federal employees who enjoy those rights to this day. Their strike also initiated a process of greater democratization of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), and the new American Postal Workers Union (APWU, product of five unions merging in 1971).
Unfortunately, our society has largely forgotten the 1970 postal strike. What historians choose to research and publish matters, and amazingly, this strike has so far gained little attention from labor historians. It has fallen to strike veterans, the postal unions, and labor activists to keep that memory alive and mark that date in anticipation this year of the strike’s “jubilee” (also known as the fiftieth anniversary).
Remembering how that landmark rank-and-file rebellion happened is no mere exercise in nostalgia. Not only can it refresh our collective memory and help us revise a fuller picture of that period of American labor history, but it also teaches us the possibilities as well as the limitations of labor action today.
I devoted a chapter to the strike in my previous book for UNC Press in 2010— There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality. Even then, I thought the strike’s history needed a fuller telling. It is also a story that I felt needed connecting to the 2009 postal financial crisis, which I argue in my new book that Congress and the George W. Bush administration politically manufactured— although its effects have been very real.
There were unintended consequences of the PRA that itself represented a compromise. In 2006, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) unnecessarily mandated $5 billion annual fees for ten years from the USPS to cover future retirees’ health benefits, while still providing its constitutionally mandated universal service. The USPS lost revenue during the 2008 Great Recession and began facing greater challenges from Internet services. Forces for privatization and curbing postal union power capitalized on that ongoing crisis and created an obsolescence narrative of a 245-year-old public communications network.
As I began writing this book in 2013, it occurred to me that time was running out to interview many of the strike participants. I had already conducted oral history interviews for my second book with some strike veterans. But I wanted more stories from across the country to get an idea of just how these letter carriers, clerks, mail handlers, vehicle drivers, and other crafts came together across the country to risk their careers, jail and/or fines, and decertification of their unions. The book also required a back-story of the post office and its labor relations and service—as well as the strike’s legacy and the challenge of privatization threats, institutional neglect, and a continued multi-billion dollar PAEA-imposed debt.
There are still too many missing stories and voices from the 1970 postal strike. Yet I was fortunate to find the ones that I did with help from postal unionists and retirees, librarians and archivists, and especially the archives of the NALC, APWU, and USPS. Coincidentally, I was able to complete this book in time for the Great Postal Strike’s 2020 “jubilee.” I hope this fifty-year historical marker will draw greater attention to a nationwide labor action where everyday people in the United States made history and social change worth saving.
Philip F. Rubio is professor of history at North Carolina A&T State University and the author of There’s Always Work at the Post Office: African American Postal Workers and the Fight for Jobs, Justice, and Equality.