March 18 marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most momentous events in postal history — the postal strike of 1970. The night before, postal workers in New York voted 1,555 to 1,055 to go out on strike in protest of a House committee vote to limit their wage increase that year to 5.4 percent on the heels of a 41 percent increase in Congress’s own pay. The wildcat strike and picketing were effective in shutting down postal operations in New York and quickly spread to about 30 other cities. Within days about 152,000 workers in 671 locations were on strike. It was illegal for federal workers to strike, or even to advocate a strike, but union officials said they had no control over the action.
The strike shut down New York’s financial industry, kept 9,000 youths from receiving draft notices, delayed the mailing of census forms and tax refunds, and generally disrupted the country’s communications. Injunctions and heavy fines were levied on union leaders; but the membership paid no attention. President Nixon called out 24,000 military personnel to distribute the mail, but they were ineffective. While the president asserted there would be no negotiations until the workers returned to work, Secretary of Labor William Usery did engage in negotiations that brought the strike to an end after 2 weeks.
By all accounts, the strike was extremely successful for the unions, and it set the course of postal affairs for decades to come. No postal worker was ever disciplined for the walkout. Negotiators agreed to a 6 percent wage increase retroactive to 1969, and an additional 8 percent contingent on enactment of the Postal Reorganization Act. The bill had been languishing in Congress, but by April 16, 1970, agreement was reached. It not only provided the 8 percent pay raise, but also allowed postal workers to reach the top of the pay scale in only 8 years — in contrast to the 21 years previously in effect. After the first contract, pay for the newest worker had surpassed what a 21-year veteran had made 3 years earlier. Although the agreement directed the large increase towards high-cost areas like New York, where the strike began, it was effective across the nation, even in low-cost areas where compensation had been ample. The practice of uniform wages continues today at the Postal Service; even though the federal pay system introduced locality pay in 1990.
The binding arbitration feature of the Act could also be traced to the strike. According to a union history, binding arbitration was included in the bill “in lieu of the right to strike,” though of course no federal employee has ever had such a right. This feature of the law has meant that the Postal Service has never been able to exert control over its labor costs. Unions also insisted that the Postal Service would not be called a government corporation, to guard against any implication that workers would lose the security of their federal jobs.
The strike also set in motion lasting changes in the postal labor movement. Union heads that had tried to control the strike, and were willing to compromise with government leadership, lost credibility. A city carrier, Vincent Sombrotto, was in the forefront of rank and file members in New York insisting on the strike. After the strike, he led a movement to open up union elections and eventually headed the National Association of Letter Carriers for 24 years. Coincidentally with the formation of the Postal Service, five distinct unions of postal clerks, mail processors, maintenance, and motor vehicle workers merged into a new American Postal Workers Union, which provided a more unified voice for labor in political and collective bargaining negotiations.
This topic is hosted by the OIG’s Risk Analysis Research Center (RARC).