Prior to 1970, postal workers and letter carriers in the U.S. had unions but no right to collective bargaining. Unions lobbied Congress for (often meager) pay raises. Pay was so low that by the late 1960s many postal workers with families were eligible for welfare benefits – like the many low-paid Walmart workers of today who qualify for benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid.
In the spring of 1970, a wildcat strike, unsanctioned by the unions (National Association of Letter Carriers and the American Postal Workers Union) and technically illegal, broke out on the streets of Manhattan. Thousands of letter carriers and postal workers joined the strike as it spread across the country over a period of three weeks. President Nixon called out the National Guard to move the mail, but that didn’t work out too well. Strikers returned to work having made a powerful statement.
Later that year the U.S. Post Office was reorganized as the U.S. Postal Service and unions were granted the right to bargain collectively on behalf of union members and non-union workers alike. As a result both wages and union membership rose steadily through the 1970s. Strike leaders Vinny Sombrotto and Moe Billier were elected presidents of the NALC and APWU, respectively. The unions became much more effective in advancing the rights of works and more influential in shaping the terms of labor-management relations at the U.S. Postal Service. To oversimplify in today’s jargon, a nationwide strike mobilization enabled employees of the USPS to move up into the American middle class.
Lowell Turner researched this labor history minute and provided the narration, Labor Lines produced the segment. Lowell Turner is Director of the Worker Institute at Cornell.
Related Labor Lines Programs
1) Labor History Museum – Laboring for Labor Press: We discuss the importance of Labor history in every day life
2) Labor Leadership Education – Working Towards a Diverse Workforce: Gene Caroll talks about the Cornell ILR Labor Leadership classes
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