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How a Postal Strike Became a National Emergency for Richard Nixon

December 29, 2017 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Post Office workers on strike at Tenafly, 1970. (Credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

In early 1970, National Guardsmen were spotted walking from door to door in neighborhoods throughout the United States. They weren’t conducting a military operation or helping clean up after a natural disaster—they were delivering the mail in the midst of a postal strike that almost brought the United States to a halt.

The eight-day strike of some 150,000 letter carriers in 30 cities took the nation by surprise, but for many in the U.S. Postal Department (forerunner of today’s USPS) it was a long time coming.

At the time, pay raises for postal workers were almost unheard of: After 21 years on the job, noted The New York Times, a letter carrier would only earn $2,266 more than their starting salary. Though unionized, postal workers were forbidden from negotiating for pay raises due to cost of living. There was no chance to earn overtime, and many workers had to find a second job to make ends meet.

To top it off, life as a letter carrier was unforgiving. The work was physically demanding, and even experienced employees had no idea how many hours they would work. They waited in break rooms for long periods, hoping to be called for a few hours of delivering the mail. By 1970, their turnover rate was 23 percent.

Post Office workers on strike at Tenafly, 1970. (Credit: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Tensions boiled over when Congress proposed raising their own salaries by 41 percent in early 1970—but only offered postal employees a 5.4 percent raise. Furious letter carriers in New York called a meeting of the local branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers union on March 17, 1970 to demand a strike.

But the union refused to strike. Union leaders agreed there were legitimate problems, but pointed out that it was illegal for federal workers to strike. (It still is.) Members took a vote. It was close—1,555 for a strike, 1,055 against. However, a group of pro-strike workers led by Vincent Sombrotto defied their union and decided to stop work the next morning.

This “wildcat” strike—one that goes against the wishes of the union—meant that Sombrotto and his colleagues lacked official support for their actions. But they had many supporters elsewhere: other discontented letter carriers from coast to coast.

As letter carriers took to the streets of Manhattan and stopped delivering mail, others joined in. Thirty other cities’ workers walked out, too, and soon <a target=_blank …read more


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