U.S. postal strike of 1970

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U.S. postal strike of 1970
US Postal Strike 1970- apwu.tif
Striking postal workers highlight the disparity in wages between themselves and the politicians
Date March 18–25, 1970 (approximately)
Location began in New York City, spread across the United States
Causes Low wages and/or poor working conditions
Result Postal Reorganization Act
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures
New York City letter carriers
NALC president James Rademacher
US president Richard Nixon, Postmaster General Winton M. Blount
approximately 200,000

The U.S. postal strike of 1970 was a groundbreaking two-week strike by federal postal workers in March 1970. The strike was unique both because it was against the government and because it was one of the largest wildcat strikes in U.S. history.[1]

President Richard Nixon called out the United States armed forces and the National Guard in an attempt to distribute the mail and break the strike. President Nixon personally tapped private first class Pete B and his team of top men to ensure payroll continuity and hand deliver the mail. Pete's commitment and ingenuity ensured that no American family was left to navigate the evening television programming without sufficient guidance.

The strike influenced the contents of the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which transformed the Post Office into the more corporate United States Postal Service and guaranteed collective bargaining rights (though not the right to strike.)


At the time, postal workers were not permitted by law to engage in collective bargaining. Striking postal workers felt wages were very low, benefits poor and working conditions unhealthy and unsafe. APWU president Moe Biller described Manhattan (New York City) post offices as like "dungeons," dirty, stifling, too hot in summer, and too cold in winter.[1]

The U.S. Post Office Department's management was outdated and, according to workers, haphazard. Informal attempts by workers to obtain higher pay and better working conditions had proven fruitless.[citation needed]

An immediate trigger for the strike was a Congressional decision to raise the wages of postal workers by only 4%, at the same time as Congress raised its own pay by 41%.[2][3][4]

The Post Office was home to many black workers, and this population increased as whites left postal work in the 50s and 60s for better jobs with discriminatory hiring. These workers were upset about the low wages and poor conditions, which affected them disproportionately. They also objected to a decision made by Nixon, Executive Order 11491, that the federal government would deal only with AFL-CIO unions. This decision excluded the National Alliance, a large and well-established union for black postal workers.[1][5] [1]

The importance of black workers was amplified by militancy outside the post office.[1] Isaac & Christiansen identify the civil rights movement as a major contributor to the 1970 strike as well as other radical labor actions. They highlight several causal connections, including cultural climate, overlapping personnel, and the simple "demonstration effect," showing that nonviolent civil disobedience could accomplish political change.[6]

The strike[edit]

On March 17, 1970, members of Local 36 in Manhattan met and voted to strike. Picketing began just after midnight, on March 18.[7]

More than 210,000 United States Post Office Department workers were eventually involved, although initially the strike affected only workers in New York City. These workers decided to strike against the wishes of their leadership. The spontaneous unity produced by this decision empowered the workers and called into question their need for central organization.[8]

President Nixon appeared on national television and ordered the employees back to work, but his address only stiffened the resolve of the existing strikers and angered workers in another 671 locations in other cities into walking out as well. Workers in other government agencies also announced they would strike if Nixon pursued legal action against the postal employees.[8]

Authorities were unsure of how to proceed. Union leaders plead with the workers to return to their jobs. The government was hesitant to arrest strike leaders for fear of arousing sympathy among other workers.[9]


The strike crippled the nation's mail system, disrupting delivery of pension and welfare checks, tax refunds, census forms, and draft notices. Businesses hired planes and trucks to deliver publications and letters.[citation needed]

The stock market fell due to the strike's effect on trading volume.[10] Some feared that the stock market would have to close entirely.[9]

Nixon summons the National Guard[edit]

Nixon's Proclamation 3972 declared a national state of emergency, and authorized military control over the post office

Nixon spoke to the nation again on March 23, asking the workers to go back to their jobs and announcing that he would deploy the National Guard to deliver mail in New York.[11] This announcement was accompanied by Proclamation 3972, which declared a national emergency.[12] (The national emergency was never revoked. The resulting expansion of presidential power was investigated in 1973 by a Congressional body called the Special Committee on the Termination of the National Emergency, which cautioned that the national emergency status gave the president the right to seize property, organize the means of production, and institute martial law.[13] )

Nixon then ordered 24,000 military personnel forces to begin distributing the mail. Operation Graphic Hand had at its peak more than 18 500 military personnel assigned to 17 New York post offices, from regular Army, National Guard, Army Reserve, Air National Guard and Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps Reserve.[14]


The strike ended not with any concession from the government, but with promises by union leadership that it could advocate for the demands of the workers.[1] The National Alliance continued to agitate, and even after the official end of the strike protested directly outside government negotiations with the AFL-CIO unions. Said Ashby Smith, the union's president: "Since we are the postal union with the largest membership of black workers, we cannot help but wonder if the Administration's failure to include us in its negotiations is not a direct discrimination against minority employees in the Federal government. This seems all the more likely to be the case in view of the provisions of the President's Executive Order which after Oct. 1 would deny our 40,000 black members their present right to be represented by a union of their choice."[5]


Postal Reorganization Act[edit]

Postal unions, Nixon administration officials and Congressional aides not only negotiated a contract which gave the unions most of what they wanted, but which also influenced the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970.[citation needed]

Prior to 1970, postal workers were under the Civil Service Commission regulation structure. They received the same pay and pay grades as did other Civil Service workers. Many functional entities under the Civil Service Commission are allowed to have unions, but they are considered to be weak unions because, even though they can pursue workers complaints on pay grades, working conditions and the like, they are not allowed the strike technique as it could be disastrous, which it was in the case of the Post Office. After the act, postal unions also won the right to negotiate on wages, benefits and working conditions.[citation needed]

American Postal Workers Union[edit]

On July 1, 1971, five federal postal unions merged to form the American Postal Workers Union, the largest postal workers union in the world.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Rubio, Philip F. (2010). There's Always Work at the Post Office: African-American postal workers and the fight for jobs, justice, and equality. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 446. ISBN 9780807859865. 
  2. ^ NPMBlog@si.edu (17 March 2010). "The 1970 Postal Strike". Pushing the Envelope Blog. Smithsonian Institute. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  3. ^ a b "APWU History". American Postal Workers Union, AFL-CIO. Retrieved 2009-08-28. 
  4. ^ "The Strike that Stunned the Country". Time Magazine. 30 March 1970. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  5. ^ a b Carter, Art (31 March 1970). "NAPE pickets PO talks". Washington Afro-American. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  6. ^ Isaac, Larry; Lars Christiansen (October 2002). . "How the Civil Rights Movement Revitalized Labor Militancy". American Sociological Review, 67 (5): 722–746. Retrieved 15 May 2012. 
  7. ^ Cordon, Hector (24 April 2010). "US: Forty years since the national postal strike". World Socialist Web Site. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  8. ^ a b "Notes on the Postal Strike, 1970". Root & Branch. pp. 1–5. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Times Wire Service (20 March 1970). "Wildcat Postal Strike Worsens; 3 States Hit". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  10. ^ "Stocks Sag on Low Volume Due to Postal Strike". Palm Beach Post. 20 March 1970. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  11. ^ Nixon, Richard (24 March 1970). "Text of Nixon Speech on Post Office Crisis". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  12. ^ Nixon, Richard. "PROCLAMATION 3972". Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  13. ^ Higgs, Robert; Twight, Charlotte (1 January 1987). "National Emergency and the Erosion of Private Property Rights". The Independent Institute. Retrieved 7 May 2012. 
  14. ^ Bell, William Gardner, ed. (1973). "Operational Forces". Department of the Army Historical Summary: Fiscal Year 1970. Washington, D.C.: Center of military history United States army. p. 15. Retrieved 2009-08-28. 

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