When the mail stopped: Recalling the postal strike of 1970


With the U.S. Postal Service sporting billion-dollar deficits, leading to a hiring freeze and officials threatening to end Saturday deliveries, among other budget-cutting moves, our local letter-carriers are carrying a little heavier burden than usual. But things could be worse. Forty years ago this spring, life at the post office was so bad that the mailmen stopped delivering the mail.

In 1970, when U.S. median household income was around $9,000, the pay for letter carriers started out at $6,100, and after 21 years of hefting the mail, they could hope to see that raised to $8,400. They were also expected to pay more than three quarters of the cost of their health insurance premiums. It required an act of Congress to raise their pay, and Congress acted about as quickly then as it does now.

President Nixon wanted to tie any legislation involving postal pay increases to his proposal to eliminate the Post Office Department as a branch of government and turn it into an independent, regulated corporation that would not be subsidized by tax dollars. Congressional democrats were skeptical of this plan; meanwhile, letter carriers were getting understandably frustrated.

To make matters worse, the letter carriers did not have the right to collective bargaining, and as essential government employees, it was a felony for them to go out on strike. But strike they did – without their national union’s blessing.

On March 18, 1970, members of the Manhattan-Bronx letter carriers local walked off the job and defied orders to return to work. The following day, postal employees in other cities, including St. Paul, joined the wildcat strike. The Minneapolis Star on March 20 carried several pages of stories about the strike, under a full banner headline: “Mail movement ending in area.” That same day, Minneapolis carriers voted 1,050 to 83 to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. The action became the first and largest walkout against the federal government ever.

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“We’re delivering first class mail and we’re being treated like second-class citizens,”
said John Roach, president of St. Paul local chapter of the National Association of Letter Carriers.
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Undelivered mail piled up – six tons of it at the airport, a million letters at the Minneapolis downtown post office, reported the Star. President Nixon called in the National Guard to get things moving again. Members of the Guard found this concept intriguing.

“I’m a medic. I don’t know a thing about the Post Office Department. Nobody knows what they’re supposed to do,” Spec. Ronald Gray told the Associated Press.

Various district judges issued court orders telling the postmen to get back to work, and the House Post Office Committee eventually got around to approving a pay raise.

Figuring they’d made their point, letter carriers started returning to work on March 24 and 25, and soon regular mail service was restored. No action was taken against strikers and, later that year, Congress passed the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which established the United States Postal Service as an independent agency, gave postal unions the right to collective bargaining – and raised the pay of letter carriers. The act was signed by President Nixon on August 12, 1970.