The biggest wildcat strike in American history is one you've probably never heard of.
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Last week, NBA players starting with the Milwaukee Bucks went on a wildcat strike to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by police officer Rusten Sheskey in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The wildcat strike—which means it was not called by union officials—quickly spread across sports to other leagues and even studio commentators. It has already gone down as one of the most high-profile wildcat strikes of the century.
Although they're relatively rare nowadays, wildcat strikes are nothing new in American history, and they have been an especially powerful means of fighting for racial justice. To pick just a few examples, in 1968, Chicago school teachers engaged in a series of wildcat strikes fighting, among other things, school segregation and racism in teacher promotion practices. That same year, 1,300 Black sanitation workers in Memphis struck to protest "a long pattern of neglect and abuse of its black employees," instigated when two Black workers were killed by a malfunctioning truck. On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the striking Memphis sanitation workers about the inextricable link between economic inequality and social justice, urging the workers, "We’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end." He was assassinated the following night.
But the biggest wildcat strike, not just during that period of unrest but in all of American history, took place in March of 1970 when more than 200,000 postal workers decided they had enough.
The wildcat strike crippled mail service across the country for eight days, at a time when the entire country relied on the mail to function. As elected officials scrambled to respond, the strike demonstrated who really holds and exercises power. It occurred just as Congress was debating the future of the post office, a future that, before the strike, postal workers technically didn't have a say. Through the strike, they got one. But most of all, the strike was about dignity in the workplace, primarily through earning a fair wage. And Black postal workers played a key role in the strike, because for them this was nothing new. They had long been fighting for dignity and fair wages at the post office.
To be clear, the 1970 postal worker strike was not primarily about racial justice issues. But they lurked just below the surface. As historian Philip Rubio wrote in his book about the strike and its aftermath, "Black postal workers, having led the long fight for equality in the post office and its unions, would play a key role in the 1970 strike."
Like so many other aspects of the Black experience in America, the story of Black labor in the post office is not a direct line of progress over the years. Increased employment during Reconstruction gave way to discriminatory hiring practices as white southerners regained power. It culminated with the Woodrow Wilson administration that, among other things, required civil service applicants to include photos, ostensibly to prevent "impersonation" but practically to facilitate discrimination. The "rule of three" allowed hiring managers to pick among the three highest-scoring applicants on the civil service test, further facilitating blatantly racist hiring practices.
Nevertheless, employment with the post office was considered a good government job through the 1960s, especially for Black Americans who had few avenues for stable employment in the private sector. By 1940, 14 percent of all Black Americans earning above the national median worked for the postal service, according to economists Leah Platt Boustan and Robert A. Margo, and the average earnings of a Black postal worker put him (they were at the time essentially all men) in the top five percent of Black American earners and the 70th percentile of non-black workers. In other words, working at the post office was the best, most reliable, and most accessible ticket to the middle class Black Americans had through World War II, and for a good period afterwards too.
Starting in the 1960s, employment at the post office ceased to be an automatic ticket to the middle class because wages didn't keep up with inflation. In 1970, the starting salary for a postal worker was $6,176, or $42,333 adjusted for inflation. And it would take 21 years of service to get to the top pay of $8,400 ($57,578 today) for a letter carrier. Particularly in America’s largest cities, this was not enough to support a family.
The post office was then a department of the federal government, so raises and benefits required a literal act of Congress. The massive expenditure of the Vietnam War made Congress less interested in giving federal employees, including postal workers, much-needed raises because they were having enough trouble financing the war as it was. In New York, which would become the epicenter of the strike, a union official estimated 20 percent of postal workers had multiple jobs to make ends meet, and 10 percent of his colleagues were on food stamps and welfare.
This burden fell heaviest on Black employees who hit the proverbial glass ceiling. In 1966, 91,000 out of 92,265 Black employees of the post office (98.6 percent) made up the lowest pay grades, according to Rubio's other book on the post office specifically about Black employment titled There's Always Work at the Post Office. The pay for those four lowest grades was $4,000 to $6,000, or $32,500 to $48,800 in 2020 dollars.
The racial dynamics within the sprawling post office at the time was, in a word, complicated. It varied by office and region, and within the unions themselves there was decades of tension resulting from white supremacist efforts to maintain segregated unions and overpower the more radical Black unions that played active roles fighting for racial equality in society as well as workplace issues. But the one thing virtually all postal workers could agree on was their pay sucked.
One of the reasons their pay sucked was because Richard Nixon was holding up raises as a bargaining chip to corporatize the post office, a proposal floated by the Kappel Commission under President Johnson in 1968, named after its chair Frederick Kappel who made his fortune as the former head of AT&T (shockingly, the former head of one of America's biggest corporations was all-in on privatizing the USPS). Then as now, proponents of corporatization cited the post office's unsustainable debt, inefficiencies, large workforce, and future liabilities as evidence the arrangement was unsustainable and further privatization would benefit everyone. Unlike today, they made these arguments even as mail volume soared.
Postal workers didn't see it that way. Nor did they see the 5.4 percent raise National Association of Letter Carriers union president James Rademacher agreed to in a secret meeting with Nixon in December 1969, in exchange for corporatizing the post office, as a good deal. In fact, they were outraged and had good reason to be, since the raise was less than the rate of inflation that year.
When the bill enshrining this deal, widely perceived by workers as treachery on Rademacher's part, was voted out of the House committee, NALC Branch 36 in Manhattan called for a strike vote against the advice of its local president (and, obviously, national union leadership). On St. Patrick's Day 1970, the branch voted to go on strike, effectively halting mail delivery in Manhattan because it included workers from the massive James Farley Post Office complex in midtown that sorted much of the city's mail. Virtually all postal workers in the city followed. In total, some 200,000 postal employees—about one quarter of all workers—in 671 post offices around the country struck, including: Albany, Buffalo, Boston, Worcester, Providence, Newark, Jersey City, Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Toledo, Akron, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
It is essentially impossible to overstate the risk these strikers took. It was and remains illegal for federal employees to strike. They could have been fired and imprisoned. Some, like Nixon and NALC president Rademacher, blamed the strike on “outside agitators” from the Students for a Democratic Society, even though that was an utter falsehood. But that suspicion resulted in protesters getting surveiled by the NYPD, footage of which can be viewed in the New York City Department of Records website. When they voted to not go to work, the postal workers were jeopardizing everything. But they were largely a group of workers accustomed to jeopardizing everything. About three-quarters of postal workers were veterans. All postal workers had been required to sign an oath that they would never strike, but as Rubio put it, "now many felt that the government had violated its social contract by not paying them enough to support their families."
Nixon, never a big fan of unions, initially wanted to act tough and fire every striking worker, according to Rubio, but his aides talked him out of it. The American public largely sympathized with the strikers, with polls later showing some 60 percent favorability for the strike even though the American media largely condemned it. Many people learned for the first time just how terrible postal pay was, that their friendly local mailman drove a cab at nights to make ends meet.
The public's widespread support for the strike is even more surprising in retrospect considering the strike virtually shut down American business, somewhat like if the internet became too unstable to function today. Tax season was ramping up, with returns due in just a few weeks. Social security checks, bank statements, utility bills and payments, all of it ground to a halt. Nearly all documents for any purpose were transmitted via the mail. It was the way young men across the country found out they were being summoned to fight a war on the other side of the world.
Instead of firing or arresting the strikers, on March 23 Nixon took the extraordinary step of dispatching 22,000 federal troops to sort and deliver mail in New York City where the strike was most effective and therefore most crippling to commerce (many stock trades were still formally made via paper mail).
There was just one problem: the GIs didn't know how to sort mail. At the James Farley Post Office across the street from Madison Square Garden, professional postal workers sorted 40 to 60 letters a minute into pigeonholes based on rote memorization of delivery points while gabbing about the Knicks or whatever else was on their minds that day. Needless to say, the soldiers didn't have those skills. "Don't worry, we're not really helping anything," one called out to picketing workers as he got bused away from the post office back to barracks.
The strike ended after eight days, partly because union leadership exaggerated the terms of a "deal" they struck with the Nixon administration but largely because it was losing steam around the country. After all, the strike was never organized. It spread through media reports, not official union channels, and captured a widespread sentiment that enough was enough. But with the administration getting more and more desperate for mail service to return, something had to give, and postal workers preferred it not to be their jobs or freedom.
In the end, everyone got what they wanted. Postal workers ultimately won a 14 percent wage increase, substantially higher than the 5.4 percent Rademacher agreed to in 1969, and they would only need eight years to reach the highest pay scale rather than the previous two decades. Plus, the unions got collective bargaining rights for future contracts, something they didn't have before. But Nixon also got his corporatization of the post office, which became the United States Postal Service, the arrangement we have today.
Although everyone got what they wanted, little has changed. The USPS, as we all know, is still constantly accused of being a wasteful, inefficient bureaucracy with unsustainable finances and a boatload of debt. And many postal workers are still making poverty wages. As labor attorney Jules Bernstein noted on the strike's 50th anniversary back in March, entry level postal workers aren't doing any better than their predecessors half a century ago. Entry level for a city carrier starts around $36,000, about $6,000 less than their counterparts from the late 1960s in inflation-adjusted dollars.
This is far from the last time I'll be talking about the strike, the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 which codified these changes, and the impact they had on the post office we know today. But I wanted to highlight the strike now, because there has been so much talk lately about what wildcat strikes really accomplish and if they are the best way to accomplish it.
No question, there are many differences between the 2020 sports strikes and the 1970 postal worker strike. But I see a lot of similarities, too. Both started with one "local" and spread through word-of-mouth and media reports across the country, not through organized union action but out of righteous anger about a broken social contract. And in both instances, the strike itself is neither the beginning nor the end, but a culmination of feeling nothing else has worked and the demand that the status quo cannot continue. It can go in any direction from here.
The Week In Mail
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My colleague at Motherboard wrote about the people trying to save the post office by making it sexy.
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Given my previous beat was transportation, I'd be remiss if I didn't link to this column by a transit planner about why American public transit has the same problems as the post office.
We didn’t get any postcards yet. Have you heard the mail is a bit slower than usual? We’re also not checking the mail at the office every day because we’re not there. But please send some postcards, or any kind of letter mail really, so we don’t look like idiots. If you send me a letter the odds are very good I will write you back because I love writing letters.
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