1970 Postal Strike
Thirty five years ago, the rank-and-file members of Branch 36 took a stand that changed the course of history. It is certainly no exaggeration to say that the gains that letter carriers and other postal employees have made in the past three plus decades are a direct result of the courage and solidarity the rank-and-file members of Branch 36 displayed in March 1970 when they embarked on the country's first and only nationwide postal strike. Without the strike, the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, which brought true collective bargaining to postal employees would probably not have been enacted. As a result, literally millions of workers employed by the Postal Service during the past 35 years have been the beneficiaries of wages, benefits and working conditions far superior to what they otherwise would have been.
The strike itselff was one of those rarities in American labor history-an actual uprising of rank-and-file workers who forged what was a true revolutionary act and who acted with courage and conviction despite the resistance of their elected leaders. This revolution sprang from the despair felt by carriers in New York and in many other parts of the country who could not support their families. In fact, for those current members of Branch 36 who were not carrying the mail in 1969 and 1970, words cannot truly convey the suffering of letter carriers and their families at that time. Because of the high cost of living in New York City, many carriers were forced to work two jobs or go on welfare, if not both. Ironically, it was only the federally-sponsored "War on Poverty" of the 1960s which enabled the families of some letter carriers in New York to survive.
Every revolution has its triggering events, and for the 1970 postal strike it was the courageous actions of a small group of Bronx letter carriers that began the process of converting frustration and despair into citywide collective action. On July 1, 1969, in reaction to a meager pay increase issued by President Richard Nixon, almost all of the letter carriers and postal clerks at the Kingsbridge Station in the Bronx called in sick. Then, when on the very next day, the Postmaster suspended all 56 letter carriers and 16 clerks at Kingsbridge, 16 of the 36 letter carriers in the Throggs Neck Branch in the Bronx also called in sick.
Significantly, the rank-and-file members of Branch 36 were not frightened by the Post Office Department's investigations and suspensions because for the first time in years, they had gained a sense of control and pride. The actions of the Bronx carriers had instilled a sense of euphoria among many New York carriers, for it became clear that if thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of postal employees could only show the same sense of euphoria among many New York carriers, for it became clear that if thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of postal employees could only show the same sense of courage and solidarity that the Bronx carriers had demonstrated, then throughout the country true power would rest in the hands of postal employees.

But the Kingsbridge and Throggs Neck incidents were important for another reason: The branch leadership's reaction to the, suspensions created a growing split between Branch 36's leadership. Frightened the possibility of an illegal strike, the increasingly militant rank-and-file who were willing to take whatever steps were necessary to shatter the chains of economic slavery. The key issue dividing the two groups was whether the branch would compensate the suspended carriers for the wages they had lost during their two-week suspensions. Vincent R. Sombrotto, then a rank and-file carrier who did not hold an office in the branch, first raised the issue at a special meeting of the branch, but the branch's leadership opposed Sombrotto's proposal and, in fact, criticized the Bronx carriers for what the leaders called precipitous and rash action. At first, Branch 36's officers prevailed, but Sombrotto and his growing army of allies persisted meeting after meeting until, at the Branch's January 1970 meeting, they were successful in signing the two-thirds vote necessary to pass the proposal providing compensation for the suspending carriers.

The issue of paying the suspended carriers was far from the only issue dividing Branch 36's rank-and-file carriers from their leaders. At the branch's January meeting, the members also rejected the branch leadership's endorsement of a December 18th agreement between President Richard Nixon and NALC National President James Rademacher. This agreement coupled Nixon's endorsement of a pay increase with Rademacher's backing of an independent "postal authority" to replace the cabinet level Post Office Department an idea the NALC had previously opposed. The members at the January meeting were incensed at the Nixon-Rademacher pay increase an increase they deemed grossly inadequate. Instead, they demanded substantial improvements in pay and benefits and angrily voiced their willingness to strike if necessary.

Branch 36's leadership tried to stem the rising tide of militancy. Working through the branch's station stewards-then called station delegates-the branch conducted a "strike survey" which asked members whether they would go on strike alone if the national union did not substitute the provisions approved by the branch's January meeting for the Rademacher-Nixon agreement, whether the members would strike only if a strike was called by the national union, or whether they would strike under any circumstance.

It soon became clear that the survey was not designed to determine the true feelings of branch members. At the February branch meeting, rank-and-file members asked for the results, but the branch officers said the returns were still being analyzed and the figures would be released at the branch's March meeting-which, in the end, they never did. To this day, the results of that survey are not known.

It was at the March 12th branch meeting at Riverside Plaza Terrace that the ferment among New York carriers finally boiled over when they learned that a House of Representatives committee had, on the same day, approved a bill reflecting the Nixon-Rademacher compromise. In response to the congressional action and to the unwillingness of the branch officers to release the results of the strike survey, carriers attending the March membership meeting stormed the podium and angrily-demanded a strike vote.

The long-delayed was finally taken on March 17,1970 at jampacked Manhattan Center on West 34th Street. At approximately 11 p.m., the results were announced to the members: 1,555, yes, 1,055, no. Immediately, President Jack Leventhal of Brooklyn's Branch 41, announced that he had the authorization of his members to support Branch 36. Moe Biller, President of the Manhattan-Bronx Postal Union-the union representing clerks and drivers in Manhattan and the Bronx-said he could not take a position until he determined the feelings of his membership.

At 12:Ol a.m., March 18, members of Branch 36 set up picket lines outside post offices throughout Manhattan and the Bronx. The strike was finally on. Although not all the members had voted for the strike, almost every letter carrier in Branch 36 stayed out. Immediately, the rank-and-file members of the Manhattan-Bronx Postal Union honored the picket lines. And later that day, Branch 41 and branches in Long Island and Northern New Jersey joined the strike. And then the strike spread to large and small communities alike from coast to coast as letter carriers and postal clerks walked off their jobs and dug in for the duration. Not until March 21 did the Manhattan-Bronx Postal Union actually join the strike, and by March 23rd, the strikers numbered almost 250,000.

Although many letter carriers and other postal workers' throughout the country began to return to work following Nixon's decision to use Army troops to process mail in New York, New York's letter carriers remained steadfast. It was only when the leaders of Branch 36 assured their striking members that an agreement had been reached with the Administration-even though no such agreement existed that New York's carriers and clerks put down their picket signs and went back to work on March 25. First to go out and last to go back in, Branch 36's letter carriers had shown resolve and courage that would never be forgotten.

Congressional leaders and national postal union officials spent the next several months resolving the twin issues of pay increases and postal reform, and it was not until August 12, 1970, that the Postal Reorganization Act became law. Carriers and other postal workers had, at long last, achieved full collective bargaining rights. Although the members of Branch 36 had not achieved all they had struck for, the years of what some deemed "collective begging" were over, and the strikers had been vindicated. The long struggle of letter carriers for dignity and justice had taken a giant step forward.

The strike of March 1970 was a true revolution-a revolution the rank-and-file letter carriers of Branch 36 ignited. It was not a strike called by the National Union or by the leadership of Branch 36-and can even be viewed in part as a strike against the incumbent leadership. In essence, the 1970 postal strike sprung from the collective anguish and despair of thousands of ordinary New York letter carriers who would not be denied. It was their courage and their willingness to take unparalleled risks that will put every man and woman who ever carries mail forever in their debt.

March 17, 2000
Thirty years from this day in 1970, Letter Carriers from New York City changed the course of history, not only in the United States Postal Service, but also in the National Association of Letter Carriers. On that fateful day, beginning at 6:00 p.m., Letter Carriers from all the stations in New York City converged on Manhattan Center to cast their votes as to whether or not they would go out on strike to achieve fairness, dignity and respect. The tally of that vote, which was recorded by the Honest Ballot Association, was 1,555 to strike and 1,055 against the strike.

When the tally was announced at precisely 12:00 midnight, the strike was on. Letter Carriers throughout the city who were working on the midnight tour left their post office and began the process of putting up picket lines. By 6:00 a.m., Letter Carriers were picketing outside every postal facility in New York City, where they were joined by other crafts, particularly the clerks and mail handlers. They were shortly joined by Letter Carriers throughout the Northeast Region, particularly carriers in New York City, Brooklyn, Flushing, Long Island, Northern New Jersey, Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Los Angeles.

Letter Carriers engaged in this courageous act in spite of the fact that they risked losing their jobs, their pensions, their health benefits, and they faced the possibility of severe fines as well as imprisonment.

As I reminisce about this event and that particular evening on March 17, 1970, I vividly recall all of the individuals who played such a dramatic role in creating the environment that led to the dramatic action of the vote and the strike itself. Rather than going into naming all of the individuals (which would require almost this entire publication-The Outlook-to list them all), I would just like to make the point that the wages that letter carriers earn today stem directly from the actions taken on March 17, 1970. You should be aware that the top salary at that time, after 23 years of service, was a little over $9,000 a year.

One of the things that I more fully understand now is how revolutions are conceived, how governments can be overthrown, and how our nation was founded because a few good men would not stand by when they experienced conditions so intolerable that they were ready to risk everything.

I could talk about the many meetings and the organizing of those that desperately wanted to change the unspeakable conditions at that time, and to realize what we, together, were able to accomplish.

I said that we changed the Postal Service-we did-because of the 1970 strike the Postal Reorganization Act was passed, a piece of legislation that up until that time had absolutely no chance of passing-and by its passage allowed for those representing Letter Carriers and other craft employees and their unions to collectively bargain for all terms and conditions of employment, including wages and fringe benefits.

We ako changed the NALC by allowing for direct voting for officers in union positions, calling for regional elections, ratification of contracts when and if they are successfully negotiated, thereby truly democratizing the NALC.

For those Letter Carriers who were involved in this astounding event, you know who you are, and you know each other, and you know the roles that each of us played. But more importantly, you can take satisfaction in the fact that what we did made it much better for literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions of postal employees and their families who have followed in our footsteps.

Every Letter Carrier, every postal employee who punches a time card today can thank those 1,555 Letter Carriers for their strike vote. To those members of Branch 36 who were not there on March 17, 1970, you should be proud and certainly celebrate with those before you who made the sacrifices and led the way.

In response to your request for a definitive expression of personal experiences before, during and after the "Great Postal Strike," I thank you for the opportunity. First, I must come to grips with the reality that it is now the year 2000 (Y2K) and that event occurred thirty years ago. Not many letter carriers from that era are still active!

I retired 15 years ago and have spent much of that time here in Nalcrest, F1. I started as a "Snowbird." Have become an adopted native. Adele and I are quite happy here. We enjoy the environment, the weather, the many activities that abound. Best of all, the fellow Nalcrestians are great people. O.K. That should take care of the present!

Now for the before: In 1968,2 years before the "Great Postal Strike" I joined a group of unhappy and dissident Brortx letter carriers. We felt left out of the mainstream Branch 36 Local. We never had any officers come to Bronx stations. We got to see them once a month at the union meetings. We pursued a course of action that entailed breaking away from Branch 36 and forming a new Bronx only Local.

It was an exercise in futility. The then 36 President agreed to a vote by the full membership and since the Manhattan letter carriers outnumbered the Bronx by 4 to 1, it never came about. It would have been an exercise in futility.

We nevertheless continued to seek better representation and it was done openly. Ultimately, a year later in 1969, it led to the walkout, or if you prefer, sickout, at Kingsbridge Station by the letter carriers. They were joined by Throggs Neck Station and a few more from Westchester Square Station. The majority had 20 or more years time. I had 24.

Once again I became involved in a growing movement of dissent not only against oppressive working conditions and bitterly low wages, but also against the NALC for not acting or representing members the way we felt they should. This group forced a membership vote on the strike action. It took place in Manhattan Center. The vote came down 1500 for and 1000 against. At midnight St. Patrick's day 1970, it went live. The week that followed is part of American and postal history. We were joined by brothers and sisters from every corner of the U.S.A. Although the postal clerks never joined us, they respected our pickets and never crossed them, at least here in our area.

It was the aforementioned happening that led to the "Great Postal Strike" of 1970. I, along with a few brother letter carriers, spent 12 hours a day every day, either picketing or traveling between the Bronx stations to encourage the other letter carriers. Here I add not much shoring up was needed, for they were determined to get justice. They really hung in there! stick togetherness and camaraderie was the order of the day! I repeat, I wasn't alone.

We had a small fire going in a barrel due to the coldness of the weather. It did not help warm us, but it did look good and neighborhood people bought food and drink and demonstrated a great deal of support for our cause. When the National Guard showed we persevered, they too sympathized with us and one of them was an active letter carrier that had been called up.

A week later, word reached us that an acceptable agreement had been reached. We had won! Not so! What was promised never became a reality. We had been hoodwinked by the National and the Post Office Department, one that left a bitter and sour taste in our mouths along with a goodly heartbreak. Who doubletalked? Was it management, or was it the Union? It took many years later to get it out of (my) system. We remained, to say the least, very frustrated!

Although I write about this lightly, make no mistake. It took a great deal of resolve, energy, and courage, not to mention heartache and sacrifice. It was almost repeated again a year Iater when Branch 36 was placed in trusteeship by National. It didn't work. Let's not forget the big sit out at the GPO. Almost don't count!

That covers the highlights of before and during - now for after. The old local administration was soundly defeated and a completely new one took over. Peace reigned for a short time and many beneficial results were gained. Then an internal upheaval was experienced and although it proved disruptive, it produced even a better relationship and cooperative and understanding group of officers.

All of the above incidents then led to the Reorganization Act and more union recognition by L'Enfant Plaza.
The original group adopted the title of "Rank And File" and we lived up to its meaning!

From my observations of today's letter carriers, there is still room for more improvements in working conditions and monetary ones. They should feel that way! Rightly so. Never settle for mediocrity. Go for the Gold. To paraphrase a Marine slogan, "Once a letter carrier, always a letter carrier." Great.

I no longer can attend conventions or seminars, but do the best I can here. I organized the June 9th picketing at the local Post Office. The stewards said it was their first time out. A few years ago we joined in another station's picketing, so you see we are active retirees. We write to our legislators constantly.

I close with, support your Union. You are the Union, work with your stewards. Contribute to COLCPE. "It doesn't cost, it pays." You're in good hands with Vincent R. Sombrotto as national president. He too is "rank' and file." You all come visit us. God bless, and have a healthy and happy New Millennium-Y2K.

P.S. The incidents I write about may not be in chronological order, but at age 75 and over 50 years as a NALC member, I say o.k., I did it all.

Victory Success
The unpreventable Postal Strike occurring in 1970, remains fresh in the minds of letter carriers who were courageous enough to have taken part in it, and are proud that they worked hard to bring about responsible negotiations with the Post Office Department which cleared the way for letter carriers to obtain reasonably good wages, instead of continuing to receive inadequate salary of almost nothing for many hours of hard work, and to obtain needed health benefit coverage of quality.

The only thing I regret at the time of the strike, is that we didn't have a strong leader at the national level. This major strike was one of the most successful, even though no national leader helped us. Remember, this was just a wildcat strike called by Branch 36 that spread throughout the country. Our position changed from Congressional begging to postal reform which allows us to negotiate our own contract. This is what took place on March 18, 1970.

Almost immediately after Branch 36 put up picket lines on March 18, 1970, the Nixon Administration sprang into action. Government lawyers in New York obtained an injunction ordering a return to work, but Branch 36's strikers defied the order.

As the strike spread throughout the country, NALC President James Rademacher saw himself caught between his loyalty to his members and his,concern for the union's future. Rademacher understood all the reasons why his members walked off their jobs to fight. Yet, he feared that if he assumed leadership of the strike, the government would totally destroy the union. Rademacher would later admit that there are times when workers have no choice but to strike-he simply felt that the morning of March 18th was not such a time.

Trying to escape his dilemma and end the crisis, Rademacher both attacked the strikers urged them to return to work. At a press conference on March 22nd, he charged that the New York City walk out had been instigated partly by "subversive" elements-members of the left wing Students For A Democratic Society. Rademacher also threatened Branch 36 leaders with expulsion from the NALC, and sent national officers out to the field to quash support for the strike. Finally, after being assured by the Administration that negotiations would begin once and only if the strike ended, Rademacher called an emergency meeting of 300 branch presidents on March 20th in Washington, D.C. At this meeting, Rademacher asked the presidents to call their members back to work for five days. He made the following promise: If an agreement with the Administration was not reached after five days, he would personally call and lead a nationwide strike.

But on the picket lines, most striking carriers and clerks were not listening to theAdministration's promises nor those of Rademacher. So President Nixon-searching for a way to end the crisis-went on the offensive on March 23rd. Before the American people via nationwide television, Nixon declared a national emergency and ordered 25,000 soldiers into New York City, plus his implied threat to send troops to other cities, convinced many postal workers to return to work. But not the strikers in New York City. It was only when the leadership of Branch 36 assured the striking letter carriers that an agreement had been reached with the Administration-even though no such agreement existed-that the carriers and clerks in New York City put down the picket signs and went back to work; first to go out and last to go back in, New York City's letter carriers had shown a resolve and courage which would not be forgotten.

As soon as the New York strikers returned to their jobs, Rademacher and other postal union leaders, assisted by the AFL-CIO, began round-the-clock negotiations with the Post Office Department, and by April 2nd, the parties reached an agreement which they believed would satisfy the demands of the carriers and clerks who, at great personal risk, had defied both the federal government and their national leaders.

I precisely recall what happened the night of March 17th after we forced our local president Gus Johnson for a strike vote. Voting was to take place at Manhattan Center on 34th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenue in Manhattan. I guess our local officers figured it was out-of-the-way for most Bronx and Manhattan carriers, and also had a 6:00 p.m. voting time. Knowing that all carriers finish work at 2:30 p.m. and will go home and hopefully they would not show up to vote. The doors never opened at 6:00 p.m. for the carriers to vote. After a huge crowd of carriers showed up to vote, at about 6:45 the crowd got out of hand and they kept banging on the doors of Manhattan Center for someone to open up. The doors finally opened. I guess they realized they had no choice. Either open up the doors or we would break down the doors. I was one of the first carriers who entered Manhattan Center. Just try to visualize what I saw. What they did was set up chairs on both sides of the room for carriers to walk through to the voting machines. What they wanted was for the carriers to enter on 34th Street, walk between the chairs to the voting machines and walk out at the 35th Street exit. They wanted the carriers to go home and then they would tell us what the total vote was. You have got to understand the distrust we had for our local president Gus Johnson who had too many ties to our national president James Rademacher.

I believe if we had voted and went home, there would never have been a strike. When I saw this, I realized what was going to happen. With this in mind, I started to rearrange the chairs. In fact, I guess you can say I was throwing the chairs around to make sure that any letter carrier who wanted to stay after they votled would have that right. At about 11 p.m. they called one of the carriers from Grand Central station, Richie Massillo, to get the figures from the polling machines for the carriers waiting to hear the vote. I believe there were four polling machines. When Richie finished counting the votes, the result was 1,555 to strike and 1,055 not to strike. There was a difference of 500 votes. That significant difference of 500 votes changed history. After the strike vote, they said we were going to go on strike March 18, 1970, at 12:Ol a.m. Two carriers from Grand Central station, Charlie Springer and Eddie Morris, walked down to Fifth Avenue, picked up the police barriers because it was Saint Patrick's Day, and they held the barriers while walking to Grand Central station and set up the first picket line.

The strike changed my life in many ways. When I went home that morning, my wife was waiting for me and said to me, "You and the carriers made the right decision." She said she would get a job while I was out on strike. She did get the job and retired 25 years later. It also made it better for every letter carrier, bringing about better working conditions and higher salaries. To me, best of all, was Vincent Sombrotto who was a stand out in the rank and file, became president of Branch 36 a year later and became national president a few years thereafter. I don't have to tell the letter carriers what Vince has done for them.

Was it illegal to go on strike? The answer is yes. Were we scared to go on strike? The answer is yes. Remember, we could not live on the salary we were getting at the time. Also, there were letter carriers who needed welfare and food stamps. Branch 36 was the first to go on strike and the last to go back to work. We lost six days pay. It was well worth it. We made great changes for the letter carriers throughout the country.

I am very proud to have been an intregal part of the 1970 Postal Strike.