The postal strike’s militant roots

October 20, 2011

Beginning in the mid-1960s, public-sector workers influenced by the Black Power and antiwar movements brought that militancy to their workplaces. Even though strikes by public employees were illegal, workers walked out anyway in wildcat work action. One of the outstanding wildcats of the time was a strike by postal workers in 1970.

In July, a panel discussion "Wildcat! The 1970 postal workers' strike" at the Socialism 2011 conference in Chicago put together Tara Lee, a leader of the 1970 wildcat strike in New York, and columnist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Here, we reprint Taylor's speech, providing the backdrop to this pivotal wildcat strike. Lee's speech appears here.

TODAY, WHEN you hear politicians from both parties attack public-sector workers, the reasons why people in the public sector became unionized in the first place are completely lost. Instead, it's a discussion in the media and among politicians about so-called bloated pensions and greedy state, local and federal workers who want taxpayers to foot the bill for their profligate lifestyles.

I think hearing about the conditions that people actually worked in really explains why postal workers risked prison and losing their pensions 30 years ago to fight for the right for collective bargaining in the first place.

Postal workers started work at $6,200 and maxed out after 21 years at $8,800. There was a study done in the late 1960s which showed that in order to live a modest lifestyle in New York City, you needed to be making at least $11,000 a year, not $6,000. And so that and the antiquated conditions under which people worked in the post offices themselves are very important in understanding why people wanted to get unionized--needed to get unionized--to defend their basic rights.

Striking postal workers in Detroit
Striking postal workers in Detroit

The arbitrariness of work is very important to understand in that context. And when you understand that, or when you know that history, then you can understand the bravery that people displayed. Not only did President Richard Nixon call out 19,000 federal troops--not just National Guard troops, but the Army as well--but the courts put out an injunction against the union leadership.

Included were $1,000-a-day fines against all workers who participated in the strike, which would be graduated each day. So $1,000 for Day 1, $2,000 for Day 2, $3,000 for Day 3, and so on and so forth. And then a $10,000 graduated fine against the union itself. This was the ferocity with which the American state tried to break this strike.

The last thing that demonstrates the disconnect between what some members of Congress are saying today and the conditions that existed in the Post Office is that postal workers, because they did not have a union, could only get pay increases through an act of Congress.

The Johnson administration produced a report in 1968 that detailed the horrific conditions that postal workers were working under and recommended that their pay be increased, and for two years, Congress did nothing. And so, at the end of that two-year period, they came back with a 4.25 percent raise, which wasn't enough to cover the cost-of-living increases and not enough to keep up with the rate of inflation, which was 7 percent at that point.

About a week later, after proposing this meager pay increase for postal workers, they voted themselves a 41 percent pay raise. That became the final straw for postal workers--the point when it was clear that Congress wasn't going to be serious about actually dealing with the fact that postal workers, just like sanitation workers in Memphis, had to supplement their income with welfare and food stamps while working full-time federal jobs. They were going to have to take action.

So I think that history is important in today's discussions about public-sector workers and whether or not they're too greedy and asking for too much. But beyond that, I think that there are several reasons why this strike is incredibly important and deserves to be sort of resurrected, because it's really a labor action that many people do not know about.

THERE'S A popular notion that the working class and the labor movement were on the sidelines of the social movements in the 1960s. When we talk about the 1960s, people hear about the civil rights movement, the urban rebellions, the women's movement, the beginning of the gay liberation movement, the rise of student movements, the movement against the Vietnam War, etc. But when we hear about labor, often it's this caricature of construction workers in their hard hats beating up antiwar activists.

That's one portrayal. Then there's the so-called "silent majority" that gave Richard Nixon the presidency in 1968, that entertained the Southern segregationist George Wallace's presidential campaign in that 1968 election, and people who were just generally against civil rights and Black equality.

That's not only a caricature, but it really misses the way in which the rank-and-file rebellion of that period was shaped and fueled by the Black protests of the time--from the civil rights movement to the Black liberation movement through the end of the decade. It misses the way in which the migration of African Americans to urban centers, where they became entrenched parts of workforces across the North, fundamentally shaped the direction of those working-class struggles.

There are aspects of that narrative that have some truth to them--in terms of a backlash against the movements of the 1960s. But, in many ways, the postal workers' strike of 1970, and the general upsurge in working-class activity from the mid-1960s through 1974, indicates that the attempts to portray a general picture of the working class as more conservative, reactionary and racist is simplistic at best, and completely erroneous at worst.

Moreover, understanding the worker rebellion of the 1960s and '70s complicates how we look at and understand the labor movement itself. It's not this united entity, but the rank-and-file rebellion of the late 1960s and '70s revealed the deep chasm that existed within the labor movement--between an entrenched leadership at the top looking out for their own interests, and the rank-and-file members who made up the heart of that movement.

Understanding how this upsurge of wildcat strike activity happened in the first place means looking at how the labor movement itself transformed from the course of the 1930s, when the industrial unions formed for the first time, to the 1960s. I don't have time to go through all of that--that's the benefit of being at this conference where there are talks about the history of the labor movement throughout the weekend--but I think that there are three key things to look at.

One of the structural changes within the labor movement itself and how the upsurge of the 1930s gets transformed into the development of a labor bureaucracy by the 1960s--and really a disconnect from the conditions faced by ordinary workers during that time.

The second important thing are the demographic changes that happen within the labor movement, in terms of the movement of Black workers in particular from the South to the North. They become concentrated in industry across the North, but also become very central to public-sector work as well.

By the late 1960s into 1970, the federal government was the largest employer of African American workers at that point. And as industry begins to leave urban spaces, the federal government becomes a sort of employer of last resort in response to the urban rebellions of that time. There's an urgency to actually employ people, to find jobs for people.

The last thing, which I think is most important, in terms of understanding the context that could produce this kind of confidence and rebellion in the workplace, were the social movements--in particular, the civil rights and the Black Power movement of that time. In terms of creating both the sense that people had the right to fight for different conditions, but also in terms of actually providing a model for what a successful struggle could look like.

I WANT to say something about public-sector work in particular, because I don't think that it is just coincidental that something like this happened in a federal workplace. It wasn't just in industry, like I said before, that Blacks were becoming more concentrated in the public sector. In 1961, John F. Kennedy signed an executive order giving federal workers the right to organize, but not to strike.

By 1970, half of Black male college graduates and more than 60 percent of college-educated Black women were public employees, compared with 35 percent of white men and 55 percent of white women. And although 18 percent of the labor force in 1970 were government employees, 26 percent of African Americans worked for the government.

Between May 1973 and May 1974, 64 percent of all new federal employees came from minority groups. Black workers were also found in municipal and government work, where the wages were 15 percent higher than in public-sector work for Black men and 20 percent higher for Black women--and the benefits were better.

The influx of African Americans into both public and private workplaces in the midst of the unfolding Black freedom movement not only changed the demographics of American labor, but also brought the urgency and militancy of the Black freedom struggle into the workplaces themselves.

One way in which that happened was that the civil rights movement in particular opened up the space for reform in the first place. There was a directive for affirmative action in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which gave African Americans and women the legal right to fight for their rights in workplaces and to make demands for equal pay. And so, in that sense, those struggles were legitimized.

And this was especially important within public-sector work, where there was a specific intent to draw militant and angry African Americans into the workforce. When the Kerner Commission declared that unemployment, housing and police brutality were the three main catalysts for the urban rebellions of the 1960s, there was an urgent attempt by the state to draw in Black workers.

That meant that people didn't just leave their politics at home when they came into these workplaces, but they actually helped to influence the direction of struggle in those places as well. Public-sector work in general, which included teachers and social workers, attracted young workers, ex-activists, Blacks and women--all of whom were undergoing an intense radicalization as a result of the political struggles that were sweeping the U.S.

And so, while strikes among public employees were illegal and were seldom known before, by the mid- and late 1960s, they were regular occurrences. In 1966, there were 142 strikes by public employees; by 1968, there were 412 public employee work stoppages. Teachers were also a part of this. One historian described that, in 1966 alone, teachers staged 33 walkouts, as compared with 26 for the entire previous decade. By the early 1970s, scores of teachers' strikes annually delayed school openings.

Nor were teachers the only militants. By 1967, some 250 public employee strikes erupted, quintupling the previous one-year record. Most of these disputes were traditional labor battles with unions seeking wage increases and fair promotions, seniority and discipline procedures, or attempting to resist the efforts of school boards and government agencies to increase workloads and intensify productivity standards.

Obviously the postal workers' strike was the highest expression of that, but I think understanding this within the larger context of the movements of the 1960s is important in terms of understanding the rise of that strike activity.

Between 1956 and 1965, there were never more than 4,000 strikes in a single year in the U.S. And then from 1967 to 1974, there was an average of 5,200 strikes per year. In 1965, an annual average of over 1 million workers were on strike, and that wave peaked in 1970, which saw 66 million strike days lost. So it's important to see this uptick in strike activity as related to the social movements of the time.

Just to end here, the upsurge in strike activity eventually ran into the buzz saw of economic recession in 1974. That, in combination with the crushing of the social movements, contributed to the decline of that. Despite that, the postal workers' strike in particular showed that the rank-and-file self-activity combined with political struggle and a movement could actually challenge the passivity of the trade union leadership.

Transcription by Rebecca Anshell Song

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