When last we left the U.S. Postal Service, in 1967, they were forcing my grandpa to remember a series of cryptic five-digit codes for every address in his book — including his own.
I guess that was better than this week’s situation. This week we set the TARDIS for March 1970, and find my grandfather’s mailbox as empty as Charlie Brown’s.
It wasn’t the quarter-inch of snow keeping the previously reliable letter carriers of Stamford from their appointed rounds. It was an unprecedented labor action that began in New York City and spread to other parts of the country — the largest walkout ever against the federal government, according to news reports of the time.
Letter carriers in New York and elsewhere had long felt that their pay and benefits were inadequate and their work unsafe. (According to the National Postal Museum’s blog, some carriers’ pay was low enough to qualify them for welfare programs.)
However, they lacked collective bargaining rights. And their union leaders dragged their feet on direct action, continuing to recommend against a strike even as rank-and-file members were voting to go out.
When the strike finally materialized, it spread quickly — involving more than 200,000 Postal Service employees across the country within a matter of days.
President Nixon called out National Guard and reserve troops to sort and deliver New York’s mail. The president of the national letter carriers’ union urged his members to go back to work. The carriers — men and women accustomed to spending time on their feet — continued to walk the picket line through it all.
And tax returns, bills, cards of condolence, Dear John letters, and every other kind of correspondence sat still and unmoving.
Stamford’s letter carriers finally returned to work after five days of striking. The last holdouts in other cities resumed their rounds about two weeks after the strike began. Over the following year, the strike triggered reforms that included better pay and benefits for letter carriers, as well as the reorganization of the Postal Service.
My grandfather’s calendar does not make specific reference to anything getting lost or delayed in the mail. So it’s possible that the postal strike didn’t have a deep personal impact on him.
I wonder what he thought of it. He was not one to protest against established organizations. So, perhaps he agreed with the old-school thinking that postal carriers (like cops and teachers) had no right to strike against the public good.
On the other hand, he might have been touched by the idea that the people doing this essential work were making subsistence wages. As a dutiful provider in the roles of father, husband and son, he would not have opposed the notion of a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work.
Most likely, he simply scratched his head and heaved a sigh as yet another once-reliable American institution wheezed to an ineffectual halt.