Late in the 19th century, postal workers became inflamed with the same organizing spirit as other workers. They began to band together in order to fight for fair wages and improved working conditions.
Conditions in the post offices at that time were extremely unhealthy, dangerous and dismal. Buildings were dank, poorly lit, crowded and unventilated. Many workers contracted typhoid and other diseases from the unsanitary environment. Railway Mail Service employees faced the added dangers of frequent rail accidents resulting in numerous deaths and serious injuries each year.
Postal employees were required to work long hours of overtime without additional pay. They were expected to stay on the job until all work was completed—sometimes as long as 18 hours—and to work every other Sunday without extra compensation. The average salary for postal clerks at the turn of the century was $818 a year, with some workers earning as little as $100 a year.
Since the Post Office had been established by Congress in 1794, postal workers were appointed to their positions through the spoils system by politicians in return for political favors. Even after the first civil service law was passed by Congress in 1883 requiring competitive exams for workers in the larger facilities, most appointments and promotions continued to depend on political influence, personal favoritism—and sometimes bribery.
To discourage the organization of unions, the Post Office management tried to infuse workers with an image of themselves as different from other workers. They were professional civil servants, white-collar "government officials" who supposedly had little in common with blue-collar skilled craftsmen, industrial workers and unskilled laborers. Management fostered the view that it would be demeaning for them to join a union.
But how else except by unionizing were postal workers to change their miserable working conditions and to improve their intolerably low wages? With their pay and working conditions set by Congress, organized postal workers' earliest efforts were aimed at securing more favorable legislation by sending representatives to plead their cause in Washington. These first efforts were scattered and not very successful. The Postmaster General in 1895 issued a "gag order" forbidding employees of the Post Office from coming to Washington to influence legislation. The penalty for disrerarding this order was removal!
AFL Charters First Clerks' Local
The American Federation of Labor (AFL), which was growing by leaps and bounds, stood ready to welcome into its fold federal employees, particularly postal workers, who would join the fight for the 8-hour day. In response to a request from a small group of clerks in Chicago, the AFL chartered Federal Union #8703 in 1900—the first union of federal employees to affiliate with the Federation.
In 1902, in response to the vigorous lobbying undertaken by the fledgling postal worker unions, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order denying basic constitutional rights to all postal and federal employees by forbidding them to solicit members of Congress for wage increases or to influence any other legislation.
This "gag rule" was followed in 1909 with another under President Taft prohibiting postal workers from answering any questions concerning their working conditions that might be posed by Congressional representatives.
Despite these obstacles, several organizations of postal workers representing post office clerks, letter carriers and railway mail clerks grew steadily in numbers and in influence. Along with the American Federation of Labor and other unions, they fought to increase wages, improve conditions and pass other favorable legislation.
In 1912, the Lloyd-LaFollette Act was passed, rescinding the previous "gag rules" and establishing the right of federal and postal workers to organize unions. The year 1916 saw the adoption of the first Federal Employees Compensation Act for workers injured on the job. In 1920, Congress voted the first Civil Service Retirement Act providing retirement for clerks at age 65. A 10 percent nighttime differential was won in 1928. However, in spite of these legislative gains, little progress was made to improve overall wages.
During the 1920's postal workers' salaries fell behind those of comparable workers in private industry. In the years of the Great Depression the job security of federal employees made their positions the envy of millions of unemployed workers. As part of an effort to curb government spending, postal workers were forced to accept a 15 percent pay cut and one month's furlough. Additionally, when the Wagner Act was passed in 1935 guaranteeing most workers the right to bargain collectively through representatives of their choosing, postal and federal employees were specifically excluded from its coverage.
During the '20s and '30s motor vehicle employees, maintenance workers and special delivery messengers employed by the Post Office joined together to organize unions to protect and further their interests and concerns.
During the 1940s, postal workers won some wage increases as a result of intensive campaigning, lobbying and letter-writing. But their experience during the Eisenhower Administration led to increasing dissatisfaction and frustration. In spite of promises to the contrary, wage increases voted by Congress were repeatedly vetoed by President Eisenhower. The limited power of the unions to effectively improve the lot of postal workers was apparent. The Post Office did not recognize the unions as the representatives of the workers; wage increases were blocked by Presidential veto and there was no grievance procedure through which disputes could be resolved.
During this period, a number of postal clerks became increasingly dissatisfied with the established clerks union. In 1959, they organized a new and unique industrial union of postal workers which would recruit members from every post office craft. This was the first step toward the establishment of a progressive industrial union of postal employees.
Unions Win Recognition
In 1962, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988 which, for the first time, officially recognized the legitimate role of federal employee unions in the workplace. Representation elections in which 77 percent of the eligible employees participated resulted in the certification of six unions as the exclusive bargaining agents for each of the postal crafts. The unions now had the right to negotiate with management concerning working conditions, promotional standards, grievance procedures, safety and other matters. However, they could not negotiate over wages and fringe benefits. Another major flaw of the Executive Order was that nothing compelled the Post Office management to reach an agreement with the unions. In any dispute, management still had the last word.
The 1960's brought unfulfilled promises of pay equity with private industry. While the unions were hammering out agreements with the Post Office, they still had to lobby for raises in postal salaries to offset the effects of inflation. In the government's effort to curb spending, federal workers' salaries—once again—became the scapegoat. Low pay and money-saving restrictions in overtime led to high employee turnover, a heavy mail backlog and a severe drop in morale. The workers' frustrations mounted and the postal unions appeared incapable of overcoming employee dissatisfaction and the increasing sense of powerlessness.
On March 18, 1970, the situation erupted. Beginning in New York, thousands of postal workers walked off the job. The strike spread quickly across the country, finally involving more than 200,000 workers. Its impact was to fundamentally change labor-management relations in a major breakthrough for postal unions.
The Postal Reorganization Act of 1970 was adopted establishing the U.S. Postal Service as an independent government agency. For the first time postal unions had the right to negotiate on all matters concerning wages, fringe benefits, cost-of-living adjustments and other financial gains. Salaries and benefits were to compare with private industry and the time to reach the top grade pay was to be reduced from 21 to 8 years. Additionally, postal nanagement was required to bargain in good faith and to make a genuine effort to reach an agreement. Unresolved matters were to be submitted to final and binding arbitration. Finally, postal workers had won most of the rights enjoyed by workers in private industry since the adoption of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. The one glaring omission was the right to strike.
The APWU Is Born
On July 1, 1971, five postal unions joined together to found the American Postal Workers Union, forming the largest union of postal employees in the world. APWU represents 320,000 clerks, motor vehicle employees, maintenance workers, special delivery messengers, and other Postal Service employees. The merging unions which formed the American Postal Workers Union were the United Federation of Postal Clerks, the National Postal Union, the National Association of Post Office and General Service Maintenance Employees, the National Federation of Motor Vehicle Employees, and the National Association of Special Delivery Messengers.
Strengthened by the unity and solidarity of the different crafts it represents, the APWU has negotiated several National Agreements since 1971, each winning improved wages and working conditions for all postal workers. Collective bargaining has now replaced "collective begging" as the union's primary weapon. Nevertheless, lobbying and political action remain a vital part of the union's program to ensure that those gains won at the bargaining able are not taken away through legislation.