Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

League of Revolutionary Struggle (M-L) sums up: 1978 Postal Workers’ Contract Struggle, Part 1

First Published: Unity, Vol. 2, No. 3, February 9-22, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This is the first of a series of articles UNITY will be running to sum up various labor struggles that the League of Revolutionary Struggle (M-L) is participating in.

The League believes that communists must root themselves in the factories and workplaces, and that developing our work in the workers’ movement is of vital importance to the U.S. revolution. At this time in particular, developing a correct political line on labor and trade union work is a crucial task in the struggle to forge a single, vanguard communist party. The League hopes that summations of communist work in the workers’ movement, such as the postal workers contract struggle of 1978, will contribute to this process, and be educational for Marxist-Leninists and worker activists. We welcome comments and criticisms.

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Much can be learned from the recent postal workers contract struggle that took place from July 21 to September 15, 1978. With increasing struggle among public-sector workers during the summer of 1978, the postal workers’ movement stood out as particularly significant. The 650,000 postal workers represent the second largest group of organized public sector workers. Like all workers in the U.S., postal workers faced the capitalists’ “take-away” attacks when their union contract came up for renewal on July 20, 1978.

The federal government answered the workers’ demands for the elimination of the no-strike clause by enforcing a federal law prohibiting strikes and firing workers who exercised their right to strike. Demands for decent wages and job security were answered by eliminating the no-layoff clause and promising even greater layoffs and speedups. The question of safe working conditions and discrimination were left totally unanswered.

Workers responded to these attacks by staging demonstrations, slow downs, sick-ins, and wildcat strikes in two major facilities, the New York Bulk and Foreign Mail Center in Jersey City, New Jersey; and the San Francisco Bulk Mail Center in Richmond, California.

The capitalists went all out to smash resistance to the contract settlement. The capitalists feared the militancy of the postal workers, not only because the postal system is vital to the functioning of the capitalist system, but also because a victory would have had a tidal-wave effect among dissatisfied public workers throughout the country.

The League of Revolutionary Struggle (M-L), through I Wor Kuen and the August 29th Movement (M-L), has a five year history of work among postal workers. The LRS was formed in September, 1978, arising from the merger of these two organizations. For ease of reference, we refer to the work of the League as both before and after September.

During last year’s contract struggle, League members and supporters participated in the contract struggle in nine cities across the U.S. This included San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond, San Jose and Los Angeles in California; New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, and Honolulu. League members and supporters were active in the S.F. Bulk Mail Center wildcat strike in Richmond, California and organized in other postal facilities in San Francisco, New York and Chicago. The League also did broad propaganda and agitation work around the contract in the other cities, with Getting Together newspaper and later UNITY, and with a series of 13 bulletins. These bulletins put out timely news and guidance on almost a daily basis during the heat of the struggle, on a national level.

This summation of the League’s work in the postal contract struggle is divided into two parts. The first part begins with the League’s analysis of the objective conditions in the postal service and the main issues facing the workers in the 1978 contract. It will then go into the goals and plans set by the League for the contract struggle, based on its general political line on labor and trade union work.

The second part of the summation – which will be published in the next issue of UNITY – will analyze the contract struggle itself, the wildcat strike, and the League’s role, summing up the strengths and weaknesses of the League’s work and the main lessons we learned.

Objective conditions in the U.S. Postal Service

The Post Office is vital to the functioning of U.S. monopoly capitalism. The capitalists and the government are largely dependent upon the Postal Service to maintain their national communications network.

Prior to 1971, the Postal Service was under the direct supervision of Congress and received all its funding directly from the U.S. government. Since its inception in 1972, the Postal Service has always operated with a deficit budget for the federal government.

In the early 1970’s, Congress looked desperately to find ways to cut non-military government spending. Then-President Nixon and Congress enacted the Postal Reorganization Act in 1971, to change the Postal Service to a government corporation, run by a presidentially-appointed board of governors that includes private corporate officials. While the stated aims were to “provide better services” and make the Postal Service “more efficient,” the actual reasons for the reorganization were to cut costs and make a profit for the government.

Since the reorganization, the Postal Service deficit has been reduced from $2.6 billion in 1971 to $488 million in 1977. The only way the capitalists have been able to realize such a savings is by making the working class pay.

On the one hand, there have been four rate hikes since 1971, with ever-increasing inefficiency. On the other hand, the volume of mail has increased by 5 billion pieces a year to an all-time high of 92.2 billion pieces of mail in 1977. At the same time, the overall workforce has been reduced from 728,911 in 1971, to 655,097 in 1977. In addition, the Postal Service began building centralized and highly automated Bulk Mail Centers which represented an additional worsening of working conditions and increased accidents.

What this has meant for postal workers is year-round forced overtime, unprecedented speed ups, and a skyrocketing accident rate (17,000 in 1971 up to 43,000 in 1977). The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) also maintains a “casual” workforce which it fully exploits but which receives no benefits or job protection.

All postal workers suffered from these worsening conditions, but oppressed nationality workers were hardest hit. Since the early 1920’s, Black workers, mainly in the larger cities, have been employed by the Postal Service, which is generally recognized as the lowest rung on the federal job ladder. But while Blacks constitute nearly 20% of the postal workforce, they are generally restricted to the lowest-paying and back-breaking jobs – such as mailhandlers – and make up a large percentage of the casual workforce in many areas. Over one-third of the workers who lost their jobs through job eliminations since 1971 were Black.

The organization of postal workers presented several obstacles to waging an effective struggle against the capitalists’ attacks. First, the Postal Service is an open shop. While the majority of postal workers are unionized, there are at least 50,000 who are not union members.

Furthermore, the postal workers are divided into craft unions: the Mail-handlers Union (which is part of the Laborer’s Union); the American Postal Workers Union (APWU), which includes most clerks and sorters; the National Association of Letter Carriers, (NALC); and the Rural Letter Carriers Union. With the 1971 reorganization, the Postal Service arbitrarily recognized these four as the sole bargaining units for all postal workers. The USPS consciously excluded the National Alliance of Federal and Postal Employees, a predominantly Black union of 100,000 members – with 40,000 in the USPS – which formed in 1913 because the Railway Mail Association-A.F.L. excluded Blacks from its membership.

The division of the workers into different craft unions, and the postal service capitalists’ refusal to grant recognition to the National Alliance, has posed a great obstacle to uniting all postal workers in a common fight against the USPS.

Lastly, the leadership of the postal workers unions are notorious sell-outs. Emmett Andrews of the APWU, Joe Vacca of the NALC, and Lonnie Johnson of the Mailhandlers, weren’t going to lift a finger for the workers’ contract demands.

Fight for workers’ immediate and long-range interests

The League upholds the importance of participating in and leading the daily struggle of the working class to improve its working conditions and wages. At the same time, the League believes in involving workers in all kinds of other activities, such as the battle against the Bakke decision.

The League participates in the workers’ daily struggles in order to win concrete improvements for the workers; and through these experiences in battle with the capitalists, the League aims to build up the fighting strength and organization of the working class, win the workers to see the need for socialist revolution as the only way to eliminate their exploitation and oppression, and build the leadership of Marxist-Leninists in the workers’ movement.

Concretely in the postal struggle, this meant developing a fighting program and plan of action for the contract struggle; building the rank and file movement through such means as developing workers caucuses and committees; and doing independent Marxist-Leninist propaganda and agitation work.

Based on its understanding of the objective conditions facing postal workers, and in consultation with the masses, the League developed a series of concrete demands for the contract. These demands spoke to improving conditions in key areas such as wages to keep up with the rate of inflation; strengthening the no-layoff clause; eliminating the sub and casual categories; and eliminating the no-strike clause. In addition, the League recognized the importance of fighting for the special demands of minority and women workers, as the only way to unite workers of all nationalities, both men and women. The League thus developed demands for affirmative action, and for paid maternity leave and child care.

The League also recognized that in order to fight for these demands, a rank and file movement had to be built to struggle against the sell-out union officials. League members and supporters engaged in mass work in various postal facilities, organizing around contract demands and day-to-day issues. We united with the workers to build rank and file committees, such as the Postal Workers Contract Committee (PWCC) in the San Francisco Bay Area. We also tried to build ties with other rank and file groups and unite with all who could be united for a good contract and against the sell-out top bureaucrats of the postal unions.

The League combined this work with independent communist work and propaganda and agitation. The main form that was used was Getting Together newspaper, and later, UNITY newspaper. Getting Together and UNITY were distributed inside and outside postal facilities across the country, educating the workers in a broad range of political issues and questions. The League also developed a network to put out timely, nationwide agitational leaflets specifically directed at postal workers and contract matters. The bulletins were an important part of developing Marxist-Leninist influence and leadership in the postal workers movement.

Assessment of forces and plans

The postal contract expired on July 20, but for months before, the League had begun preparing for the struggle. In addition to analyzing the objective conditions and formulating our main demands, the League made a concrete assessment of the different forces involved in the contract struggle.

The League recognized that the postal workers did have a tradition of militancy and taking things into their own hands, as demonstrated by the successful national wildcat of March 1970.

Through applying the mass line, we analyzed that while postal workers were willing to fight, the actual strength and organization of the rank and file was weak. Many had not actually experienced the struggles in the early developments of their unions and lacked strike experience.

As for the union leadership, there was nothing in the past eight years that would indicate anything else but that the top bureaucrats would continue to let the USPS give postal workers the shaft. Previously they had negotiated the current contract which included the no-strike clause; the loss of 60,000 jobs; and continuing speedups and safety problems. The bureaucrats’ line for the 1978 contract was to blackmail the rank and file into giving up most of their demands and settling for a meager wage increase, or else face the loss of the no-layoff clause. In addition, the top bureaucrats kept the workers completely in the dark about the negotiations.

Many workers were understandably cynical about the union’s ability and desire to fight for a decent contract. And while there was growing dissatisfaction with the top bureaucracy among many local union officials, there was not a unified movement. In addition, from what we saw, there were very few rank and file organizations across the country that could serve as an active opposition and unite all who could be united against the bureaucrats. The PWCC in the Bay Area and the Good Contract Committee in New York were two of the largest mass organized groups in the post office, but their influence was very limited, and regional at best.

The League saw that it had the responsibility to give the broadest possible leadership and based its plans on the basis of the conditions and assessment of forces. We recognized that Marxist-Leninists overall were in no position to call and lead a nationwide movement or strike of postal workers. But we did want to help lead the struggle for a decent contract and build the rank and file movement as much as possible, and as broadly as possible, towards an organized nationwide movement.

Our basic approach in the months preceding the contract expiration was to unite workers around our contract demands, and to organize the workers to demand that the bureaucrats of the unions open up negotiati6ns to the rank and file, make strike preparations, and sanction a strike if no agreement was reached by the expiration date.

We anticipated four possibilities of how the contract struggle could unfold, and made appropriate plans for each.

In the unlikely event that the national union leaderships called a national strike, we would try to lead the struggle. We would organize strike committees, strike funds, strikers newsletters and communist support, to build a militant strike with the maximum participation of the workforce. We would oppose the most-likely early capitulation by the bureaucrats, but would assess whether or not we would push for the workers to stay out without union sanction based on the actual level of organization and sentiments of the workers. We analyzed that it would be unlikely that the majority of workers would be willing to strike without union protection. We also figured that if a contract was settled by the July 20 deadline, it would probably be a sell-out. We would organize to reject the contract and press for an end to the mail-ballot system and demand rank and file participation in all ballot-counting.

If there was no agreement reached and no strike called, we would press “no contract, no work” and continue to push for strike preparations and demand that the unions call a strike. We were also prepared to actively oppose any moves towards binding arbitration, which would take all the initiative out of the workers’ and their unions’ hands. We would continue to press for “no contract, no work.” We also understood that the workers in the Postal Service have not had the experience of government arbitration and that we would have to do a lot of education around this question.

Lastly, we prepared for the eventuality of spontaneous wildcat strikes. After much discussion with the masses in various facilities, we came to the conclusion that the overall level of rank and file organization and unity was too low to carry out a wildcat that was not sanctioned at least by local union officials. To call a wildcat without local sanction at that time would have been premature and would have resulted in mass firings, destroying the ability to develop a rank and file movement in the immediate future. It was our own opinion that the workers were not at a place where they could effectively win back the jobs of workers fired for striking.

We did not think that wildcats were the best tactic at that time. But if large numbers of workers walked out in the facilities where we were working, we would still be responsible to help organize and lead the struggle as best we could and to build support for it. We would not scab. At the same time, we also decided that we would oppose any irresponsible actions by splinter groups who would hope to “spark” a nationwide strike by recklessly misleading small numbers of workers into a hopeless wildcat. This was the consistent practice of the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) and various Trotskyite formations that we had already seen ruin many a struggle.

In all of our contingency plans, we prepared ourselves to go all out to help lead the workers, build up their rank and file organization, expand the distribution of Getting Together and later UNITY, and issue timely agitational leaflets on a national basis.