Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

League of Revolutionary Struggle (M-L) sums up: 1978 Postal Workers’ Contract Struggle, Part 2

First Published: Unity, Vol. 2, No. 4, February 24-March 8, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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This is Part II of a summation of the League of Revolutionary Struggle M-L)’s work in the 1978 postal contract struggle. This summation is the first of a series of articles UNITY will be running to sum up various labor struggles in which the League is participating.

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 this one, will contribute to this process, and be educational for Marxist-Leninists and worker activists. We welcome comments and criticisms from our readers.

* * *

The 1978 postal contract battle was an important struggle of public sector workers, who like many workers in the U.S., faced the capitalists’ “take-away” attacks. They were also bound by law not to strike. The League of Revolutionary Struggle (M-L) has a five-year history of work among postal workers. 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.

The first part of this summation, which was published in the last issue of UNITY (Vol. II, No. 3; February 9, 1979), covered an analysis of the objective conditions in the postal service and the issues facing the workers as their contract came up for renewal. We then discussed our goals and plans for the contract struggle, based on integrating the League’s general tine on labor and trade union work with the objective conditions and an assessment of the various forces involved in the struggle.

Part II, below, will cover the work of the League throughout the actual contract struggle and sum up the main strengths and weaknesses of this work.

Preparation for the contract struggle

The contract for the 650,000 workers in the United States Postal Service (USPS) expired on July 20, 1978. For months beforehand, the League began its work to organize for the contract.

The League wanted to organize and help lead the workers-to win a decent contract, and through this process, build the strength and organization of the rank and file, educate the workers to the need for socialist revolution, and build the leadership of Marxist-Leninists in the workers movement. We recognized that overall, Marxist-Leninists were still developing their work and ties among the workers, and were in no position to actually lead a national strike or struggle. But we wanted to give the broadest possible leadership we could under the circumstances.

In the months preceding the contract expiration, League members and supporters began to unite workers around a series of demands for the new contract. These included demands to improve the wages and working conditions of the workers; strengthen the no-layoff clause, eliminate the sub and casual categories and the no-strike clause. In addition, we raised special demands for minority and women workers concerning affirmative action, paid maternity leave and childcare.

In building the struggle for these demands, we connected them to the day-to-day shop floor struggles of the workers. We also strived to strengthen the organization of the rank and file in order to wage a more effective struggle against the USPS and the top union bureaucrats who, on their own, were sure to sell out the workers.

League members and supporters called meetings with workers in facilities in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Richmond, California. We united with other workers to form a rank and file caucus in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Postal Workers Contract Committee (PWCC), which united rank and file workers from facilities throughout the area and from 3 different craft unions. The PWCC called mass meetings, held fund raisers and a family picnic for the workers, and put out a newsletter – all towards organizing broad numbers of workers into the contract struggle.

Along with the PWCC, and in other areas including New York City and Chicago, we helped to mobilize workers for local union meetings to voice our contract demands and to press the unions to open negotiations and make strike preparations; and we pushed for the position “no contract, no work.”

As the contract deadline neared, mass activity intensified. The growing sentiment of the workers for a decent contract pushed local union officials to call demonstrations in front of USPS facilities in major cities across the country, and in Washington, D.C. Marxist-Leninists and mass caucuses like the PWCC and the Good Contract Committee in New York, were active in pushing for these demonstrations and mobilizing for them. In San Francisco, the PWCC also called additional demonstrations to promote the rank and file’s demands.

The settlement and the League’s general tasks

On July 20, the contract expired. The bureaucrats and the USPS announced they had reached a settlement. The proposed contract was an insult to the workers. It provided a measly 2% wage increase the first year, 3% the second year and 5% the third. It put a ceiling on the cost of living allowance. The no-layoff clause was left intact, but the USPS was still free to cut jobs through a dozen other means – bid abolishments, office closings, forced retirements, and so on. The workers’ demands for an end to the casual system, for affirmative action and women’s demands, were all ignored. And of course, the no-strike clause continued to be in the contract.

The response from the workers was overwhelmingly against the settlement. Three hundred workers at the New York Bulk and Foreign Mail Center (NY-BFMQ in Jersey City, New Jersey, demonstrated in front of the facility at 6 a.m. the morning of July 21. Sixteen hundred workers refused to go to work. The NY-BFMC was shut down.

That evening, workers at the San Francisco Bulk Mail Center (SF-BMC) in Richmond, California, voted almost unanimously to strike the next morning, to protest the contract and to show solidarity with the New York strike. Among those voting to strike were several local’ Mailhandlers and American Postal Workers Union (APWU) union officials.

The League set out three main tasks. The first was to participate and help build the SF-BMC strike. We had previously assessed that wildcat strikes, especially those without local union sanction, would be premature and result in mass firings. However, we had agreed that if large numbers of workers wildcat-ted spontaneously at the facilities where we worked, we would try to lead the struggle as best we could, and not scab. This was actually how the situation unfolded at the SF-BMC.

In other facilities where we worked in the Bay Area, New York and Chicago, we set ourselves the task of organizing to unite all who could be united to vote down the contract and support the NY-BFMC and SF-BMC wildcats. In all areas, we continued our organizing to push the union bureaucrats to live up to the position “no contract, no work” and call a national strike.

Lastly, we intensified our independent propaganda and agitation work. We set into motion a national apparatus to receive and disseminate information, and put forth the League’s demands and views at each turn of the struggle.

The SF-BMC wildcat

Workers at the SF-BMC struck on July 21. For the first five days, there were over 100 workers on the picket lines, which the majority of workers at the facility honored. This almost completely shut the facility down. For almost a week trucks filled with sacks of mail remained in the lot, unable to move.

League members and supporters at the BMC actively participated in and tried to give leadership to the strike. We concentrated on pulling together a strike committee of all the strikers, and held mass meetings where the strikers could collectively discuss and democratically make decisions. The strike committee organized the picketing, did a tremendous amount of publicity and outreach work to the press, and spoke to other postal union locals and other trade unions in the area to get their support. The PWCC, which had members in the strike, also mobilized workers and students to come and support the picket lines, and helped the strikers with outreach work to other unions.

The strikers were militant and determined to oppose the contract settlement, and fought courageously against the combined forces of the USPS, the state and the union bureaucrats which united to smash the strike. Over 85 workers were fired, and the USPS used federal marshals, the courts and the police to attack the picket lines and issue injunctions against picketers.

After about five days, the effectiveness of the strike began to wane. Without union support and with the USPS’s heavy reprisals, more workers who had been sympathetic to the strike now felt they had to return to work or face reprisals themselves.

Struggle over when to retreat

During the wildcat, the SF-BMC workers stayed in touch with the New York strike through various contacts. The NY-BFMC strikers had suffered similar heavy reprisals from the USPS, police and courts. After a few days, that wildcat also began to weaken due to the heavy attacks.

At the same time, Moe Biller, the President of the New York-New Jersey APWU, the largest APWU local in the country, started to talk strike. After a couple of days, Biller stated that he opposed the contract and that he would be calling a strike vote by the end of the week. Though Biller had done nothing concretely to support the NY-BFMC strike, he made a big show of appearing militant.

Many workers in New York and San Francisco looked to Biller and hoped that he would call a strike. If Biller called a strike, the whole struggle would take a turn in the favor of the workers. The SF-BMC strikers wanted to wait for the New York strike vote before they decided to do anything else.)

The League believed that Biller was all talk and no action. If Biller wanted to support the wildcat, or if he wanted to strike, why should he wait for five days? Why didn’t he do anything to support the strikers who were fired? The League believed that Biller, who knew that Marxist-Leninists were active in the wildcat, was putting the strikers out on a limb so as to isolate them, and in fact, get rid of them completely.

The League took the position of demanding that Biller call for the strike vote immediately, but also maintained to the striking workers that they should not wait or depend on Biller. We stressed that the workers should develop their own plans.

By the fifth day of the strike, the SF-BMC workers were feeling more isolated, but were still holding out for Biller’s strike vote. The League continued to unite with the workers to build the strike, but also began to introduce the idea that staying out indefinitely was not the only path. The firing of all the advanced workers was already a big setback to the prospects for any ongoing work inside the plant in the immediate future. We began to raise the idea that there were other means for continuing the struggle, and that it would be wise to make a tactical retreat – especially if some workers could still keep their jobs.

A few days later, a federal court in New Jersey ruled that Biller was not legally authorized to call a strike vote. The man who had all along threatened to defy the law, now backed down. He was off the hook. The SF-BMC strikers began to sum up this lesson. The strike committee decided to withdraw the picketing and focus its attention on struggling for amnesty for all fired workers, and organizing to reject the contract.

The question of when to retreat was the subject of a lot of struggle in the League. The League wanted neither to tail the workers, nor to stand against the workers. We wanted neither to act impetuously and without a long range view of the struggle, nor to capitulate in the immediate struggle.

League members and supporters found that crucial to determining these tactical decisions was having a correct assessment of the objective conditions and practicing the mass line. We sought to understand the sentiments of the workers in a dialectical way. We consulted fully with the workers, through many discussions and in meetings.

For example, we could not go against the workers’ sentiments and denounce them for having illusions about Biller. We patiently pointed out Biller’s past history and helped the workers sum up lessons when Biller showed his true colors. We also continued to unite with the workers’ honest militant sentiments to “fight to the end,” by defending and building the strike. At the same time, we pointed out the unrealistic nature of actually taking the path of staying out indefinitely. This was a difficult task of leadership which proved to be a valuable lesson.

Organizing in other facilities and cities

The two wildcat strikes spoke for the dissatisfied postal workers everywhere. All across the country, postal workers were infuriated by the lousy contract and the lay-back top union bureaucrats. Many local union officials also had these sentiments. Scores of local and regional union leaders opposed the contract that the top bureaucrats – Joe Vacca of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), Emmett Andrews of the APWU, and Lonnie Johnson of the Mailhandlers – had negotiated on behalf of their memberships.

However, despite this widespread dissension among the workers and the lower levels of the unions, there was no unified movement or leadership that was strong enough to effectively challenge the top bureaucrats. The rank and file movement itself was in its early stages of development, and was mostly scattered in different parts of the country. Most of the local officials were not willing to defy the top bureaucrats or the law by striking themselves. While some stated sympathy for the wildcats and supported the demands for amnesty and no reprisals, concretely they did little or nothing to organize around these demands. The rank and file movement was not strong enough to have a decisive impact on these officials.

The League took the attitude that we should try to unite as many forces as possible to oppose the contract and win amnesty, and through this process, strengthen the rank and file, and build a broad united front in opposition to the top bureaucrats. We felt that crucial to building this united front was the strengthening of the rank and file, through such means as developing rank and file caucuses to give full initiative to the workers in the struggle against the USPS and against the union sell-outs.

Concretely, in addition to participating directly in the SF-BMC strike, the League organized in postal facilities San Francisco, New York and Chicago. In New York, League supporters as well as other workers and groups called mass meetings to organize for the rejection of the contract, to push Biller to strike and to support the NY-BFMC strikers. Similar work was done in Chicago, in mobilizing workers to go to union meetings with their contract demands. In San Francisco facilities we did this, and also helped build material support for the strike through organizing food and money donations for strikers.

Across the country, one union local after another voted to tell their members to reject the contract, and supported the demand for amnesty for the fired strikers. Many regional level union meetings passed resolutions against the contract and for amnesty, such as the Northeast regional APWU, which represents 100,000 workers.

This sentiment was loudly brought to the national conventions of the NALC and the APWU, held in early August in Chicago and Denver respectively. NALC President, Joe Vacca, who had shamelessly praised the contract, was booed down and a few weeks later was voted out of office. Emmett Andrews, APWU President, could not even open the APWU convention because hundreds of workers demonstrated in the aisles of the convention floor for 1 and a half hours. PWCC and SF-BMC strikers sent representatives to the APWU convention, to help promote their demands, to reject the contract, and win amnesty.

Both conventions mandated their union leaderships to call for a strike if the contracts were voted down, and if no other agreement could be reached within 15 days.

From August 23 to 25, the mail vote ballots from all the unions came in. The results were a clear rejection: NALC – 78,832 to 56,342; APWU – 94,491 to 78,487; Mailhandlers – 8,441 to 7,749. The USPS refused to negotiate any further. Rather than act according to the wishes of the union memberships, the bureaucrats capitulated and agreed to binding federal arbitration. The final settlement reached on September 15 and forced upon the workers was a significant setback. The already weak no-layoff clause was all but destroyed, stripping all newly hired workers of any job protection until they could accumulate six years’ seniority. The settlement also failed to provide 100% cost of living wage increase and offered wages only $100 a year more than the original settlement.

Contract bulletins

During the entire two month struggle, the League conducted broad propaganda and agitational work among the postal workers throughout the country. In addition to distributing Getting Together and then UNITY, inside and outside the postal facilities, the League constructed a national apparatus to issue timely agitational bulletins specifically focused on the contract fight.

The League issued 100,000 copies of 13 bulletins between July and September. During the strike the bulletins came out on almost a daily basis. The bulletins were based on information that workers and League supporters in all parts of the country phoned in. They were compiled at a national center and communicated back to nine cities, where they were printed overnight and distributed.

The bulletins contained the latest, up-to-date news on the national struggle, and presented demands at each stage of the struggle. They started coming out before the contract expired, presenting our demands and encouraging workers to unite and struggle for a decent contract. They kept up with the strike developments and actions taken by workers throughout the country. They put forth demands and tried to give the workers guidance for organizing to reject the contract, to support the strikers, for amnesty, against arbitration, and so on.

Through the news and demands presented in the bulletins, we tried to educate the workers politically about the nature of their struggle against the capitalist class. The bulletins helped heighten the workers’ understanding of the conditions in the post office in the context of the overall state of the economy and in particular, with public sector workers; the nature of the trade union bureaucrats who do the work of the bourgeoisie inside the workers’ movement; the nature of the state; and the importance of uniting all the workers into a militant mass movement to struggle for their just demands.

The workers welcomed the bulletins, as they were the only source of up-to-date information on the struggle. The USPS and the federal government were worried about the impact of the bulletins, and printed an anti-communist attack against them in the Federal Times newspaper.

The ability of the League to issue national bulletins on almost a daily basis, in the heat of a struggle, reflected a significant maturing in building a professional propaganda and agitational apparatus. The bulletins directly aided in the independent Marxist-Leninist work of the League. As a result of the bulletins, the distribution network of UNITY expanded in most areas. In addition, a number of workers joined newspaper discussion groups and Marxist-Leninist study circles led by the League.

Conclusion of the struggle

The settlement reached by the arbitrators not only hurt the workers’ job security and gave little in the way of wages, but also greatly weakened the chances of amnesty for the 200 workers who were fired across the country. After the settlement, harassment of workers increased.

But defeats are temporary. Through the struggle, the workers learned important lessons in the nature of class warfare. They learned who their friends and enemies are, the need to build a strong rank and file movement, and kick out the sell-out bureaucrats. Today, the workers continue to fight the effects of the contract and for amnesty; and more basis has been laid to unite with workers and form caucuses in different cities.

The League learned a lot through this struggle. Among the most valuable lessons were those concerning strike tactics and practicing the mass line. The League and the advanced workers learned the importance of having an objective analysis of the situation and to wage the immediate struggle in the context of our long range goals, and not pit one against the other.

The other significant lesson we learned was the importance of nationwide propaganda and agitation. The impact of the bulletins throughout the country was even greater than we had anticipated. They helped to build the rank and file movement and the influence of Marxist-Leninists nationally beyond the actual facilities where the League was doing work. The experiences of issuing nationwide materials during the struggle was a blow at the conservative view that Marxist-Leninists could only influence and lead the working class through direct work inside the factories. While this work is the cornerstone to building a movement in any industry, Marxist-Leninists must broaden their view and combine in-plant organizing with broad propaganda and agitation. This is essential to expanding and developing revolutionary leadership for the working class movement.


The work of the League in the contract struggle was not without weaknesses. Most of the League’s weaknesses and errors in the struggle reflected our relative inexperience in trying to give leadership to the workers in a nationwide struggle.

The main weakness in our work was the inadequate attention given to building the workers’ organized strength. We did not do enough to help the workers build up the membership and influence of their mass caucuses; or push to form caucuses in areas where there weren’t any. For example, we struggled to develop the SF-BMC strike committee, but didn’t develop concrete plans to consolidate and expand PWCC which would continue to do work beyond the strike.

Another related weakness was that during the beginning weeks of the struggle we didn’t grasp deeply enough the importance of concretely laying the basis for a nationwide rank and file movement. We didn’t actually push to make ties and link up with various caucuses and workers’ groups across the country. Many workers in different cities expressed the need for this. As we understood this better, Getting Together helped organize a tour for a PWCC representative and a BMC striker to 5 different cities in the U.S. in August.

The weaknesses were due to our inexperience and not grasping deeply enough the importance of consolidating the workers’ strength organizationally through the course of struggle, on as broad a scale as possible.

In our propaganda and agitation work, we relied mainly on the newspaper and the bulletins. These fulfilled the purposes of getting out both news and analysis on broad questions facing the revolution; as well as having timely agitation around the contract. We had also wanted to come out with more propaganda pieces specifically for the postal workers, taking up issues facing them in more depth. However, we were not able to develop these at the time. This weakness reflected a level of primitiveness that still existed in our propaganda and agitation work. The other weakness in this work was that we did not have enough flexibility in allowing the local areas to adjust the national bulletins to include local concerns.

* * *

At this time, workers in the post office and other industries are increasing their struggles everywhere. It is crucial for Marxist-Leninists to participate in these struggles and to try to lead them in order to deepen communist ties and influence within the working class. The communist movement is still in the process of developing a correct Marxist-Leninist line on labor and trade union work. This line can only be tested and deepened in the course of trying to provide the best and broadest possible leadership to the struggles of workers

In this context, the League on the whole fulfilled its goals in the postal workers contract struggle. We played an active role in the workers struggle for a good contract, and strived to give concrete leadership to winning this fight. A the same time, we paid attention to building the workers’ long range struggle by strengthening their own organization and fighting capacity, and by doing Marxist-Leninist propaganda and agitational work. The work of the League in the 1978 contract struggle laid the basis for continuing work, in fighting for better working conditions and amnesty, and in building a national rank and file movement and Marxist-Leninist leadership in the working class.