Happy Anniversary APWU: 50 Years of Struggle and Progress

May 7, 2021

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(This article first appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of the American Postal Worker magazine)

The American Postal Workers Union, AFL-CIO, turns 50 years old on July 1, 2021! We were created after the 1970 Great Postal Strike from a merger of five separate postal unions: the United Federation of Postal Clerks, National Postal Union, National Association of Post Office and General Service Maintenance Employees, National Federation of Motor Vehicle Employees and Special Delivery Messengers. The APWU is now one of the largest, most democratic, and progressive postal unions in the world.

Today, 200,000 postal workers and retirees make up our great union. Together we continue the struggle for better lives for postal workers and our families while protecting the gains achieved by those who came before us.

“While the goal of unifying all the postal unions into one powerful industrial union is still unfinished, the merger of five postal unions into one American Postal Workers Union was a giant step forward. We salute those visionary leaders of 50 years ago who put aside their differences and craft distinctions for the good of all postal workers” said President Mark Dimondstein.

The 1970 Postal Strike

The July 1, 1971 merger that formed the APWU was a direct product of the Great Postal Strike, when thousands of fearless postal workers took destiny in their own hands and hit the streets.

The 1970 strike was the result of years of mounting postal worker frustration caused by low pay and poor working conditions. Before the strike, Congress and the White House had the final say as to whether or not postal workers would receive improved wages and benefits.

Beginning in New York on March 18, 1970, thousands of postal workers walked off the job. The strike spread quickly across the country, involving more than 220,000 workers.

Many of the eventual leaders of the APWU were also critical leaders of the Great Postal Strike. Moe Biller, who would lead the national APWU from 1980 to 2001, was a leader of the strike in New York City. Bill Burrus, who would succeed Biller as National President until 2010, led striking postal workers in Cleveland. 

Postal Reorganization Act of 1970

The unlawful strike was won and the Postal Reorganization Act was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon. It was a major breakthrough for postal workers and our unions.

The Act established the United States Postal Service as a quasi-independent federal agency. Most importantly, the Act gave postal workers the right to full collective bargaining (instead of “collective begging” to Congress) and to negotiate directly with the Postal Service on all matters concerning wages, benefits and working conditions.

The Act also underscored the need for the different postal unions to unite into one strong voice. Instead of petitioning and lobbying Congress for wage and benefit increases and better working conditions, all postal unions would now be negotiating directly with the United States Postal Service. It was critical to build unity and power and not let the USPS take advantage of divisions within their workforce.

Coming Together to Make One Union

The formation of the American Postal Workers Union from five postal unions created an industrial-like union – representing multiple job classifications in a single union. The merger proposal was presented to the membership of the five unions by mail referendum vote and the response was overwhelmingly in favor of unifying.

The leaders of all of the five founding unions became top leaders of the new union. Francis S. Filbey, President of the former United Federation of Postal Clerks, was chosen to serve as the first National President (then General President) of the APWU. David Silvergleid, President of the former National Postal Union, was designated as the APWU’s first General Executive Vice President. Monroe Crable, became the first Maintenance Craft Director, Chester Parrish, the first Motor Vehicle Craft Director, and Michael Cullen, the first Special Delivery Messenger Craft Director.

Collective Bargaining vs Collective Begging

Through the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, postal workers moved from “collective begging” to Congress to collective bargaining with management. From then on, the APWU would go to the bargaining table as postal management’s equal. Of all the unions representing federal employees, only postal unions secured this right. It is the reason why we have consistently outdistanced other federal workers in terms of our earning power over the years.

In the 1970s the postal unions bargained jointly and major gains were seen by all unions. In 1981, the APWU and the NALC formed the Joint Bargaining Committee and negotiated together the 1981, 1984, 1987, and 1990 collective bargaining agreements.

Beginning with a historic first 2-year National Agreement negotiated in July of 1971 by the APWU and the Postal Service, and in subsequent contract struggles, great improvements were made for career postal workers. These include regular wage increases, reducing time between step increases, COLAs, job security with no layoff protections, just cause protections against unfair discipline, guaranteed work hours for full-time employees, 50-mile limits on excessing employees, seniority and bidding rights. All APWU members have a strong grievance procedure, penalty overtime pay and strong safety provisions. The union has succeeded in winning career conversions for tens of thousands of former PSEs.

50 Years of Struggle and Victories

While there is still more to do, the last 50 years have seen major improvements for postal worker pay, benefits and working conditions. Some additional highlights of our major achievements over the years, more than the important gains in our union contracts, include:

  • Leading the victorious fights against postal privatization schemes, from the Postal Service’s plans in 1988-1989 to put retail units in Sears, to the more recent four-year Stop Staples fight.
  • Strong enforcement of the rights of postal workers contained in our union contract.
  • Forging a democratic union with one person, one vote in every union election, and strong membership rights and protections.
  • Building a solidarity union standing with all workers in struggle whether hotel, airline, garment, air traffic, farm, transit, communications or mine workers.
  • Active participants in the AFL-CIO and the international postal union formations of PTTI and now UNI the Global Union.
  • Establishment of POWER in 1980, helping to develop and increase woman leadership in the union.
  • Created a Deaf/Hard of Hearing Task Force in July 1987 and joined the students of Gallaudet University during their demand for a Hearing-Impaired college president.
  • A partner with civil rights organizations. The APWU was the only federal union to support the establishment of a federal holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King.
  • Organizing the unorganized non-union private sector workers in the mailing industry.
  • A strong and consistent voice on Capitol Hill in defense of workers’ interests.
  • Mobilizing our allies by building of A Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service, consisting of over 80 national organizations.
  • Consistently opposing service cutbacks and advocating for “postal banking” and other expanded postal services.

“Every member makes up the foundation of our strong union. Local, state and national union officers and activists of today continue their dedicated work of building our union,” shared President Dimondstein. “As we look back and gain inspiration from our past and those who have come before us, we should all take great pride in our accomplishments.

“Many battles were won, some were lost,” President Dimondstein continued. “But, as our dynamic former President Moe Biller said ‘the struggle continues,’ and so it does against the Wall Street led postal privatizers and those who undermine service to the people and workers’ rights. The past 50 years helps inspire us for the many battles ahead for we are APWU strong."

Six National APWU Presidents

One point of pride that sets the APWU apart is that all elected national leaders have themselves been rank-and-file postal workers.

In its entire history, there have only been six National Presidents – Francis S. Filbey (1971-1977), Emmet Andrews (1977-1980), Moe Biller (1980-2001), William Burrus (2001-2010), Cliff Guffey (2010-2013), and current President Mark Dimondstein.

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