Labor History Articles

The Evolution of the World’s Largest Postal Union

(September 2004) (This article was first published in the September/October 2004 issue of The American Postal Worker magazine.)

Postal workers will celebrate a centennial in 2006, noting the birth of a forerunner of the APWU, the National Federation of Post Office Clerks.

The origin of the Federation, as it was known, is traced to 1906 when it held its first convention. Actually, “NFPOC” barely convened at all — it was only during the final stages of writing the organization’s first constitution that it occurred to those gathered in Chicago that a name was in order.

The NFPOC charter meeting represented the interests of approximately 1,000 U.S. Post Office employees from Chicago, Louisville, Milwaukee, Muskogee (OK), Nashville, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. On Aug. 27, 1906, the delegates signed a constitution of nine articles and four bylaws.

Earlier Associations

NFPOC became the biggest organization of postal clerks and remained the largest until the July 1, 1971, merger that created the APWU. Because “Feds” at the charter meeting hailed from cities up to 2,000 miles apart, NFPOC is considered the first national postal workers union.

Other postal workers’ organizations, however, were already in existence by 1906. Federation members gathered in part over their frustration with another group, the United National Association of Post Office Clerks. UNAPOC, a loose affiliation of local organizations, held a national organizational meeting in New York City in November 1899 and adopted a constitution in early 1900.

The Federation condemned UNAPOC, saying it chose the easy and safe path “of bending the neck and meekly bowing to injustice.” In contrast, the Feds took pride in being an organization that “chose to fight for the rights of all civil service workers.”

NFPOC’s leaders also criticized UNAPOC for its refusal to affiliate with a labor federation. After UNAPOC banned supervisors from its ranks, however, the two groups merged, and later formed the largest body within the APWU.

The Railway Mail Mutual Benefit Association, which also was to become part of the APWU, originated in 1874. Its primary goal was to secure a low-cost life insurance plan, but it also lobbied for improved wages and working conditions. In 1891, RMMBA representatives met in Cincinnati and formed the National Association of Railway Postal Clerks.

The NPU

In 1904, NARPC changed its name to the Railway Mail Association; 45 years later the RMA became the National Postal Transport Association. In 1961, the NPTA joined with NFPOC and UNAPOC to form the 115,000-member United Federation of Postal Clerks.

One other group of clerks, the National Postal Union, played a large role in the history of the APWU. At the NFPOC convention in 1958, a group calling itself the “Progressives” disaffiliated and formed the National Postal Clerks Union, which within a year had dropped “clerks” from its name and become the NPU.

The NPU did not join with the other clerks’ unions to form the UFPC in 1961, and was denied the right to bargain with the newly created United States Postal Service in 1970. Shortly after the first contract was signed, however, the NPU became part of the APWU. By 1980, with the election of Moe Biller, William Burrus and John Richards as president, vice president, and director of Industrial Relations, former NPU activists occupied the top offices of the APWU.

Other APWU Crafts

The earliest ancestral APWU craft organization not formed by clerks was the National Association of Post Office Chauffeurs and Mechanics Union, formed in 1923. By 1939, it had changed its name to the National Federation of Post Office Motor Vehicle Employees, under which it bargained the first USPS contract. In 1971, NFPOMVE became the APWU Motor Vehicle Division.

The founding piece of today’s APWU Maintenance Division was the National Association of Post Office Mechanics, formed in 1937. The National Association of Post Office Custodial Employees was formed a year later. In 1945, the mechanics union added “Maintenance Employees” to its name, and in 1947 the mechanics and custodians merged to form the National Association of Post Office and General Service Maintenance Employees, which in 1971 became the APWU Maintenance Division.

The smallest predecessor union of the APWU was the National Association of Special Delivery Messengers. Represented by an organization created in 1932, these contract employees were taken away from local postmasters and brought into the Civil Service system in 1942. There were 2,500 postal employees in the NASDM at the time of the merger in 1971. In 1998, delegates to the APWU National Convention approved the merger of the SDM Craft into the Clerk Craft.

The Bumpy Road to Bargaining Rights

The early postal unions had essentially no bargaining rights — they existed as beneficial or lobbying organizations.

Sporadic and minimal raises granted to postal employees by a largely indifferent Congress left postal workers impoverished, particularly in high-cost urban areas. From 1967 to 1969, postal wages were not increased at all, although Congress did raise its own pay 41 percent during that time. In 1968, the reform-minded Kappel Commission concluded that postal workers deserved the same collective bargaining rights afforded to private-sector workers under the National Labor Relations Act. But Congress failed to act on the commission’s recommendations.

On March 18, 1970, fed up with Congressional inaction, thousands of New York City postal workers walked off the job. Within days, they were joined by 200,000 others in 30 major cities. Mail service ground to a halt and the plight of postal workers was brought to the public’s attention. When the strike was settled, Congress approved a 6 percent wage increase, effective retroactively to four months earlier.

The strike served as a final impetus for the enactment of the Postal Reorganization Act (PRA), which was signed into law Aug. 12, 1970. The PRA created the United States Postal Service and granted unions the right to negotiate with the new management over wages, benefits and working conditions. On Jan. 20, 1971, the USPS participated in the first collective bargaining session with seven postal unions, including those representing clerks, maintenance employees, motor vehicle services workers, and special delivery messengers.

Exactly six months later, on July 20, 1971, a two-year contract was signed by the Postal Service and the unions, including those who had merged into the APWU just three weeks earlier. Other signatories were the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), the National Rural Letter Carriers Association (NRLCA), and the National Postal Mail-Handlers Union (NPMHU).