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Nobody ever notices postmen somehow. Yet they have passions like other men, and even carry large bags where a small corpse can be stowed quite easily.

—G.K. Chesterton

So invisible were the docile, dependable men in gray until last week that no one noticed that their passions were about to explode into a historic and ominous strike. The first national postal stoppage in U.S. history and the largest walkout ever against the Federal Government, the postal strike almost immediately began to strangle the operations of commerce, impair Government functions and vastly inconvenience the public. It was also an acutely painful symptom of the fragility of the institutions that are crucial to the nation's orderly functioning. It could well set a new pattern of ruinous civil service strikes.

The wildcat movement erupted with such suddenness that Congress, the Administration and the leadership of seven postal unions were unable to move promptly or effectively to get the men back on their jobs. Union and Administration officials conferred in Washington at the end of last week, but the illegal strike, which started in New York City, quickly spread to surrounding areas and gradually began marching north to New England and westward across the country, hitting Akron, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Dearborn, St. Paul, Detroit, Denver and San Francisco—and many smaller communities between. By week's end the strike had either shut down or curtailed service in more than 30 major cities, and was still spreading.

Postmaster General Winton Blount could only move to lessen the strike's effects, not to end the walkout. Mail destined for affected cities was embargoed, and began piling up by the ton. Mailboxes were ordered sealed. Jailing workers or union officials, a weapon allowed by statute, promised only a tauter confrontation. A court order barring the strike was ignored by the rank and file, who courted contempt citations.

A late-week agreement between Labor Secretary George Shultz and a group of union leaders headed by James Rademacher, head of the National Association of Letter Carriers, promised a back-to-work movement in exchange for negotiations on a wage increase. Rademacher himself sent telegrams urging strikers to abide by the ageement. "Public wrath shall replace support" if workers stay out, he warned. "Reason must prevail." But the strikers hooted down their leaders. For them, money is the crucial issue. Embittered by what they consider their subsistence-level pay ($6,176 to start, $8,442 after 21 years), they resisted—at least over the weekend—all attempts of the leadership to impose discipline.

President's Statement

Postmaster General Blount at first seemed to rule out any attempt to coerce the unions or use the National Guard or the Army to move mail. Later, the Government's attitude hardened. At week's end President Nixon broke four days of silence to vow: "I will meet my constitutional obligations to see to it that the mails will go through." He did not say how, but his statement, "We have means to deliver the mail," strongly hinted at a call-out of troops.

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