Judy Beard had a choice to make. As she walked up to the Detroit post office to start her shift, she found a group of co-workers picketing out front. The strike that started in New York two days earlier was spreading to Detroit.

“People were explaining to us why we should come out and join the picket line,” Beard recalled to The Washington Post. “And others were saying, ‘You’re going to go to jail. You’re going to ruin your life. You’re going to have a record.’ ”

Those weren’t empty threats; not only was the strike a wildcat strike — meaning they didn’t have the approval of their union leaders to walk off the job — it was also illegal. It’s against the law for federal employees to strike, punishable at the time by a year in jail, a $1,000 fine and automatic firing.

Beard wasn’t like a lot of her striking colleagues, who were mostly older, lifelong postal workers — the same kind of people now delivering mail amid a pandemic.

She was only 20 and had been sorting mail for a few months while attending college. She lived with her parents, had minimal expenses and a future to think about.

But then one of the older women out there began to cry.

“And she said, ‘I work hard. I work every day, and I don’t have enough money to pay my rent. I don’t have enough money to buy food. I have to stand in the welfare line to collect welfare, and we need your help.’ Well, it got to my heart,” Beard said.

It was a common problem in the Postal Service. Many had to work multiple jobs and qualified for food stamps.

She got on the picket line.

It was March 1970, and Beard had joined what would become the largest wildcat strike in U.S. history. Over eight days, more than 200,000 postal workers in dozens of cities brought the country’s mail — and economy — to a halt, in a successful bid for better pay and safer work conditions.

At the time, it was known as the U.S. Post Office Department, and the postmaster general was a Cabinet-level position. There were at least seven craft unions representing different groups of workers, and none had a right to collective bargaining.

“We called it ‘collective begging,’” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “Meaning, they’d beg Congress for whatever changes they could get, both in terms of wages and treatment.”

In 1969, Congress voted to give 41 percent pay raises to House and Senate lawmakers. It also doubled the president’s salary. The next year, after much “collective begging” from the various unions, Congress proposed a raise for postal workers — 5.4 percent.

The inflation rate was higher.

“And that was sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Dimondstein said.

On March 18, 6,000 New York postal workers didn’t show up for the night shift. By the next morning, more than 30,000 were on strike.

Following a federal court order, union leaders told them to get back to work, but “the men I spoke to will defy any injunction — they will stay out until hell freezes over,” one of leaders told The Washington Post.

Within a day, 36 million pieces of mail — “everything from registered packages of diamonds to welfare checks to medicine” — were stacked up in empty stations. In the age before the Internet, business was at a standstill, too. Mail-order companies, which The Post said generated more mail than all of Britain, couldn’t get catalogues to customers. Shareholders were missing proxy statements; stockbrokers couldn’t receive out-of-town buy orders.

By the end of the first day, the strike had spread to New Jersey and Connecticut. Then Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco and two dozen other cities across the country.

The strikers were threatened with arrest, but as Chicago postal worker Greg Boyles told CBS News, “I don’t care … if they want to put me in jail, put me in jail, but they haven’t got a big enough jail to put all of us in.”

In the end, about 210,000 postal workers were involved. Judy Beard stood on the picket line every single day, singing church songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Her parents weren’t mad, she said. They had marched with Martin Luther King Jr., so “they only asked me to put aside money for if they had to get me out of jail.”

By March 23, the stock market was taking a tumble, and President Richard M. Nixon addressed the nation, announcing he had ordered the National Guard to start delivering the mail.

As troops marched into the Detroit office, strikers peeked in to see how they were doing, Beard said.

“They could not sort the mail. It was funny to us that they couldn’t do our jobs. … They weren’t trained, and we were,” she said. “So when they would leave and get in their vehicles, we would clap.”

With the Guard’s failure and the stock market threatening to shut down altogether, Nixon caved. The postmaster general granted an immediate 6 percent raise, plus an additional 8 percent in a few months, and the right to collective bargaining.

After eight days, postal workers started returning to work. By summer, the changes were enshrined in the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970. The department was renamed the U.S. Postal Service, and the American Postal Workers Union was formed. In its first collective bargaining agreement the next year, workers got another 18 percent raise.

A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found the USPS to be the most popular federal agency, with an 88 percent public-approval rating. But the 1970 act that gave workers a raise embedded problems into the USPS that continue to this day. Namely, it changed the structure to a half-public, half-corporate one; unlike other federal agencies, which are funded by tax revenue, the USPS is supposed to pay for itself. But Congress controls its service and pricing. With the rise of the Internet, letter delivery has plummeted, while package delivery has gone up. And it is powerless to raise prices or cut service, leaving huge deficits every year.

No postal workers were ever prosecuted or punished for the wildcat strike. It is still illegal for them to strike now. But they remain the only federal workers who have a right to negotiate their wages through collective bargaining. In 2018, a Trump administration task force recommended they lose that right as part of postal reform.

If and when those reforms make it to Congress, they’ll face Beard, who said the strike, along with the legacy of the civil rights movement, changed the course of her life forever. She is now the legislative and political director of the postal union.

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