Operation Graphic Hand


By Nancy Pope, Curator and Historian

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Letter carriers on strike outside the main New York City post office

Just before midnight on March 17, 1970, a letter carriers’ local disobeyed national leadership and voted to strike. The National Letter Carrier’s Union, Branch 36, had been discussing the action for days. Frustrated, they decided to act on their own – a wildcat strike. Issues of poor pay and working conditions affected postal workers nation-wide and before long a number of employees across the U.S. joined the strike. Workers were frustrated by low pay that left seven percent of New York City’s carriers eligible for welfare. To make matters worse, while President Nixon asked for a six-month delay for federal workers’ raises to control inflation, Congress voted itself a 41-percent pay increase.

Letter carriers holding On Strike and Decent Wages, Decent Conditions signs
Wildcat strikers from Detroit, Michigan on strike

The strike threatened to bring the nation to a standstill. Mail was still critical to the nation’s communication infrastructure. Wall Street feared problems that would arise if brokers could not send out confirmation orders for buying or selling. In a world without personal computers or direct deposit, expensive long-distance phone calls or telegrams became the only communication choices for businesses and individuals alike. Even small town Americans felt the sting of the strike, as most mail traveled through large city post offices that were the target of the strikers.

On March 23, 1970, President Nixon addressed the nation by television.[1] He declared a state of national emergency and ordered 25,000 soldiers into New York City to get some mail moving. Two days earlier the President had called the strike an illegal action, directing employees to go back to work. They ignored him and stayed off the job. The military action, dubbed “Operation Graphic Hand,” involved personnel from the Army, National Guard, Army Reserve, Air National Guard, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps Reserve. Major General Walter Higgins, the commander of Fort Hamilton, New York, was placed in control. According to the Chicago Tribune: “Pentagon authorities stressed that the army would not take over the supervision of postal operations but that military personnel would be put at the disposal of the post office department.”[2]

When President Nixon addressed the issue of the strike, he made it clear that he intended that essential mail would go through – pension, welfare and social security checks. Postal supervisors remained on the job, in some cases sorting and readying as much mail as they could for transport to other offices or cities. By the night of the president’s address, the strike had disrupted mail service in at least 30 cities in 13 states. More than a quarter of the nation’s postal workers had stepped down in protest.

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Postal worker on strike in 1970

Although the strike had spread across the nation “Graphic Hand” was centered in New York City. There, between 40 and 60 million pieces of mail were stacked up waiting to be processed. On March 24 “some 400 sailors, 300 air force men, and 100 army troops were taken to the general post office on 8th Avenue and 33rd Street, and began orientation studies of its operations.”[3] The men were directed to assist at clerk windows where needed, selling stamps and money orders. But most would be busy loading and unloading mail, and sorting outgoing mail.

Wearing fatigues, they were easy to spot among the postal supervisors and non-striking workers. Military personnel transported mail to substations, delivered bulk mail to businesses and charities but did not make any residential deliveries. Most of these new postal workers were busy trying to sort mail. It could take a year for a distribution clerk in a large city to learn the “schemes” or address layouts for the 5,000 to 10,000 local addresses and nearby areas. None of them had a shot at matching postal workers’ levels of 40 to 60 letters per minute.

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National Guard at work in a New York post office, trying their hand at sorting mail

By March 25 military personnel had been assigned to 17 New York City area post offices. If the strike had continued, the president was prepared to deploy the military to post offices in as many as 35 other cities. It became clear very quickly that tossing military personnel into post offices and expecting them to even try and keep critical mail moving was not a feasible idea. The government needed to get their postal employees back on the job.

Americans in strike areas did not get home delivery until postal workers went back on duty. Fortunately for the public, workers, their union presidents and the government reached an agreement that started to get everyone back to work on March 25.

Learn more about the Postal Strike of 1970 in this video


Nancy Pope

About the Author
The late Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.