“It was not that long ago that the union that I now head was separated—one black, one white.”
–William Burrus, American Postal Workers Union President, 2002
Postal unions date to the late 19th century. Their structure and purpose have developed over the years to parallel the growth of the postal system. The early postal unions generally existed as lobbying organizations with limited bargaining rights. As a result, postal workers were consistently underpaid. It was not until 1971, with the enactment of the Postal Reorganization Act and the creation of the U.S. Postal Service, that postal unions were allowed to bargain collectively for wages and working conditions.(1)
National Association of Letter Carriers
The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC) represents city delivery carriers. The Union was founded in 1889, when Milwaukee Letter Carriers issued an official call to form a national association. Sixty letter carriers, representing 18 states, met. On August 29, 1889 they adopted a resolution to form the National Association of Letter Carriers. William H. Wood of Detroit, Michigan was elected as the union’s first president.(2)
Today, NALC has over 300,000 members, representing all 50 states and other U.S. jurisdictions. The union works for “improved salaries, better working conditions, and greater security for letter carriers and their families.”(3) In their efforts to improve conditions for letter carriers, members of the NALC led the 1970 postal strike.
One of the major concerns of the Union has been adequate wages. Salary issues were a continuing problem. On October 19, 1949 the Union achieved one of its main objectives—equalizing wages for all letter carriers.(4) For the first time, all city letter carriers received the same wages, regardless of the size and population of the community in which they worked.
Today, the Union continues to be successful in gaining pay increases for its members. In 1999, the NALC was successful in achieving a pay upgrade for all city letter carriers. These pay increases recognize the more difficult work these employees do in the new automated work environment.(5)
National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees
The National Alliance of Postal and Federal Employees (NAPFE) is an independent African American-controlled labor union. The Union’s mission, broadly defined, is to work to “eliminate discrimination and injustice in the federal service”.(6)
Discrimination faced by African American Railway Post Office clerks was the main reason the Union was founded. Since the Railway Post Office union was segregated, African American Railway Post Office clerks had no organization to defend their interests.
NAPFE was established for the purpose of preventing the elimination of African Americans from the Railway Mail Service. Henry Mims of Houston, Texas sent a letter to railway mail clerks all over the country asking “the clerks of the country to attend a National Conference at Chattanooga, Tennessee, October 2, 3, and 4th.”(7) His letter stated that, “this is the proper time to organize a national movement among the colored clerks, and to this end it is desired that each railway center send a representative”. The letter continued, “We need to adopt a uniform name, to provide a beneficiary department, an insurance department, and to launch a national journal dedicated to our interests”. Twenty-Six men, from twelve states attended the conference.(8)
A constitution was drafted at the conference by Mr. Robert Bailey, an attorney who also worked as a railway mail clerk and was adopted on October 6, 1913. The constitution divides the country into ten districts where each district has branches in several cities in each state. National leadership consists of a board of six national officers, a President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, Auditor, and Editor, and ten district presidents. Henry Mims, the organizer of the first National Conference, was elected at this Conference as the first National President.(9)
The association began to work for the elimination of discrimination in the Postal Service immediately after its founding. As early as 1914 NAPFE protested the use of photographs for identification on civil service exams.(10)
By 1923, African American individuals from all postal occupations showed interest in joining the only African American union available to them.(11) Consequently, NAPFE allowed all to join its membership. At this time the National Alliance became the first industrial union in the postal service. In 1965, the Union voted to allow federal employees to join the union, regardless of craft.(12)
In 1972 NAPFE introduced the Youth Division.(13) The Youth Division allows children of union members to take an active role in union proceedings, and develop leadership skills. NAPFE also grew to include other divisions such as the National Alliance of Postal and Federal Retired Persons and the Management Division.(14) The association was awarded a charter for a federal credit union on April 8, 1977.(15)
American Postal Workers Union
The American Postal Workers Union, APWU, is the largest postal union in the world.(16) The organization represents employees of the United States Postal Service including clerks, maintenance employees, motor vehicle service workers, and support service employees.(17)
APWU was founded upon the merger of five postal unions: the United Federation of Postal Clerks, the National Postal Union, the National Association of Post Office, the General Service Maintenance Employees, and the Association of Special Delivery Messengers. The merger of the five unions was largely the result of the Postal Reorganization Act. After new rights were given to postal unions under the Act, APWU was founded to represent workers of various postal positions under one single labor organization and to create one bargaining entity.(18)
Today, APWU represents approximately 330,000 USPS employees and consists of state and local unions as well as retiree chapters throughout the country.(19) The union acts as an umbrella organization which represents the interests of these autonomous state and local affiliates at the national level. The union’s primary focus is to negotiate, interpret, and enforce a National Agreement with the United States Postal Service, which establishes wages, working conditions, and benefits for postal workers.