The gains won by postal workers by means of the illegal walkout of 1970 constituted a watershed in postal labor-management relations. Years of labor repression, even by the most liberal of Administrations, became a thing of the past. Postal unions were now recognized as the legitimate agents of postal workers and they had the right, by statute, to bargain with the newly formed U.S. Postal Service. For more than a century postal workers had been virtual pawns, without basic workplace rights, in one of the nation's largest industries. The attempt of the men and women in gray to gain control over their economic lives is the story of a battle against the concept of "sovereignty," a concept handed down in English common law from feudal days and based on the divine right of kings. Since the Sovereign (read "government") can do no wrong, the Sovereign's workers are denied the rights and protections granted (by government) to workers outside the Sovereign's employ (read "in the private sector").
The concept of sovereignty, however, was never evenly applied. According to Nesbitt, "the 'laborers, workmen, and mechanics' in the Navy Yards and other public works [in the 1830s] belonged to the same unions as private or municipal employees. The government resisted their demands where it was able and yielded where the pressure of labor market conditions made it expedient or necessary to do so. But it did not challenge employee rights to unionize, demonstrate, use political pressure or strike." 1 When postal workers began to organize, however, the government's reaction was not quite so benevolent. The government did not consider postal workers "laborers, workmen and mechanics"; rather, they were considered government employees and, as such, subject to the same rules and regulations that govern all government employees. Moreover, postal workers were not joining unions that already existed outside government; they were