The Army That Went to Mail

Vincent Sombrotto’s died in January of 2013 and his obituary was promonetly reported in an obituary in the New York Times. Mr. Sombrotto was 89 and died in St. Francis Hospital on Long Island. His obit explained his claim to fame. It read in part, “Vincent Sombrotto, who was a rank-and-file letter carrier, led a wildcat strike that shut down post offices across the country in 1970, prompting President Richard M. Nixon to call out the National Guard…”


Those were crazy times. Starting with Michael Quill’s face off against newly installed Mayor John V. Lindsay on New Year’s Day, 1966, the results he achieved for his members of the TWU as the result of the 12 day strike that killed him less than a month later influenced the union leaders of municipal workers, quasi-city workers and others. They took to the streets as strikes seemed to spread like wildfire through the 60’s and 70’s until at one point forty different unions went out on strike in one calendar year.


It seemed that everyone who was a “union man or woman” joined the cause in those days of rage. Sanitation, police, fire, ambulance services, hospitals and even ballerinas from the American Ballet Theater took to the streets one even in toe shoes. Umpires picketed Yankee Stadium, cemetery workers engaged in a hunger strike. OTB clerks, prison guards, tug boat operators, milk truck drivers, school bus drivers, and Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) toll collectors all walked. Albert Shanker led the teachers out in a series of nasty strikes that pitted minority controlled community boards against his United Federation of Teachers (UFT) culminating in a 36 day strike commencing at the start of the school year in September of 1968. Beyond material gains, the strike brought Shanker dubious fame thanks to a line in the Woody Allen movie, Sleeper: “(That) the world as we knew it had been destroyed by a mad man named, Albert Shanker who got a hold of a nuclear device.”


Another outrage to the citizens in a seemingly endless chain came in 1971 when bridge tenders belonging to Victor Gotbaum’s District 37 of the Municipal Employees Union opened all 27 draw bridges in the city before locking the doors, removing fuses and walking off the job after throwing their keys into the waters they guarded before leaving their posts. The chaos they left in their wake was insane. Only 7,000 of Gotbaum’s 400,000 members, actually went out but his 2 ½ day-rant included other vital workers at sewage treatment plants, garbage disposal terminals and school cafeterias.


But Vinnie and his gang were different. They were federal employees. As the strike spread from Manhattan and the Bronx across the land, it tested President Richard M. Nixon’s patience and on March 23, 1970, five days into the strike, he announced on television: “(I) just now directed the activation of the men of various military organizations to begin in New York City, the restoration of essential mail services.”


As members of various units in the 42nd Division of the New York National Guard, we reported to the armories where our outfits were housed. Bill Wilson went to the Armory on 18th St. where his unit, the famous “Fighting” 69th was housed. Geoff Jones reported to his outfit, Company B, 42nd Maintenance Battalion at the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx and Bill Christman and I journeyed to an armory in Hempstead, Long Island, the home of Company C of the 242nd Signal Battalion. For the next eight days, these were our places of work until the strike was settled. Of the four of us, only Bill Wilson actually delivered mail on an assigned route in lower Manhattan. So little mail was sorted at the GPO that delivering it would take him less than an hour each day allowing Bill to go off to his regular job as an insurance broker while still in his army fatigues before returning to the armory.


Bill Christman remembered our greatest accomplishment: “Putting up a volley ball net between two deuce-an-a-halves (Two and a half-ton trucks) and that our First Sergeant, Sgt. Peter Stegle commented, ‘Once the postal workers envisioned us invading their work places, they figured they better settle.”


We never left the armory and when the strike ended, Sgt. Stegle ordered us into formation on the drill floor to address us before dismissal. He reminded us that although we never left the armory, “Those who stand and wait also serve.” As he finished these remarks one soldier let loose in a stage whisper, “Ah, the motto of Burger King.”


Vinnie’s passing reminded us, the veterans of the great mail crusade, of the joy he inadvertently brought to us by calling that wildcat strike. Unbeknownst to any of us, embedded in our National Guard contract for service with Uncle was a provision that, if we were ever Federalized by order of the Commander-in-Chief, we would have a reduction up to one year of our six-year commitment regardless of the duration of being Federalized.


Thank you Vinnie, thank you and Milhouse!


Only one obstacle remained, the governor of the state of New York. It seemed we also had a separate contract to be part of a State Militia, But Nelson Rockefeller turned out to be a player and he dispensed us from this commitment. Thank you too, Rocky, your wealthiness.


I don’t recall recruiters trying to get many of us to re-up; that would have been too funny and a waste of time.


But I do know that like other aging vets of the great mail crusade, the next time I put a stamp on an envelope, I’ll think kindly of ole Vinnie.