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Vincent Sombrotto, 89; led postal strike as letter carrier

Mr. Sombrotto guided seven contract negotiations as national union president.

Tyrone Dukes/N.Y. Times/1971

Mr. Sombrotto guided seven contract negotiations as national union president.

NEW YORK — Vincent Sombrotto, who as 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, and who went on to lead one of the nation’s most powerful postal workers’ unions for 24 years, died Jan. 10 at 89 at a hospital near his home in Port Washington, N.Y.

His daughter, Mara Sombrotto, confirmed his death.

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On March 23, 1970, Nixon announced on television he had ‘‘just now directed the activation of the men of the various military organizations to begin, in New York City, the restoration of essential mail services.’’

Five days earlier, largely at Mr. Sombrotto’s urging, members of Branch 36 of the National Association of Letter Carriers — the union’s local in Manhattan and the Bronx — had voted 1,555 to 1,055 to strike, defying the union’s warnings that to do so would break a law barring US employees from striking.

‘‘We were just a group of people that felt that we were being taken advantage of,’’ Mr. Sombrotto said in 2010 at a 40th-anniversary celebration of the strike. Every letter carrier he knew, ‘‘worked on two jobs, three jobs, just to survive.’’

A father of six, he worked a second job as a truck driver.

By the time Nixon sent in the troops, the wildcat strike had spread to 671 post offices in 30 cities and involved more than 200,000 workers. The walkout gained strength after members of the American Postal Workers Union joined the Letter Carriers on picket lines.

The primary issue was pay. ‘‘Wages at the time were really dismal, $6,100 to $8,400 annually, and it took 21 years to reach top pay,’’ Philip F. Rubio, author of ‘‘There’s Always Work at the Post Office’’ (2010), a history of the struggle of black postal workers, said. (In today’s dollars, that pay range would be $35,000 to $48,000.)

The poverty line then was $3,700 (the equivalent of about $21,000 today) for a family of four, Rubio, a professor at North Carolina A&T State University, said, ‘‘and in many urban areas pay was so low compared to cost of living that many postal workers were eligible for welfare.’’

The strike ended after eight days as talks continued. The eventual contract included a 14 percent pay raise and a reduction in the time required to reach top pay (to five years from 21). No one was prosecuted for striking.

The walkout spurred Congress to enact the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, establishing the US Postal Service as a quasi-independent entity and providing full collective-bargaining rights for most postal workers.

Within a year, Mr. Sombrotto was elected president of Branch 36 of the National Association of Letter Carriers. He was elected the union’s national president in 1978 and held that position until 2002.

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