Prelude to the Strike

The Boston (Massachusetts) Police Department boasts of being the oldest police department in the nation. It has roots that go back to 1635 when the country’s first ”night watch” was established. It also possesses the distinction of engaging in one of the most noteworthy and historic work stoppages in the history of organized labor. The Boston Police Strike of 1919 increased the interest in police reform and helped to catapult then-Governor Calvin Coolidge into the national spotlight, and ultimately into the White House.

Though often regarded as an obscure event in American history, the Boston Police Strike of 1919 was one of the most significant events in the history of policing. While other professions were organizing, unionizing, and generally improving their standards of living, policing as a profession seriously lagged behind, and police officers were becoming increasingly unhappy with their diminished status in society. In Boston, the largely Irish-American police force had seen its wages lag badly during World War I, and their respect from average citizens was declining as well.

There was a general consensus that the Boston policemen of 1919 had a great deal of validity in their work-related complaints and demands. Their substantive grievances fell into three primary categories: length of working shifts, working conditions, and, most importantly, pay. After getting a raise in 1913, the policemen asked for another raise in 1917 to compensate for the high wartime inflation. In the summer of 1918, they asked for a $200 increase in the patrolmen’s annual salary, which was then $1,200. By the time that raise was finally granted in May 1919, steady inflation had eroded buying power so that even with the raise, policemen were still having difficulty making ends meet.

Another point of contention was the long, tormenting hours the men were forced to work, including special details and one night in the stationhouse each week. Finally, the policemen objected to the conditions under which they were forced to work, particularly in the crowded decay and disrepair of the police station. Police officers in Boston had to sleep in beds infested with bedbugs and cockroaches and on the soiled sheets left over from the previous occupant. The officer’s primary means to voice their complaints was the Boston Social Club, a fraternal organization founded by Police Commissioner Stephen O’Meara in 1906.

Attempts at Unionization

By the fall of 1919, a series of strikes hit the United States as unions attempted to gain higher wages to adjust for wartime inflation. Collective bargaining had long been viewed with suspicion by many Americans, whose suspicions were heightened by the worker revolution in Russia and efforts to spread communism throughout the Western world. Efforts were made to organize in order to gain not only higher pay, but also shorter hours and better working conditions. The Boston police officers endured a month-long labor dispute arising from an attempt to form a union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL).

On the opposing side of the negotiation, representing the city of Boston, was newly appointed Police Commissioner Edwin U. Curtis. Curtis had only been commissioner since December 1918, when his predecessor Commissioner O’Meara had died. Since 1885, police commissioners had been appointed and removed not by the mayor, but by the governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who in 1919 was a terse Republican named Calvin Coolidge. Though the mayor of Boston helped determine the police department’s annual budget, he could not override a decision by the commissioner.

Curtis believed himself to be sympathetic to the policemen’s demands, but he refused to deal with the Social Club and instead established a Grievance Committee comprised of men from each station. Curtis believed that if allowed to unionize, the police department would take orders from the AFL, thereby hampering discipline and, ultimately, his authority to command the officers. Curtis banned the officers from associating with any outside organization and refused to sanction a police union. On July 29, Curtis, responding to the rumor that the police were seeking a union, issued a statement detailing O’Meara’s objection to a police union and proclaiming his own objection as well. Seeing no other option, the fraternal association of Boston police officers voted to become a union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. On August 9, 1919, the policemen, through the Social Club, applied for a charter from the AFL.

On August 11, Commissioner Curtis followed up with an amendment to Rule 35 of the department’s Rules and Regulations, barring the policemen from forming any organization within the department with ties to an outside group, except for veterans’ groups. This order initiated the showdown that led to the strike: The policemen’s insistence on a union clashed with Curtis’s demand for obedience. The Boston police officers’ application was accepted and on August 15 they formed Local 16,807 of the AFL: the Boston Policemen’s Union.

As the weeks passed, the situation grew tenser. On August 26 and 29, Commissioner Curtis began the process of suspending nineteen Boston police officers, including the president and other officers of the union, for violation of his amendment to Rule 35. Meanwhile, former police superintendent William Pierce began recruiting a volunteer police force as insurance against a strike. Boston Mayor Andrew J. Peters attempted to effect a settlement between the two sides by forming a Citizens Committee composed of prominent residents of Boston and its suburbs. This committee drafted a compromise, which Curtis rejected. On Monday, September 8, saying that the compromise had nothing to do with his legal obligation to punish violators of the antiunion clause of Rule 35, Curtis announced the suspension of the nineteen officers. That evening, the Policemen’s Union voted to protest the suspensions by striking at evening roll call the next day: Tuesday, September 9.

The Strike

At 5:45 p.m. on Tuesday, September 9, 1919, at the beginning of the evening shift, 1,117 Boston policemen conducted a work stoppage. This action removed 70% of the police force from protecting the city’s streets. This was the first strike by public safety workers in U.S. history. With the city of Boston virtually unprotected, petty crimes escalated into looting, and rioting took place. As Boston residents absorbed the reality of the policemen’s absence, assaults, rapes, vandalism, and looting went unpunished as the city struggled to get replacement police in place. Checked only by a small coalition of nonstriking Boston police, metropolitan police, and a few private watchmen, the riots continued throughout the city. The immediate consequence was about forty-eight hours of looting and rioting in Boston and sporadic, uncontrolled violence during the next few days. Mayor Peters summoned local militia units, which managed to restore order the next day. In the process of pacifying the city and quelling nocturnal disturbances, the guard forces killed five residents and wounded several others. Civilians killed three more, and dozens were injured and wounded. The riots also destroyed hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property.

The Aftermath

Angered by the violence in Boston, Governor Calvin Coolidge decided to take matters into his own hands after having passed up several earlier opportunities to intercede in the police dispute. Coolidge summoned the entire Massachusetts Guard to take over protection of Massachusetts’ capital city. This overwhelming show of force rapidly caused the strike to collapse and earned for the governor the reputation of a strict enforcer of law and order. Meanwhile, in the face of public disapproval of their actions and the uncompromising stance of Curtis and Coolidge, the police began considering cutting their losses and returning to work. But when the American Federation of Labor president sent a telegram to Governor Coolidge asking that the striking Boston policemen be reinstated and their grievances negotiated later, he was rebuffed on September 14 by Cool-idge’s immediately famous reply that ”there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

Striking officers were fired, and the collapse of the strike sounded the death toll for the early police labor movement. Cool-idge’s strong action was soothing to a fearful public and led to his nomination for the vice presidency in 1920. Most of the postwar strikes in the United States were unsuccessful and ushered in a decade of declining union membership. The striking policemen in Boston were not allowed to recover their jobs, which went overwhelmingly to returning servicemen. Despite repeated appeals from the American Federation of Labor requesting reinstatement of the striking officers, they were not allowed to return to work. By December 13, the new force had reached its desired strength. Eight days later, the last state guard unit was dismissed, bringing Boston back to some semblance of ”normalcy.” The new officers were granted higher pay and additional holidays, and gained the additional benefit of free uniforms. The irony is that the Boston Police Strike was effective in obtaining its objectives, just not for the striking police officers.

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