Boston Police Strike

Boston Police Strike

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By the fall of 1919, a series of strikes had 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.In Boston, the largely Irish-American police force had seen its wages lag badly during the war. Curtis refused to sanction a police union and suspended the leaders from the force in August 1919.On September 9, more than 1,100 officers went out on strike, which removed three-fourths of the force from the city’s streets. Peters summoned local militia units, which managed to restore order.At this juncture, Governor Calvin Coolidge, elected the previous November, decided to enter the picture after having passed up an earlier opportunity to resolve the matter. Coolidge summoned the entire Massachusetts Guard — a show of force that rapidly caused the strike to collapse and earned for the governor the reputation of a strict enforcer of law and order.The striking policemen were not allowed to recover their jobs, which went overwhelmingly to returning servicemen. The new officers were granted higher pay and additional holidays, and gained the additional benefit of free uniforms.Coolidge defended the decision not to rehire the strikers in a remark to Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor, proclaiming, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”Coolidge’s strong action was soothing to a fearful public and led to his nomination for the vice presidency in 1920. Public fears about radicalism continued to mount however, which resulted in the so-called Red Scare of 1919-20.

See other domestic activity under Wilson.

Boston Police Department

The Boston Police Department (BPD), dating back to 1838, holds the primary responsibility for law enforcement and investigation within the American city of Boston, Massachusetts. It is the oldest police department in the United States. [2] [3] The BPD is also the 20th largest law enforcement agency in the country and the largest in New England. [4]

The BPD has a history of misconduct, brutality and corruption, as well as elaborate internal efforts and processes to keep misconduct within the ranks secret from the general public and protect officers from accountability. [5] [6]

Today in labor history: 1919 Boston police strike

The political climate after World War I was characterized by immense fear, instilled by government and big business propaganda about a “Communist takeover of the United States.” One of the main targets of this propaganda was the labor movement that was organizing workers to collectively bargain for fair wages and hours. The Red Scare was increased as police forces across the nation began to organize in unions.

In 1918, Congress passed the Sedition Act, to “punish unpatriotic speech during wartime,” leading to the arrest, imprisonment, execution and deportation of dozens of unionists, anarchists and communists. Militant union leader Eugene Debs (1855-1926) was sentenced to 10 years in prison for making a speech opposing U.S. Entry into World War I.

Police in Boston had a number of reasons why they wanted to join a union. Like any other worker in any other sector, they felt that their wages were too low and their hours were too long. “Their wages were even significantly lower than the earnings of most unskilled factory workers. For this meager pay they were asked to work as many as seventy-two to ninety-eight hours a week.”

By 1913, the Boston Police Department had not significantly increased the salary of new officers since 1854, a period of 60 years, when patrolmen were paid two dollars a day. In 1898, a graduated scale was set, but because of a “running dispute” between the mayor and city council, the pay increases were not implemented for 15 years. By the time they were finally put in place during 1913, living costs had increased 37 percent from 1898 and by 1918 they increased another 79 percent.

The salary for patrolman was set at $1,200 a year, which was less than half what many World War I workers were earning and out of this they had to buy their own uniforms and equipment which cost over $200. New recruits, who had to be at least 25 years old, received only two dollars a day, or $730 a year, the same pay they would have received in 1854 when the department was formed. During the second year of service, the pay was increased 25 cents a day to $821.25 annually and in the third year, the wages were raised to $1,000 finally reaching $1,200 during the fourth year of service.

The Boston Police force, discouraged by decades of negligence paid to their numerous grievances, joined the Boston Social Club, affiliated with the AFL, in August of 1919. Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis believed that a police officer could not belong to a union and serve his proper duty at the same time. Curtis promptly suspended nineteen police officers who were working as union organizers.

In retaliation to the suspension of the nineteen union officers and the Police Commissioner’s refusal to allow them to join the AFL, the Boston Police went on strike.

A few people took advantage of the situation, looting stores and breaking windows. As a result, the State Guard was called in to stop the looters.

The press worked hard to turn public opinion against the Police. The LA Times wrote, “…no man’s house, no man’s wife, no man’s children will be safe if the police force in unionized and made subject to the orders of Red Unionite bosses.”

At one point, national AFL President Samuel Gompers suggested that the officers return to work and to the bargaining table. But Commissioner Curtis refused to consider allowing the striking officers their jobs and completely replaced the force. The Commissioner had the full support of President Woodrow Wilson and then Governor Calvin Coolidge, who had made himself a “national hero” by quelling the strike.

For years after the strike and the frenzy of anti-union press coverage, public opinion of public sector strikes was much less sympathetic than toward strikes in the private sector.

The Massachusetts AFL-CIO and Wikipedia contributed to this article


The first city in the United States to use an automobile as a police cruiser was Boston. Placed in service at Station 16 in July, 1903, it covered about 60 miles a day through the Back Bay district. Chauffeur-Driven, a uniformed officer rode on a seat high enough "to allow him to look over the back fences."

The history of American law enforcement begins in Boston.

The people of the town of Boston established a Watch in 1631. Shortly thereafter, the Town Meeting assumed control of the Watch in 1636.Watchmen patrolled the streets of Boston at night to protect the public from criminals, wild animals, and fire.

The Watchmen’s responsibilities grew along with the town, which became the City of Boston in 1822. Less than twenty years later, the City founded a police force of six men under the supervision of a City Marshall. The Boston Watch of 120 men continued to operate separately.

In 1854, the City replaced the Watch organizations with the Boston Police Department, which consisted of 250 officers. Each officer received payment of $2 per shift, walked his own beat, and was forbidden to hold outside employment. Rather than use the billhook of the old Watch, officers began to carry a 14-inch club. In the proceeding years, the City annexed several neighboring towns and expanded police services to those areas.

The telephone greatly influenced means of communication at the BPD during the 1880s, as demonstrated by the replacement of the telegraph system with telephone lines at police stations, and the installation of police call boxes.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the BPD officers began providing charitable services, such as serving soup to the poor at police stations. Police stations also opened their doors to newcomers to the city, who could spend a night as a “lodger.” Additionally, police ambulances transported sick and injured individuals to the City Hospital. Some of the services founded during this time have continued into the present day, though some now under the management of external city agencies.

At the turn of the 20th century, the BPD grew to 1,000 patrolmen. At that time keeping the peace resulted in nearly 32,000 arrests annually. The role of the police also expanded, with the introduction of the automobile came new practices. Duties now included regulating motor vehicle traffic and removing unruly passengers from streetcars. The BPD purchased its first patrol car in 1903 and its first patrol wagon in 1912. In later years, police would use motorcycles to deal with ever-increasing traffic.

The Boston Police Strike of 1919 sought to improve wages and working conditions for patrolmen, and recognition for its trade union. This effort made national headlines and changed the BPD, as the Department eliminated nearly three-quarters of its force and filled the ranks with returning soldiers from World War I.

The 1920s served as an especially deadly time for the BPD, with 17 officers killed in the line of duty between 1920 and 1930 as the Department dealt with Prohibition and ensuing crime. The Great Depression cut police pay due to a smaller city budget. During World War II, many police officers left the Department to join the armed forces.

Similar to other police departments in the 1960s, the Boston police maintained order during periods of protest and unrest. With school desegregation in 1974, the BPD deployed officers throughout the city to escort school children and to ensure public safety.

To meet the demands of modern policy, the BPD built a state-of-the-art facility in 1997. While earlier police headquarters were located near the centers of government and commerce, the new BPD Headquarters is located in the Roxbury neighborhood in order to be near the geographic midpoint of Boston. One Schroeder Plaza is named in honor of brothers Walter and John Schroeder, two officers killed in the line of duty in the 1970s.

Over the last four decades, Boston has experienced a significant decrease in its overall crime rate. Throughout its history, the BPD has employed innovative strategies and partnerships in order to protect all those in Boston, and has served as a role model for police departments nationwide.

A Short History of Police Protest

So far, there is no agreed-upon term to describe the precipitous drop in low-level policing by New York law enforcement, a two-week undeclared protest against a mayor many cops believe does not show them due respect. Much coverage has called it a “virtual work stoppage,” a label assigned by the New York Post, where data about the decline in arrests and ticketing was first published – though the term, when deployed in other publications, tends to remain in quotes. Police Commissioner William Bratton has quibbled about terminology, too: “I haven’t used the word ‘slowdown,’” he said. “If that’s what it is, we’ll call it that and deal with it accordingly. We’re not in a public-safety crisis in any shape of the word,” he said.

In 1919, then-Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge sent in militiamen, photographed above, to temporarily replace striking police officers in Boston.

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

One thing it certainly hasn’t been called is a strike. Americans have a robust history of striking – they’ve been at it since before they were even officially Americans – but cops, charged with safeguarding the public, are generally expected to stay at work. When 80 percent of Boston police walked off the job in 1919, the profession’s first major strike, Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge set an unflinching precedent for handling unruly cops: he mustered the state’s militia, restored order, and declared, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Cast as a hard-line defender of law and order, Coolidge was nominated to be Vice President one year later.

New York’s first police job action didn’t happen for another 50 years. In 1971, an estimated 20,000 patrolmen refused to report for duty, citing the so-called “Blue Flu.” They coordinated six sick days, while Mayor John Lindsay – apparently having Coolidge’s unyielding legacy in mind – vowed he would fire the entire police department if it came to that. The union president finally managed to get his ranks into line and call off the strike. But even once the Blue Flu had passed, many bemoaned a systemic cultural change. The Daily News wrote:

The image of the New York cop has changed. No more is there a kindly dedicated officer in blue twirling his nightstick and polishing an apple on his beat. Make way for the new look: the young man interested in high salary, early retirement. Perhaps it was inevitable. The police cruiser took the cop off the street and made him impersonal. Electronics replaced human contact. Job dedication in America in the '60s generally bowed to economic concerns, and the cop wants his own.

The next decade saw a string of police strikes throughout the country – in Baltimore, San Francisco, Cleveland, and New Orleans – many with enduring legacies of their own. San Francisco turned to “patrol specials,” or private police officers, to fill the much-depleted ranks of law enforcement. The vestiges of this arrangement still remain in the city today: public and private cops continue to coexist in a two-tiered system, distinguished by considerable differences in authority, though only subtle differences in uniform. (Regular cop uniforms bear a six-pointed star special police uniforms have a seven-pointed one.) In New Orleans, the strike is an especially memorable event: 1979 was the year the police effectively cancelled Mardi Gras.

Many of these walk-outs were staged to demand pay increases or better bargaining rights – issues that have yet to be raised in New York’s current stoppage – although it is noteworthy that the police are in contract arbitration. But a strike by Milwaukee police in 1981 bears remarkable similarities to the racial tension and political showdown that have unfolded in recent weeks. In December 1981, two police officers were shot and killed in an alley by a black teenager. In the wake of the killings, Milwaukee Alderman Roy Nabors said in a public statement that the shooting might have been the product of fear: “Anytime a policeman approaches a person in the black community,” he said, “there is that fear.” Milwaukee cops perceived this snippet of Nabors’ statement, which he later argued was taken out of context, as disregard for the loss of police life.

Controversy over police conduct and reform had been simmering in Milwaukee for months. Three cop-involved deaths that year – of a black man in police custody, a businessman accosted during a traffic chase, and a nightclub dancer – had raised concern about police brutality and inflamed tensions between law enforcement and the public. The police union president called one Milwaukee district attorney a “persecutor” for investigating misconduct. This is gentle language, perhaps, compared to officers who have referred to Mayor Bill de Blasio as a “cop hater,” but it was a strong enough sentiment to prompt a department-wide walk-out. There is no record of how many officers participated in the strike, nor any evidence of whether it had any impact on city crime rates it lasted only 16 hours.

The Milwaukee conflict’s speedy denouement is a sharp contrast to New York’s protracted protest. In Milwaukee, the city council was eager to put the incident in the past: policy makers promised to disavow Nabors’ statement about race relations in the city and agreed not to prosecute officers for illegally walking off the job. No one in New York seems ready to sweep animosity under the rug. This week, cops proved they aren’t shying away when they flouted Police Commissioner Bratton’s entreaty to forgo protest at the latest police funeral, and turned their backs against Mayor de Blasio during his eulogy. For his part, de Blasio is taking pains to sound optimistic. At a press conference this week alongside Bratton, he emphasized the city’s declining crime rate.

And while commentators try to make sense of what they’re calling a “slowdown,” the mayor conjured a rosier picture for the new year: “We will,” he pledged, “build on last year’s momentum.”

About the 1919 Boston Police Strike

Officers leaving Fay Hall after strike vote. Boston Globe, September 9, 1919.

On September 9, 1919, more than 1,100 Boston Police officers went on strike for fair wages, decent working conditions and their right to organize.

Boston’s policemen were paid less than most of the city’s skilled laborers, and had not had a raise in decades. Normal shifts ranged from ten to thirteen hours. Required to be on call at the station house several nights a month, they slept in filthy quarters and were responsible for purchasing their uniforms and boots.

Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis disregarded the officers’ demands. He and Governor Calvin Coolidge were wary of the growing political power of immigrants and their elected officials. In their view, strikes threatened democracy. They were influenced by the era’s Red Scare, a hysteria fed by the belief that radical immigrants and labor unionists were trying to incite a revolution.

As the policemen planned to join the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Curtis prohibited police from joining any outside organization. The policemen voted to defy the order and join the AFL. On August 21, Curtis charged eight policemen with violating his ruling. On September 8, he suspended 11 more for a total of 19 leaders of the organizing effort. The next day, more than 1,100 policemen walked off the job.

Disorder in downtown Boston was almost instantaneous as people took advantage of the situation, looting stores and breaking windows. Boston’s Mayor Andrew Peters asked Governor Coolidge to call in the Massachusetts State Guard and local militia. When guardsmen fired into a crowd, killing five men, the violence began to subside.

Most Bostonians blamed the violence on the police for leaving the city defenseless, rather than on the lawless crowds or the aggressive response of the military. Curtis refused to rehire any strikers, but gave their replacements the pay increase they had been requesting for years. It would be nearly fifty years before Boston’s police were allowed to organize and the nation saw another police strike.

To learn more about the history of the 1919 Boston Police Strike, explore this interactive online map and historical timeline

History of 1919 Boston police strikers lives on through Healey Library website

On September 9, 1919, 1,177 Boston police officers went on strike in hopes of gaining long-promised improvements in wages and working conditions. None of the strikers ever worked as Boston police officers again. Some were so ashamed that they spoke very little about their former jobs to their family, if at all.

Now, descendants, hobby genealogists, historians, and the community as a whole can read about these strikers through a website created by librarians at UMass Boston’s Joseph P. Healey Library,

The 1919 Boston Police Strike project first came about in 2012, when Margaret Sullivan, records manager and archivist for the Boston Police Department, contacted Joanne Riley, now interim dean of University Libraries at UMass Boston, about an interesting historical set of records the police department held.

There was an index card for each member of the department who went out on strike in September 9, 1919, with a red stamp on each that says, “Abandoned His Duty Sept 9, 1919.” Sullivan recognized the value of these roster cards and thought about how to showcase them given the approaching 100th anniversary in 2019.

“UMass Boston has the interest in labor history, the interest in local history, and the interest in untold stories that made it a good match for this program,” Sullivan said.

Riley got to work, bringing UMass Boston faculty, students, and outside volunteers on board.

“In the aftermath of the strike, [the city] hired approximately 16,00 substitutes, to whom they gave the concessions that the strikers had been asking for for so long, so in many ways, it was an event that had an effect on labor history and the ability of public employees to go out on strike, and the very, very personal effect that it had on people in the city: the strikers, their families, people who took their places. It was a very deeply important event in Boston history,” Riley said.

After volunteers typed up the information in the shoebox of index cards, a set of volunteers called “starters” looked for what else they could find out about the strikers, combing through primary source documents such as census records, city directories, and war records. Volunteer Ken Liss, the head of liaison & instructional services at Boston University, was one of those “starters.”

“I just love researching people whose stories aren’t often told, especially if they are part of a larger tapestry that tells a bigger story, and this really kind of fit that bill,” Liss said.

After this first pass at filling out worksheets on each striker, another volunteer would make sure nothing was missing. During the “closing phase,” a volunteer would input the data from the worksheet into the online database, which would generate a biography for every striker. The last phase was writing a biography on each striker.

Susan Eppling does geneaology for fun. One day she was on her account and saw someone linking to records of her grandfather, Cornelius Crowley.

“There aren’t many people that survive that are relatives that I don’t know about, and I emailed this person through Ancestry and they told me about the project, and then I contacted the people at UMass Boston. I took part in their massive open online course to become one of their volunteers, and then it just snowballed,” Eppling said.

More than 80 volunteers put in more than 90,000 hours of research work over seven years on the 1919 Boston Police Strike project. Organizers and volunteers talk about the process in this video.

All of this research led up to an event at UMass Boston on September 7, 2019, at which the website was unveiled, and family members reenacted the moment when their ancestors decided to strike.

“My sister and I stood up and said, ‘On behalf of our grandfather, Cornelius Crowley, we vote to strike,’ and everyone was popping up all over,” Eppling said. Watch the video of the September 7, 2019 event.

Riley says that just because the website is live, doesn’t mean that the data collection is over. Volunteers and descendants can continue to contribute photos and information. And the stories can continue to be told, and read.

“To be able to write [my grandfather’s] biography, know that it’s part of this growing collection—it’ll be there in perpetuity—I think he’d be glad, and he’d be proud,” Eppling said.

The Boston Police Strike of 1919

During 1919, one-fifth of the country&rsquos workers would strike. The year started with New York&rsquos harbor workers striking in January, followed by the dressmakers. In February news headlines reported a &ldquoprelude to revolution,&rdquo when a general strike in Seattle closed all businesses from February 6 to 11.

Bombs were mailed to the Mayor of Seattle, who broke the strike and, in April, 40 more mail bombs were found en route to other public leaders for May Day, the international communist holiday. With the backdrop of apparently spreading communism, many American citizens believed that they were on the verge of a workers&rsquo revolution.

In Massachusetts, textile workers in Lawrence walked out in protest of a six-days-a-week, nine-hours-a-day work schedule. Boston telephone operators interrupted much of New England&rsquos phone service in an April work stoppage and, in July, Boston&rsquos elevated train workers staged their own walkout. Boston&rsquos business and political leaders could see this national trend of strikes disabling their own businesses and communities, and they became increasingly alarmed.

Generous Grievances

There is no doubt that the Boston police force had legitimate grievances, which they had expressed as early as 1917. Starting pay for new officers had not risen in 60 years, since 1857, when new recruits received two dollars per day. Their wages were even lower than the earnings of most unskilled factory workers. Officers worked seven days per week, with a day off every other week, during which they could not leave town without special permission. Depending on duty assignments, officers worked between 72 and 98 hours per week, and were required to sleep in the station houses, in case they were needed. Officers were not paid for court appearances and they also complained about the deplorable conditions in police stations, which included the lack of sanitation, baths, beds, and toilets.

Since 1885, the Boston police had been under the command of a commissioner appointed by the state Governor. Though Boston&rsquos Mayor controlled their budget, their operation and how they used the budget was controlled by this commissioner appointed by the Governor. This placed the Mayor, Andrew Peters, in a difficult position. His city was protected by a police force not under his control. When the police would succeed, the state would take the credit but when there were problems, Peters, who was closest to them, could readily be made the scapegoat.

There was also an ethnic overlay. Protestant Yankees sought to control the Irish-Catholic rank and file of the Boston Police Department. This made the dispute about more than wages or work conditions it quickly developed along lines of ethnicity.

By June of 1919, the grievances made by the police officers had not been addressed, so they turned to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to consider unionization. Although police officers already had their own association called the Boston Social Club, founded by the police department in 1906 and operating under its sponsorship, Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis was outspoken in his condemnation of the movement to unionize. After all, the labor union movement had long been viewed with suspicion by many Americans, and those suspicions were heightened by the so-called workers&rsquo revolution in Russia and by efforts to spread communism throughout the Western world.

In August the police were granted a union charter, which Commissioner Curtis opposed on the grounds that a policeman was not &ldquoan employee, but a state officer.&rdquo Mayor Peters was unreachable, being on an extended vacation in Maine, but Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge and Attorney General Albert Pillsbury put forward legislation to make unionization illegal for public employees. Pillsbury would note that the &ldquoorganized work man has taken us by the throat and has us at his mercy.&rdquo The lines of &ldquous&rdquo versus &ldquothem&rdquo were quickly drawn.

From this point on, state officials focused on the legitimacy of public employees unionizing rather than the validity of the officers&rsquo complaints. On August 20 Commissioner Curtis suspended eight of the leading police union organizers, followed soon thereafter by another 11 suspensions. The rank and file were ordered to turn in their nightsticks, and Curtis began to organize volunteer police substitutes.

Setting Policy in Stone

When Mayor Peters returned from vacation, he made conciliatory statements and organized a commission headed by prominent banker James Storrow. Storrow&rsquos group recommended that Commissioner Curtis and the police agree to a police union without AFL ties and without the right to strike. Curtis would recognize the police union, and the union would agree to remain &ldquoindependent and unaffiliated.&rdquo Storrow&rsquos group also recommended that no action should be taken against the 19 officers whom Curtis had suspended. Four of Boston&rsquos five newspapers backed the compromise, with only the Boston Transcript holding to a consistent anti-union position. The Boston Chamber of Commerce backed the compromise, as well.

Commissioner Curtis kept to his position that it would be inconsistent with the public interest to negotiate with a union, or have the police obliged to act upon the whims of any non-public organization, and that the need for public safety outweighed the officers&rsquo asserted right to collective bargaining. As Curtis had put it earlier:

It is or should be apparent to any thinking person that the police department of this or any other city cannot fulfill its duty to the entire public if its members are subject to the direction of an organization existing outside the department…. If troubles and disturbances arise where the interests of this organization and the interests of other elements and classes in the community conflict, the situation immediately arises which always arises when a man attempts to serve two masters, &mdash he must fail either in his duty as a policeman, or in his obligation to the organization that controls him.

With the backing of Governor Coolidge, Curtis rejected Storrow&rsquos proposal.

But the police were emotionally committed to the union as the only effective means of making progress. The police union members responded on September 8 by voting 1,134 to 2 in favor of a strike, and scheduled it to start at evening roll call the next day. Their stated grounds omitted wages and working conditions. They were striking to protest the commissioner&rsquos denial of their right to affiliate themselves with the AFL.

U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts described the strike as &ldquothe first step to sovietizing the country.&rdquo Governor Coolidge suggested that the city council raise wages and improve working conditions. Still, Coolidge&rsquos commissioner held firm to his position and recruited about 200 Harvard University athletes and business men to step in during the expected strike.

Mayor Peters requested that Governor Coolidge dispatch the State Guard as a first reaction to the strike. Coolidge sided with his police commissioner, who advised that volunteers could fill the void and that troops should only be sent if needed.

On September 9, Boston Police Department officers went on strike at 5:45 p.m. Of the department&rsquos 1,544 personnel, 1,117 (72 percent) refused to report for work. Governor Coolidge assigned 100 members of the state&rsquos Metropolitan Park Police Department to replace the striking officers, but 58 of them refused to participate and were suspended from their jobs. Despite assurances from Commissioner Curtis to Mayor Peters and Governor Coolidge, Boston had little police protection for the night of September 9. Volunteer replacements were still being organized and due to report the next morning.

The Strike Plays Out

As residents absorbed the reality of the absence of police, the hooligans among them took the opportunity to engage in various petty crimes. There was gambling in public, purse snatching, and harassing of law-enforcement officers, both those on strike who were now without a badge and gun, as well as those who acted as strike breakers in the greatly weakened police force.

By 8:00 p.m. a crowd estimated at 10,000 gathered in Scollay Square, a center of amusement halls and theaters. Soon a cigar store window was broken and the store emptied. This was followed by a frenzy of looting and mayhem, including throwing rocks at streetcars and overturning the carts of street vendors, which took place downtown and in South Boston until well after midnight.

On the morning of September 10, political positioning ensued. Mayor Peters issued a press release saying that he was not to blame, and he called out the State Guard. He used an emergency clause to take control of the police whenever &ldquotumult, riot, and violent disturbance&rdquo happened within the city. Coolidge reacted by issuing a statement that, as Governor, the Guard would be under his control, and that Coolidge, not Peters, would save Boston.

The president of Harvard University, Lawrence Lowell, called on more students to volunteer, as did Boston&rsquos businessmen. Crowds waited outside police stations to attack the volunteers. Cries of &ldquokill the cops&rdquo were heard. The Commander of Station 6 in South Boston kept his Harvard volunteers in the station in order to protect their lives.

At Scollay Square there were sporadic confrontations between the replacement police and the crowd, resulting in several Harvard students being cornered. When the first troop of cavalry arrived, they had to intervene to rescue groups of cornered police. Several guardsmen were injured by thrown rocks but, eventually, the threat of live ammunition and horsemen with swords pushed the crowd from Scollay Square.

Boston became a beehive of military activity, as Governor Coolidge eventually provided 5,000 State Guards. At the old armory, near the Park Plaza Hotel, mobile units with machine guns set up headquarters.

Violence peaked that evening, the night of September 10 and 11. But businesses were better prepared: Some had boarded up their windows, while others stayed open all night with armed guards visible, in order to discourage any thoughts of taking advantage of the absence of law-enforcement officers. But the Guard proved inexperienced at handling crowds and quick to assert control without regard for loss of life. Gunfire in South Boston left two dead and others wounded. Scollay Square was reportedly the scene of a riot where one died. The death total ultimately reached nine.

The next morning the Los Angeles Times wrote, &ldquoNo man&rsquos house, no man&rsquos wife, no man&rsquos children will be safe if the police force is unionized and made subject to the orders of Red Unionite bosses.&rdquo In Philadelphia, the Public Ledger reported, &ldquoBolshevism in the United States is no longer a specter. Boston in chaos reveals its sinister substance.&rdquo And the Ohio State Journal declared, &ldquoWhen a policeman strikes, he should be debarred not only from resuming his office, but from citizenship as well. He has committed the unpardonable sin he has forfeited all his rights.&rdquo

But when Governor Coolidge called the strikers &ldquodeserters&rdquo and &ldquotraitors,&rdquo a mass meeting of the Boston Police Union responded with wounded pride and a taunt of its own:

When we were honorably discharged from the United States army, we were hailed as heroes and saviors of our country. We returned to our duties on the police force of Boston.

Now, though only a few months have passed, we are denounced as deserters, as traitors to our city and violators of our oath of office.

The first men to raise the cry were those who have always been opposed to giving to labor a living wage. It was taken up by the newspapers, who cared little for the real facts. You finally added your word of condemnation….

Among us are men who have gone against spitting machine guns single-handed, and captured them, volunteering for the job. Among us are men who have ridden with dispatches through shell fire so dense that four men fell and only the fifth got through.

Not one man of us ever disgraced the flag or his service. It is bitter to come home and be called deserters and traitors. We are the same men who were on the French front.

Some of us fought in the Spanish war of 1898. Won&rsquot you tell the people of Massachusetts in which war you served?

Mayor Peters feared that a general strike might follow, such as the one that closed Seattle, with the support of other unions and public employees. With order restored, he met with union leaders to seek a compromise. Governor Coolidge could afford to take a firmer stance, as ultimately he would not have to lead the city through a general strike. Furthermore, he had a supporter sitting inside the Central Labor Organization, &ldquoDiamond&rdquo Jim Timilty, who secretly promised that a general strike would not be called.

AFL chief Samuel Gompers, who had just returned from Europe, quickly assessed the situation and the strength of public sentiment and urged the strikers to return to work. The police accepted his recommendation immediately. On September 12, Gompers telegraphed Mayor Peters and Governor Coolidge, asking for the strikers to be reinstated and that all parties agree to wait for arbitration &ldquoto honorably adjust a mutually unsatisfactory situation.&rdquo Coolidge replied with a statement of support for Commissioner Curtis&rsquo hard line. Gompers telegraphed Coolidge again, this time blaming Curtis for the crisis. Coolidge dismissed the commissioner&rsquos behavior as irrelevant, because no provocation could justify the police walkout. His terse summation elevated his reputation on the national scene: &ldquoThere is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.&rdquo In the end, the show of force rapidly caused the strike to collapse and earned for Coolidge the image of a strict enforcer of law and order, as he declared that he would continue to &ldquodefend the sovereignty of Massachusetts.&rdquo

Labor was plentiful, so by mid-December Commissioner Curtis was able to hire an entirely new police force. The State Guard was able to return to their homes, but striking officers were not allowed to return to their jobs with the Boston Police Department, which went overwhelmingly to unemployed servicemen. The new recruits were granted higher pay, better working conditions, and additional holidays, and gained the additional benefit of free uniforms.

Governor Coolidge&rsquos strong action was soothing to a fearful public, and he was easily reelected on November 4, 1919 with a 62-percent majority. A year later he would become the Vice President of the United States and, following the death of President Warren Harding, he became our 30th President on August 2, 1923. Mayor Peters would be defeated in his next election by his political rival James Curley, who had preceded him as Mayor.

While the Boston police strike proved to be temporarily disastrous for the union movement, and the AFL reversed its attempts at organizing police officers for another two decades, police were eventually allowed to form unions. However, it is still illegal for police to go on strike, and even informal work actions such as the &ldquoBlue Flu,&rdquo whereby large numbers of police officers call in sick at the same time, are seriously frowned upon.

NYPD's needed history lesson: What it can learn from the Boston police strike of 1919

By Nicolaus Mills
Published January 17, 2015 11:30AM (EST)

(AP/John Minchillo/Photo montage by Salon)


Nearly a century separates the historic Boston police strike of 1919 from the December-January work slowdown of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), but especially for the NYPD’s conservative supporters, the lessons from the Boston strike on what police owe the city they work for remain relevant.

The NYPD’s supporters believe the police are right to be angry with New York mayor Bill de Blasio because he has questioned how the NYPD has used stop-and-frisk tactics in dealing with the city’s minority community. They particularly resent de Blasio saying publicly that he has told Dante, his mixed-race, 16-year-old son, who sports an afro, to take special care in any police encounter.

The problem for the NYPD’s conservative supporters is that championing the NYPD slowdown conflicts with their longtime support of the principle that grew out of the Boston police strike — namely, government employees responsible for public safety never have a right to strike or play fast and loose with the law.

The Boston police strike began in a year of widespread labor unrest in America. Seattle had undergone a general strike earlier in the year, and with World War I at an end, the underpaid and overworked Boston police let it be known that they wanted to join Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor (AFL). When 19 of them took the lead in joining the union, they were immediately fired in sympathy a thousand police then walked off the job.

The reaction of city and state authorities was to call in state troops, and in short order the strike was put down. Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell even told his students that if they volunteered for police duty, the university would schedule makeup exams for any test they missed. For Calvin Coolidge, then the governor of Massachusetts, it was not, however, enough to thwart the striking Boston police. He also insisted that they could not get their old jobs back, and in a ringing telegram that won him national attention, he declared, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

As the historian Amity Shlaes has pointed out in her recent, admiring biography of Coolidge, the telegram and tough stance made Coolidge a national figure. He won a permanent place for himself in conservative circles. Ronald Reagan admired Coolidge so much that as president he replaced the portrait of Harry Truman that hung in the Oval Office with that of Coolidge. More important, he followed Coolidge’s Boston-police example to the letter when, in 1981, striking air traffic controllers refused his orders to go back to work. Reagan fired all the workers who disobeyed his order, even though the firings made the nation’s airports less safe for many years. “You can’t sit and negotiate with a union that’s in violation of the law,” Reagan declared. “Government . . . has to provide without interruption the services which are government’s reason for being.”

The Boston police lost public sympathy when rioting broke out during their short strike. The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) was hurt by the impact of its strike on airplane passengers. By contrast, the NYPD, which skirted the law during a slowdown that now appears to be winding to a halt, has not quite suffered a comparable public relations setback — yet.

The NYPD is not, however, home free. In the incident that became the immediate cause for the protests against the NYPD in December, the police can be seen on a cellphone video putting what turned out to be a fatal chokehold an unarmed Staten Island African-American, Eric Garner, whom they allegedly caught selling “loosies,” untaxed cigarettes, on the street.

Whether the violent arrest was an overreaction has been debated, but what followed the violence is a different story. In the video, Garner, who suffered from asthma, can be seen repeatedly complaining, “I can’t breathe,” and later, as he lies helpless, and then unconscious, neither the police nor emergency service workers make any effort to apply CPR. Whether Garner lived or died appears to have been a matter of indifference to them.

The New York Post, which along with the Daily News, the city’s other major tabloid, has championed the police, has already warned the NYPD about the dangers of a slowdown. “This is a highly dangerous game,” the Post cautioned in a recent editorial. “By not doing their jobs, cops risk losing the support of the vast majority of New Yorkers.” Whether the Post speaks for the NYPD’s conservative backers is an open question. The latter may, after all, think there are times when exceptions should be made to the Coolidge-Reagan hard line on the law and government workers.

Meanwhile, a new poll from Quinnipiac University brings a clear message: "Voters say 57 - 34 percent that officers should be disciplined if they deliberately are making fewer arrests or writing fewer tickets. Black, white and Hispanic voters all agree."

Nicolaus Mills

Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Like a Holy Crusade: Mississippi 1964—The Turning of the Civil Rights Movement in America.


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Watch the video: 1919 Boston Police Strike (July 2022).


  1. Baucis

    Wonderful idea and time frame

  2. Yedidyah

    If they say they are on the wrong track.

  3. Hanson

    well done

  4. Cath

    This phrase is incomparable)))

  5. Keallach

    You, coincidentally, not the expert?

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