In the Boston Police Strike, the Boston police rank and file went out on strike on September 9, 1919, in order to receive recognition for their trade union and improvements in wages and working conditions. They faced an implacable opponent in Police Commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis, who denied that police officers had any right to form a union, much less one affiliated with a larger organization like the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Attempts at reconciliation between the Commissioner and the police officers, particularly on the part of Boston's Mayor Andrew James Peters, failed.
During the strike, Boston experienced several nights of lawlessness, although property damage was not extensive. Several thousand members of the State Guard, supported by volunteers, restored order. Press reaction both locally and nationally described the strike as Bolshevik-inspired and directed at the destruction of civil society. The strikers were called "deserters" and "agents of Lenin."
Samuel Gompers of the AFL recognized that the strike was damaging the cause of labor in the public mind and advised the strikers to return to work. The Police Commissioner remained adamant and refused to re-hire the striking policemen. He was supported by Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, whose rebuke of Gompers earned him a national reputation. The strike proved a setback for labor, and the AFL reversed its attempts to organize police officers for another two decades. Coolidge won the Republican nomination for vice-president of the US in the 1920 presidential election.
The Massachusetts legislature altered the management structure of the Boston Police Department twice in the years before the strike. First, in 1895, it removed the department from the control of Boston’s mayor and placed it under the control of a five-person board of commissioners appointed by the governor. In 1906, it abolished that board and gave authority to a single commissioner, appointed by the governor for a term of five years and subject to removal by the governor. The mayor and the city had responsibility for pay and physical working conditions, but had little incentive to devote resources to the department while the commissioner controlled department operations and the hiring, training, and discipline of the police officers.
In the years following World War I, inflation dramatically eroded the value of a police officer's salary. From 1913 to May 1919, the cost of living rose by 76%, while police wages rose just 18%. Police officers worked long ten-hour shifts and often slept over at the station without pay in case they were needed. Officers were not paid for court appearances. They complained about the poor conditions of most police stations, including the lack of sanitation, baths, beds and toilets. They typically worked between 75 and 90 hours per 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 what they had been in 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.
What had been acceptable before the war became less so after 1917. The cost of living was high and discontent and restiveness among the Boston police force grew. They were "resentfully aware" that in the wartime boom they were earning less than an unskilled steelworker, half as much as a carpenter or mechanic and 50 cents a day less than a "motorman" or conductor on the streetcars. Additionally, Boston city laborers were earning a third more on an hourly basis.
Although pay was the primary grievance of the Boston police, there were many other problems. Beyond the pay scale there was the matter of hours, which had not changed in over half a century. Patrolmen worked a 7-day week, with one day off every 15 days. Patrolmen who worked the day shift put in 73 hours a week and "night men" worked 83 hours a week, while "wagon men" worked 98 hours. After a day off, the men were required to serve a "house day" which meant they were on call at the station from 8:00am until 6:00pm performing various tasks such as recording duty, wagon runs and attending to the "signal desk." After a three-hour break, they reported back to the station house at 9:00pm where they slept for three hours until 12:00am at which time the bell rang for roll call and they "went out on the street" until 8:00am. After that, they could go home, but had to be back at 6:00pm for what they called an "evening on the floor" which meant performing the same type of duties such as taking care of prisoners, wagon trips or "whatever turned up." At 9:00pm the patrolman went back to bed for three hours.
The "day men," in addition to their 10-hour day, were required to spend one night a week in the station house on reserve. Although the commissioner and mayor had agreed to give the police a 24-hour holiday for every 8 days of work, this could be taken away "at will" and often was. Additionally, even during his free time, a patrolman could not leave the city limits without express permission. According to one patrolman; "That was the way it was day after day, round after round. We had no freedom, no home life at all. We couldn't even go to Revere Beach without the captain's permission."
Many of the "extra duties" assigned to the police were deemed "arbitrary and capricious." The patrolmen did not understand why 10 or 15 officers should be assigned to a Sunday band concert, when two would have sufficed. Nor did they feel they should be "delivering unpaid tax bills, surveying rooming houses, taking the census, or watching the polls at election." They also objected that promotions were subjectively based on the judgment of the patrolman's captain, who if he disliked could keep him a patrolman indefinitely in spite of his qualifications and assign the patrolman to an "undesirable beat" if he protested. There were many "petty tyrannies" performed by the captains and higher-ups, who in many cases, "made errand boys of their men, sending them out to bring in lunches and Sunday dinners or to pick up daily newspapers" which the patrolmen were expected to pay for, hence called "peanut graft."
Living conditions were deplorable for the patrolmen who were required to live in one of the 19 station houses which were "overcrowded, decaying, rodent and vermin ridden." As the condition of the station houses deteriorated, ordinary patrolmen began to feel that their officers were little concerned about how the men had to live as long as their own private offices were in order. Until 1912, there had been no new police stations constructed in Boston in 30 years and the existing stations had not been significantly altered since before the Civil War. Beds were used by two, three, or even four men in succession in a single 24-hour period, the man coming off duty "merely pushing the duty man out of bed and taking his place." Bedbugs and roaches swarmed in the sleeping quarters and as example, the Court Street station had four toilets for 135 men and one bathtub.
In a dozen years, the Boston police force grew from 1,358 to 1,877, yet the weight of the work increased disproportionately. In 1906, the police made 49,906 arrests and by 1917 the number had increased to 108,556. The war greatly expanded the demand for police services and in 1917, the men performed 20,000 tours of duty exclusively related to the war effort. Other "special duties" were also added by the order of legislature such as "checking the backgrounds and character of some 20,000 prospective jurors" and the regulation of automobile traffic.
During 1917, a committee of policemen met with Commissioner Stephen O'Meara to ask about a raise. He was sympathetic, but advised them to wait for a more "auspicious" time. The police did not raise the issue again until the summer of 1918, when spokesmen for the Boston Social Club again complained about the inadequacy of their pay and the commissioner told them that while he himself favored an immediate increase, his hands were tied.
After repeated requests from local police organizations, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) began accepting police organizations into their membership in June 1919. By September, it had granted charters to police unions in 37 cities, including Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Miami, and St. Paul, though not without protests from some city officials, who also opposed the unionization of firefighters and teachers.
In Boston, firefighters threatened mass resignations in August 1918 and won raises. Police officers had their own association called the Boston Social Club, founded by the Police Department in 1906 and operating under its sponsorship. In 1918, the Police Commissioner made it clear to the rank and file that they were not entitled to form their own union. The next year, their new Police Commissioner, Edwin Upton Curtis, refused to deal with the Social Club and set up his own grievance committee to handle management-employee disputes.
The police determined to organize under an AFL charter in order to gain support from other unions in their negotiations with the Commissioner and, if it came to it, a potential strike. On August 9 the Boston Social Club requested a charter from the AFL. On August 11, Curtis issued a General Order forbidding police officers to join any "organization, club or body outside the department," making an exception only for patriotic organizations such as the American Legion. His administration argued that such a rule was based on conflict of interest between police officers' duties and union membership:
On August 15 the police received their AFL charter. On August 17 the Central Labor Union of Boston welcomed the police union and denounced Curtis for his assertions that the police had no right to unionize. Curtis refused to meet with the eight members of the police union's committee. He suspended them and 11 others who held various union offices, and scheduled trials to determine if they had violated his General Order. At this point, Curtis was a hero to business interests. Late in August, the New Hampshire Association of Manufacturers called him "the Ole Hanson of the east," equating the events they anticipated in Boston with the earlier Seattle General Strike.
Mayor Andrew James Peters sought to play an intermediary role by appointing a Citizen's Committee to review the dispute about union representation. He chose a well-known local reformer as its chair, James J. Storrow. Storrow's group recommended that 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 "independent and unaffiliated." Storrow's group also recommended that no action be taken against the 19 men whom Curtis had suspended. Four of Boston's five newspapers backed the compromise, with only the Boston Transcript holding to a consistent anti-union position. The Boston Chamber of Commerce backed it as well. Curtis, with the backing of Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, rejected Storrow's proposal.
Curtis proceeded with department trials of the 19 and on September 8 found them guilty of union activity. Rather than dismiss them from the police force, he extended their suspensions. He later explained that he was giving them an opportunity to reconsider their actions and avoiding discharges, which would have been irrevocable. The police union members responded that same day by voting 1134 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's denial of their right to ally themselves with the AFL.
On September 9, Boston Police Department officers went on strike at 5:45 p.m. Of the force's 1,544 officers and men, 1,117 (72%) failed to report for work. Coolidge assigned 100 members of the state's 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.
Over the night of September 9–10, the city witnessed an outbreak of hooliganism and looting. Some was rowdy behavior that scared respectable citizens, such as youths throwing rocks at streetcars and overturning the carts of street vendors. More overtly criminal activity included the smashing of store windows and looting the displays. In the morning the Mayor asked the Governor to furnish a force of State Guards; Coolidge promptly agreed and eventually provided almost 5,000 men.
Commissioner Curtis later praised the State Guards' performance in his Annual Report: "The whole community is now aware of the effectiveness with which the [Massachusetts State Guard] worked when it came into the city. I cannot add anything to the universal chorus of commendation that has greeted their work."
Violence peaked the next evening, the night of September 10–11. Businesses were better prepared. Some had boarded up and others stayed open all night with armed guards visible to discourage thieves taking advantage of the strike. Gamblers played dice in open view, and women had their handbags snatched. But the Guard proved inexperienced at handling crowds and they were quick to assert control without regard for loss of life. Gunfire in South Boston left two dead and others wounded. Scollay Square, a center of amusement halls and theaters, was reportedly the scene of a riot where one died. Whether the crowds were threatening property or making trouble because they were in sympathy with the strikers is unknown. The death total ultimately reached nine.
City life continued relatively normally, especially during daytime hours. Schools remained open. Later claims against the city for losses incurred during the two nights of disorder ran to $35,000, of which the city paid $34,000. Those figures represent a non-partisan calculation of the costs of the strike to the Boston business community.
When Governor Coolidge called the strikers "deserters" and "traitors," a mass meeting of the Boston Police Union responded with wounded pride and a taunt of its own:
On the evening of September 11, the Central Labor Union met to consider calling a general strike in support of the striking police. Earlier it had expressed enthusiasm for a general strike, more likely as an expression of solidarity than a declaration of serious intent. It collected the votes of its constituent unions and then delayed a decision on September 21, only deciding against a general strike on October 5. When it came to a vote, the proposal failed, demonstrating the labor movement understood the public reaction to the police strike as a threat to the movement. Their statement advertised their sensitivity to popular perceptions: "We are not to act in a manner that will give the prejudiced press and autocratic employers a chance to criticize us."
Samuel Gompers, 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 for all parties to agree to wait for arbitration "to honorably adjust a mutually unsatisfactory situation." Coolidge replied with a statement of support for Curtis' hard line. Gompers telegraphed Coolidge again, this time blaming Curtis for the crisis. Coolidge dismissed the Commissioner's behavior as irrelevant, because no provocation could justify the police walkout. His terse summation created his reputation on the national scene: "There is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, anytime." Coolidge said he would continue to "defend the sovereignty of Massachusetts."
By the weekend, the presence of the State Guards had become a curiosity. Larger than usual crowds strolled in the center of the city. Thousands attended a band concert on the Boston Common. "The shootings of the last few days for interference with guardsmen," said the New York Times, "seem to have had a marked effect."
Coolidge said he originally hoped to reinstate the officers, stating in a telegram to a labor convention, "I earnestly hope that circumstances may arise which will cause the police officers to be reinstated". Over the objections of Mayor Peters, Commissioner Curtis announced on September 13 that he planned to recruit a new force. He fired roughly 1,100 and hired 1,574 replacement police officers from a pool of unemployed World War I veterans. Members of the United Garment Workers refused to sew uniforms for the new hires, who had to report for work in civilian clothing.
The new officers hired in the wake of the strike received higher salaries, more vacation days and city-provided uniforms, just as the original strikers had sought. They enjoyed a starting salary of $1,400 along with a pension plan, and the department covered the cost of their uniforms and equipment. The population of Boston raised $472,000 to help pay for the State Guards until new police officers could be recruited.
In anticipation of the strike, all of Boston's newspapers called it "Bolshevistic," pleaded with the police to reconsider and predicted dire consequences. One also warned the police that their eventual defeat was guaranteed, that they would lose because "behind Boston in this skirmish with Bolshevism stands Massachusetts, and behind Massachusetts stands America." The morning papers following the first night's violence were full of loud complaints and derogatory terms for the police: "deserters", "agents of Lenin."
Newspaper accounts exaggerated the level of crime and violence that accompanied the strike, resulting in a national furor that shaped the political response. A Philadelphia paper viewed the Boston violence in the same light as other labor unrest and numerous race riots in 1919: "Bolshevism in the United Sates is no longer a specter. Boston in chaos reveals its sinister substance." President Woodrow Wilson, speaking from Montana, branded the walkout "a crime against civilization" that left the city "at the mercy of an army of thugs." The timing of the strike presented the police union in a poor light. September 10, the first full day of the strike, was also the day of a huge New York City parade that celebrated the return of Gen. John J. Pershing, the hero of the American Expeditionary Force.
A report from Washington, D.C. included this headline: "Senators Think Effort to Sovietize the Government Is Started." Senator Henry Cabot Lodge saw in the strike the dangers of the national labor movement: "If the American Federation of Labor succeeds in getting hold of the police in Boston it will go all over the country, and we shall be in measurable distance of Soviet government by labor unions."
The Ohio State Journal opposed any sympathetic treatment of the strikers: "When 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."
In the police commissioner's Annual Report for 1919, Curtis presented his view of the strike. He argued that he could not have requested State Guards for the strike's first night because the city remained quiet and he had reports that many policemen would not join the strike. By the end of the year the strikers had formed a new organization called the Association of Former Police of the City of Boston.
The strike gave momentum to Coolidge's political career. In 1918, he had narrowly been elected governor. In 1919 he won 62% of the votes when running against an opponent who favored reinstating the strikers. The voters of Boston were less enthusiastic about him than those in other areas. Coolidge failed to carry the city by 5,000 votes. He later said, "No doubt it was the police strike in Boston that brought me into national prominence." President Wilson's post-election telegram shows he shared that view: "I congratulate you upon your election as a victory for law and order. When that is the issue, all Americans must stand together." In 1920, Coolidge was nominated as the Republican candidate for vice-president.
The strike heightened public fear of labor unrest and the possible radicalism that lay behind it. The strike contributed to the public anxiety of the period known as the Red Scare of 1919–1920. The failure of this and other strikes in the years following World War I contributed to declining union membership in subsequent years. The American Federation of Labor responded to political pressure experienced during the strike and revoked the charters it had granted to police unions. That ended police unionism in the U.S. for two decades, as police would not try to organize until World War II.
In 1930, a history of the Boston Transcript, the most resolutely anti-union of Boston's newspapers in 1919, perpetuated its original account of urban chaos during the strike's first nights. It described large crowds, including a number of sailors from docked naval ships, that took to the streets, smashing windows, committing robbery and stoning bystanders and cars. It said that the northern, southern, and western areas of the city were all taken over by armed gangs.
In 1931, the Massachusetts legislature voted to allow the officers who had struck to be rehired. But, the Boston police commissioner refused to admit them to the force.
Not until 1965 would the Boston Police Patrolman's Association be formed for collective bargaining.
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