Boston Police Strike

The Boston Police Strike was a strike by the Boston police rank and file that began on September 9, 1919 after Police Commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis refused to allow the creation of a police union. The strike, which plunged Boston into civil chaos, heralded a dramatic shift in traditional labor relations and views on the part of the police, who were unhappy with stagnant wages and poor working conditions. Then-Governor Calvin Coolidge's intervention in the strike brought him national fame which, in turn, led to his nomination as Harding's running mate for Vice-President in the 1920 presidential election.

Background to the strike

The Boston police force had been controlled by a individual commissioner since 1906; control of the force was taken away from the mayor's office in 1885. Despite this, responsibility for pay and working conditions remained with the city itself.Foner p. 92] In the period after World War I inflation began to raise the cost of living beyond that of a police officer's wage. The cost of living from 1913 until May 1919 rose by 76%, in contrast with an average increase of 18% in police wages. Police officers worked long 10 hour shifts and often slept over at the station without pay in case they were needed. [Foner p. 92-93] Officers were not paid for court appearances and there were also complaints about the conditions of police stations, including the lack of sanitation, baths, beds and toilets. [Foner p. 93]

In the early months of 1919, a number of strikes had swept America in an attempt to raise wages that had not been adjusted for post-war inflation."US History", [ "The Wilson Administration Boston Police Strike September 1919"] . Retrieved June 6, 2007] Furthermore, the number of police unions throughout the United States mushroomed after the American Federation of Labor began granting charters to police unions so that 37 cities had unionized police forces. Police Commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis forbade the creation of any police union in Boston, claiming that the position of police officers as "state officers" rather than employees meant that no union should be provided. [Foner p. 94] On August 15, 1919 the police gathered and formed a union despite the orders of their commissioner, and denounced Curtis' position. A number of officers were suspended and Curtis refused to meet with the union. Mayor Andrew Peters ordered an outside committee to investigate the possibilities of improving working conditions and averting a strike. Curtis refused their recommendations despite four out of five of Boston's newspapers supporting them. [Foner p. 94]

The suspended officers were again suspended and found guilty of union activism, and the police union members voted 1134 to 2 to strike on the evening of the following day. On September 9, 1,117 BPD officers went on strike at 5:45 p.m. [Foner p. 95] One hundred Metropolitan Park Police were brought in to replace the striking officers, but 58 of these refused. Despite assurances from Curtis to Peters and Governor Calvin Coolidge, Boston had no police protection for the night of September 9, as the volunteer police officers were not told to report until the following morning. [Foner p. 95]

The city soon fell into riots and public chaos as over three-fourths of the department was no longer enforcing public peace. Large crowds, including a number of sailors from docked naval ships, took to the streets, smashing windows, committing robbery and stoning bystanders and cars. [Chamberlin p. 222] The northern, southern, and western areas of the city were all taken over by armed gangs, despite the 300 officers that were still on duty. These remaining officers who did not strike, however, were mainly found in the outlying areas and could do little to prevent the unrest. [Chamberlin p. 222] Nevertheless, newspaper accounts exaggerated the level of crime and violence that accompanied the strike, which resulted in a national furor and shaped the political response. President Woodrow Wilson branded the walkout "a crime against civilization." [Fogelson p. 194]

Coolidge's response

Governor Coolidge originally hoped to reinstate the officers, stating in a telegram that "I earnestly hope that circumstances may arise which will cause the police officers to be reinstated". [Chamberlin p. 223] However, he then decreed that the police force did not have the right to strike, stating that "There is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, anytime." [Fuess, 226] Despite calls for the striking officers to be reinstated, roughly 1,100 were fired. Coolidge hired 1,574 replacement police officers from a pool of unemployed World War I veterans, who, after being refused uniforms from United Garment Workers, were forced to come to work in civilian clothing. [Foner p. 100]

Ironically, the new officers hired in the wake of the strike received higher salaries, more vacation days and city-provided uniforms, the very demands the original strikers were requesting. The new officers had a starting salary of $1,400 along with a pension plan and the cost of uniforms and equipment were covered by the department. The population of Boston also collected $572,000 to help pay for the new officers. [Foner p. 100]

Consequences of the strike

Of the ramifications of the Boston Police Strike, the added momentum given to Coolidge's political career are generally considered the most notable. [Foner p. 101] Coolidge was re-elected governor by 124,000 votes, and he himself later stated that "No doubt it was the police strike in Boston that brought me into national prominence." [Foner p. 101] In 1920, Coolidge was nominated to the vice-presidency.

In October 1919 in Knoxville, Tennessee, where employees of the Knoxville Railway and Light Company (KRL) went on strike, police officers involved in the September police strikes were recorded to have been standing "idly by" by the press, as the police detested the strikebreaking efforts of the KRL. [Foner p. 101] Following the KRL strikes, several police officers were suspended after auto union workers accused the police force of being biased in favor of the strikers because of the KRL union. [Foner p. 101]

In 1931, the officers who had struck were officially allowed back onto the force by the Massachusetts’s legislative body; however the Boston police commissioner refused to admit them back. The failure of the Boston Police Strike, and of other strikes during the period, contributed to declining union membership in subsequent years. Public fears, however, were not entirely assuaged and in part contributed to the Red Scare of 1919–1920. [Schmidt p. 213]

The American Federation of Labor responded to political pressure brought on by the strike and revoked the charters it had granted to police unions. The Boston Police were not the first police force to unionize, but the crushing of the strike put an end to the first wave of police unionism in the US; the second wave would not begin until World War II. [Fogelson p. 194-195]

In popular culture

The Dropkick Murphys released a song called "We Got the Power," about the Boston Police Strike on "Rock Against Bush" Volume 2.

Dennis Lehane's book "The Given Day" is a historical novel set during Boston Police Strike.

ee also

* Winnipeg General Strike of 1919



Printed sources:

* Chamberlin, Joseph Edgar, "Boston Transcript: a history of its first hundred years" (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1969) ISBN 0-836-95146-8
* Fuess, Claude M., "Calvin Coolidge: The Man from Vermont" (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976 [1940] ) ISBN 0-837-19320-6.
* Fogelson, Robert M., "Big-City Police" (Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press, 1977) ISBN 0-674-07281-2
* Foner, Philip S., "History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Postwar Struggles, 1918-1920 V. 8" (New York: International Publishers, 1988) ISBN 0-717-80388-0
* Russell, Francis, "A City in Terror: Calvin Coolidge and the 1919 Boston Police Strike" (1975), ISBN 0-807-05033-4.
* Schmidt, Regine, "Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States, 1919-1943" (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000) ISBN 8-772-89581-0

* US History [ "The Wilson Administration Boston Police Strike September 1919".] Retrieved June 6, 2007

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