|Boston Police leave a meeting after voting to strike. Note how young most of the officers were, many veterans of the Great War and with young families.|
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And here is a bit of history that is very instructive of the present moment when Republican/Tea Party governors gleefully make war on unionized public employees, try to strip Democratic big city administrations of their power and authority, and make open warfare on despised ethnic minorities. These governors have sometimes, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, tried to split police from other unionized public employees by execmpting them from some of the worst of the outrages. After all, authoritarians need their agents of official repression. But other governors have not even bothered and lately the Republican presidential candidate has publicly disdained spending tax payer money on “police and teachers.” It is not impossible to image a replay of the sorry events chronicled below. Read on.
On September 9, 1919 more than 1000 members of the Boston Police Force went out on strike to demand recognition of their newly charted union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). That was more than 72% of the officers and men of the force, including the overwhelming majority of rank and file patrolmen. They set off a firestorm that would end with their union smashed, all of their number fired and banned from re-employment for life, the dreams of respectability and cooperation of the leading labor conservative dashed, and a flinty, taciturn Yankee governor catapulted to national prominence.
In many ways the strike had its origins in the always tense relations between the lofty Protestant Brahmins who had once dominated the city with noblesse oblige and the ever growing mass of largely Catholic and Irish immigrants and their decedents clamoring for their place in the sun. The Brahmin class ruled, with minor and rare interruptions for the fugitive Democrat or Know Nothing, since the first mayor under a city government charter in 1822. They changed party labels with the times from Federalist to Whig to Republican, but they were always the same party, united against the Popish menace since immigrants from the Auld Sod began pouring into the city in the 1830s.
But by the 1870’s political control of the city hung in the balance. Mayors switched regularly between Republicans and Democrats. At first the Democrats were simply WASP “class traitors.” But Irish born Hugh O’Brien shocked the blue bloods by winning in 1885. And after 1902, with one brief exception, Irish Democrats, including twice each John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and machine master James M. Curry, held the mayoralty and a solid majority of the City Council. The Brahmins had lost control of the city never to regain it.
But they were not the sort of people to give up easily. For nearly twenty years they made war on Democratic city administrations via their continuing iron grasp on the State House. There were many battle grounds as governors and legislatures sought to strip authority away from the city piecemeal. But control of the large Police Department was the main battle ground. The department had become almost exclusively Irish. From the point of view of Republicans in the state house the department was a cesspool of patronage. Democratic mayors, naturally, believed control of the police was a natural part of city administration.
As early as 1895, reading the demographic writing on the wall, the state stripped the mayor of direct authority over the police by creating a five member Board of Commissioners appointed by the governor. In 1906 Republican Governor Curtis Guild, Jr. decided to bring the police more directly under his control. The Board was replaced by a single Police Commissioner appointed for a six year term and answerable to the Governor.
But just because the state had usurped command authority over the local police, did not mean that it was assuming the cost of the force. The city was still responsible for the pay, equipment, and maintenance of police stations out of its tax revenues—and the legislature put severe limits on how the city could raise and levy taxes. Under the circumstances Democratic mayors had little incentive to keep pay competitive and stations in repair.
Conditions for patrolmen had been deteriorating for years. And sharp inflation associated with World War I deeply eroded the value of pay packets. Since 1913 the cost of living had risen 76%, while pay increased only18%. Officers were not paid for required court appearances and were expected to provide their own uniforms and equipment, including the pistols they carried in their pockets.
Work days were 10 hours and the men were often required to sleep overnight at stations without pay in case they were needed. The work week was typically between 75 and 90 hours a week and conditions in the stations, which lacked basic sanitation, were appalling. Under the circumstances it was understandable that officers sought to improve their condition.
At first they sought to transform the Boston Social Club, an organization formed by the Department itself in 1906, the year a single commissioner to control of the force. After officers watched Boston Firefighters win a major pay raise by threatening to resign in mass in August of 1918, the pressed the Commissioner to open negotiations through the Social Club.
In 1919 Governor Calvin Coolidge appointed a new, tough minded Commissioner, Edwin U. Curtis. The Commissioner refused to negotiate with the Social Club and unilaterally imposed his own sham grievance procedure. Seeing they were getting nowhere, members of the Social Club voted overwhelming to seek a charter for a local union from the AFL. Curtis responded on August 11 with a sweeping General Order forbidding police officers to join any “organization, club or body outside the department” exception only “patriotic organizations” such as newly minted the American Legion which had the explicit approval of the commissioners. Officers pointed out that the order was so broad that it not only outlawed belonging to a union but also many ordinary fraternal organizations, sporting clubs, or the popular local Democratic Clubs.
Four days later the Social Club received its AFL charter and on August it was formally welcomed into the Boston Central Labor Union, which also expressed strong support for the new union and condemned the high handed tactics of Commissioner Curtis. The new union appointed an eight member committee to seek a meeting with Curtis to open negotiations.
Curtis not only refused to meet with the men, he suspended all of them and 11 officers of the local union pending disciplinary board action for insubordination. His actions were wildly applauded in the local press. The union dug in hits heels and a crisis loomed.
Democratic Mayor Andrew James Peters, the first non-Irishman since 1902 but politically beholden to the loyal mass of Irish voters who had elected him, attempted to calm the situation with the appointment of a Citizens Commission to investigate complaints by police officers and plead with Curtis for restraint. Committee Chairman James J. Storrow, a prominent reformer with connections to the establishment, recommended that Curtis recognize a union un-affiliated with the AFL and renounce the use of the strike. In return the Commissioner would re-instate the suspended officers and open negociations. The plan received the endorsement of four out of five Boston daily newspapers and even the local Chamber of Commerce. But Curtis, with the encouragement of Governor Coolidge, remained unmoved.
Department trials began on September 8 and the members of the bargaining committee were, as predicted, found guilty. The union responded with a strike vote of 1134 to 2 and scheduled the walk out for the next day. Curtis threatened to fire all strikers and express confidence that most would show up for work.
They didn’t. The strike began effectively at 5:45 PM. The city was left with a skeleton force of sergeants and officers. Governor Coolidge ordered 100 Metropolitan Park Police Department officers under his control to take the place of the strikers, but 58 of them refused and were immediately placed on suspension pending dismissal.
That night was marked by street disturbances, particularly in South Boston, the Irish neighborhood where most of the strikers lived. Mostly it was rowdies throwing stones at street cars and over turning push carts and general hooliganism. Professional gamblers, prostitutes, and bootleggers emerged from the shadows to openly and defiantly ply their trades on the speech. But later research showed that despite hysterical press claims, major crimes such as armed robbery and burglary were committed at no greater pace than a comparable period with police protection. The next morning all five Boston daily ran screaming headlines portraying the city as under siege by criminals. Lurid stories were told, many of them outright fabrications, others wild exaggerations.
That morning Mayor Peters formally asked the Governor for state troops to enforce the peace. He had held off all night in hops that Commissioner Curtis would make the call and relieve him of the politically dangerous onus of calling out troops against his own ethnic and labor constituents. Which is exactly what Coolidge wanted. Coolidge agreed and eventually dispatched more than 5000 members of the State Guard, mostly called up from small towns in western Massachusetts and the wealthier suburbs of the city, and included a unit of Harvard Students, many of them scions of the Brahmin class.
The newspapers were lambasting the strikers as traitors and deserters. Soon they were upping the ante by accusing them of being Bolsheviks and revolutionaries. Wire services picked up the most lurid tales of looting and crime spreading them—and outrage—across the country.
The Guard assumed control of the streets on the night of September 10. They were inexperienced, poorly trained, and sometimes frightened. The Guard was quick to use lethal force against street assembly. It opened fire on a crowd of civilians in South Boston killing at least 4 outright and wounding many. Others around the city were shot, bayoneted or clubbed with rifle butts. Sporadic disturbances continued though the night of September 12. Each day the rhetoric from Curtis, Coolidge, and the press grew more heated and pictures of a reign of terror were painted in the press.
A mass meeting of Boston officers on the 11th scolded Coolidge for his harsh charges of desertion and treason noting that many members of the force had served honorably and bravely in war and pointedly noting the Coolidge had not.
The night of the 11th the Central Labor Council, sensing public hostility, declined to support a resolution calling for a General Strike in defense of their new union brothers. Instead they issued a bland call for arbitration. The police union was shocked by the apparent desertion of their new allies when they most needed them.
Returning from a trip to Europe the AFL’s longtime chief, the conservative craft unionist Samuel L. Gompers, who had cooperated with authorities in the persecution of Reds, socialists, and anarchists and had opposed the radical Industrial Workers of the World at every hand, was shocked. He thought he and his “respectable” union movement had officially been given a place at the table. He had won the plaudits of the President and corporate bosses for his dedicated support of the War. He was the farthest thing in the world from a radical or revolutionary, but here he was being denounced as if he was Eugene V. Debs himself.
Nor were the police officers radical men. Most were observant Catholics and extremely patriotic. None of the leadership had ties to the Socialist Party or any other left wing organization. They were simply loyal Democrats. And on numerous occasions members of the force had shown that they were willing to use their clubs on picket lines or against radical meetings. They were as bewildered as Gompers at the turn of events.
Gompers summoned up all of the prestige he thought he had earned. On September 12 he wired President Woodrow Wilson and Governor Coolidge, requesting that the suspended men be reinstated, and that the union return to work pending the results of an arbitration panel. He followed with a personal phone appeal to the governor. Coolidge responded to this moderate request with a personal blast of Gompers and a public scolding that left the AFL chief deeply humiliated. “There is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, anytime,” Coolidge scolded, and declared that he would continue to “defend the sovereignty of Massachusetts.” Coolidge was catapulted to the national fame that would lead him the Vice Presidency in 1920 and the White House upon the death of Warren G. Harding.
Commissioner Curtis moved to replace all striking officers from a pool unemployed veterans provided by the American Legion. They never got their jobs back, even when Democrats finally took control of the State House in 1932 and revoked the permanent ban. To add insult to injury the replacement police force was granted substantially higher wages, provided with uniforms and equipment, and station houses were upgraded with modern facilities—all of the reforms sought by the banished men.
The scars of the strike are still felt today. The clannish alienation of Southie, still the home of Irish Americans and immigrants alike and home to both strikers and victims of Guard violence, can be traced to the strike. A deep suspicion of the scab police who displaced their people helped foster the culture that nurtured the notorious Irish gangs of strong arm and bank robbers, burglars, and cartage thieves that have thrived there ever since. And some former policemen, unemployed and blacklisted, joined those gangs.
The suppression of the strike was a last gasp of the Brahmins and WASP dominance not only of Boston, but of the state, which is now not only the most reliably Democratic, but among the most heavily Catholic in the country.
Police and public unionism was set back generations. The thoroughly frightened, the AFL revoked all of the charters for police unions that it had granted around the county. Most states enacted laws making strikes by police and other public employees a crime subject to jail sentences. Police union finally began to make a comeback in the 1950’s and public employee unionism has spread to every level.
But today attacks on public unions are resuming in volume and vehemence. Calls for breaking existing unions and banning future ones are heard at Tea Parties around the land. There is even nostalgia for Calvin Coolidge.