Friday, March 07, 2008

The Boston Police Strike of 1919

Striking America

By Richard E. Noble

It is truly difficult to believe that in a day and age when labor strikes were as common as slum apartment houses and sick children that a strike of less than 1500 workers would cause such a commotion. Tens of thousands even hundreds of thousands had been walking away from their jobs for years in the U.S. In the year 1919 in Massachusetts alone there were 395 strikes recorded.
On September 9th, 1919 less than twelve hundred policemen in Boston (1,117) walked off their jobs - and for good reason, many good reasons. But the treatment of Boston's policemen had more to do with politics, prejudice and religious bigotry than reason or common sense.
This fiasco made Governor Calvin Coolidge a national hero and is credited with getting him the vice presidency under Harding a few years later. Harding's death then provided Coolidge with the front seat at the White House. Who would ever have believed it? Probably not even Coolidge himself.
But a lot of things were happening in 1919 - the Russian Bolshevik Revolution for one. The rise of a so called "labor" government in Russia had the Capitalist governments all over the world in a panic. Here in the U.S. we had what is now termed in our history books as the "Red Scare". It was a time of heightened fear and mass paranoia fed by political propaganda and right wing government extremism.
Add the national lunacy of the Red Scare to the unique situations in Boston and you have the precedent setting catastrophe called the Boston Police Strike of 1919.
The Boston Police were poor Irish, Catholic Democrats, from recent immigrant backgrounds. The established order was Protestant Republicans. The Protestant Republican governor was Calvin Coolidge and he had appointed a Protestant, Republican Commissioner, Edwin Curtis, in a very controversial political move. Prior to the Curtis' appointment the Boston Police Department had a local board of commissioners. Coolidge disbanded the board and put his prominent Republican buddy, Curtis, in charge of the whole works. Consequently the local Boston politicians simply ignored any of the problems being presented by the Boston Police Department. Those decisions were now in the hands of the Governor and his Commissioner.
The Boston Police had a long and ancient list of grievances: the police stations were rat, roach and vermin invested and these conditions were reported to no avail for over a decade; they worked at below local factory wages for a minimum of 75 to 100 hours depending on the shift; they didn't get paid to go to court; they often slept at the station on call for no extra pay; they were paid between 21 cents and 25 cents per hour; in one instance their was one bathtub for 135 men; pay for new officers had been the same for over sixty years ($2.00/day); the only items the city provided were a domed hat, wing-collared coat; and a raincoat. The officers had to buy their own boots and uniforms; the policeman's Boston Social Club had been arbitrarily abolished by Commissioner Curtis and the list went on.
The AFL had a policy of no charters for policemen but in June of 1919 they revised that policy. Knoxville, Tennessee Policemen became the first to join and by September 37 other cities had applied for charters. The Boston Social Club was granted a charter on August 9th by an organizer by the name of Frank McCarthy.
Commissioner Curtis responded by "promoting" the Boston Policemen to "state officers", a status above that of an "employee", and then denying them the right to organize or join any organization other than one of the nationally known veterans organizations - most of which had been organized and initiated by ex-military officers and businessmen to counter the complaints of ex-enlisted men and disgruntled retired soldiers. The Boston Policemen organized and formed a union nonetheless on August 15th.
Late that August the Commissioner suspended eight members of the workers committee and eleven officers of the union. There was to be a trial to determine if the policemen had violated the Commissioner's new anti-union order.
Mayor Andrew J. Peters appointed a committee to investigate the circumstances and make recommendations. James Storrow, a Boston reformer was put in charge. The Storrow Committee substantiated the claims of the Boston Police. It recommended that all policemen be reinstated and that the city seriously consider improving the conditions of the Boston Police. All the proposals that the Storrow committee suggested were approved and accepted by the legal representatives of the Policeman's Union but Curtis refused to even consider any suggestions and Coolidge packed his commissioner up 100%.
On September 8 the court found the union activists guilty as charged by Curtis and suspended all 19 once again. The union then called a meeting and voted to strike. The vote was 1134 for and 2 against.
Even though the police had struck, Governor Coolidge decided to do nothing to protect the citizens of Boston. There were hundreds of Harvard student volunteers; there were 183 state controlled Metropolitan Police; there were over 1500 guardsmen, militia men stationed in the area. Yet Coolidge waited three days to give the newspapers the necessary time to propagandize the issue in his favor - and so they did.
Historian Philip Foner claims ... "There is no evidence to prove that the two days of "rioting" produced more rapes and attacks on life than ordinarily occurred in a similar period, nor that property damage exceeded customary bounds."
But the press went wild calling the striking policemen "faithless and unworthy, guilty of treason." The Boston policemen were compared to soldiers deserting in battle. They were called Communist and compared to the "mad minority which overthrew Kerensky and ruined Russia."
After being stigmatized by the press and Governor Coolidge and his Commissioner, the policemen - most of who were veterans of World War I - returned with a resolution that described their heroism and concluded by asking the Governor which war he served in.
The people of the day, through the influence of a rabid press and the established paranoia of the Red Scare chose not to blame Governor Coolidge who had clearly acted irresponsibly and politically, or the bigoted and prejudiced Commissioner Curtis who had denied reasonable compromises before the forced strike but chose to follow the lead of the establishment press and blame the poor policemen who offered legitimate complaint and appropriate social compromises to a seriously neglected situation.
All the policemen were fired and never re-hired. A new and larger police force was hired with a starting pay increase from the original $1100 a year of $1400 and with the added incentive of a pension program and free uniforms and equipment. These benefits were more than the striking policemen had requested in the first place. The interim Volunteers had also cost the Boston citizens an additional $572,000.
And because of all this mismanagement and horror Calvin Coolidge ended up a national hero and a future president of the United States.
His rather inane statement about striking and the public good was repeated nearly 100 years later by an equally irresponsible president who hung Calvin Coolidge's portrait in the White House and claimed the fool as his hero.