Term Paper: Boston Police Strike of 1919

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Boston police strike was one of the most important events in modern police history, because it marked one of the first times that a police organization attempted to organize a strike, and ultimately helped set back police unionization for over a decade. From practically any perspective the strike was a failure, because it ended with the striking officers being fired and replaced with new recruits, while the American Federation of Labor, seeing how the strike had hurt the public image of the union movement, curtailed its efforts to support police unionization. Although over time police unions would grow to become some of the most well-respected and accepted labor unions in the United States, the experience of the Boston Police Strike demonstrates the very real risks that come from collective action, and how quickly public sentiment can turn from empathy, to apathy, to outright enmity. In fact, when using the Boston police strike as a guide, it seems likely that a police strike in a major city today would be met with largely the same response, especially because the recent economic downturn has meant that cities and municipalities are already having a difficulty time keeping up with salary and pension payments.

While the Boston police strike did not begin until September 9, 1919, the roots of the conflict can at least be traced back two decades, to 1898. That year the salary system for the Boston police had been revamped for the first time since the organization's founding in 1854, with veteran patrolmen receiving a salary of $1,200 a year (Russell, 2005, p. 47). However, due to an unrelated dispute between the mayor and the Boston city council, the newly-instated pay scale did not take effect until 1913, when inflation meant that the new salary standards were already out of date (Russell, 2005, p.47). The effects of inflation only increased after World War I, so that by 1918, a rookie patrolman, whose salary began at $730, was getting paid the same amount he would have received in 1854 (Russell, 2005, p. 48).

Low pay was a problem for many workers during the early half of the twentieth century, but the state of the Boston police was exceptional, because they ended up earning "less than an unskilled steelworker, half as much as a carpenter or mechanic," and "fifty cents a day less than a motorman or conductor on the streetcars" (Russell, 2005, p. 48). This is an important detail to note because the Boston police were not asking for anything extra, but were rather asking to paid on par with the rest of the city's laborers. Boston police worked grueling 10-hour shifts, every day of the week, and only received one day off for every fifteen days of work; like their pay, their work schedules had not changed significantly since 1854 (Russell, 2005, p. 50). Police stations were not maintained, and patrolmen were forced to sleep in vermin-infested bunks in shifts as they waited to go out on patrol.

The first inklings of a strike began in 1918, when the Boston Social Club, which was the police department's fraternal organization, began meeting with the police commissioner and mayor to request an increase in pay and budgetary support. The Boston Social Club had met with the commissioner in 1917 and was told to ask again at some (unspecified) later time, but when that commissioner died and was replaced with Edwin Upton Curtis, the Social Club became more active. On literally his first day in office, Curtis declared that "any member of the police force so dissatisfied that he could not perform his duties properly and cheerfully was free to resign," and he stated unequivocally that the police would not be getting a raise (Russell, 2005, p. 54). By this time the Social Club had voted to demand a $200 across-the-board raise, and would not settle for anything less. Following a tax increase by Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge which gave Boston the budgetary room necessary for the raise, Boston police received a $200 increase, although senior officers received their money before lower-grade officers (Russell, 2005, p. 56).

However, by this time costs of living had continued to increase, and following a tumultuous process of negotiating between the Boston Social Club, Commissioner Curtis, and Boston Mayor Andrew James Peters, the Boston police were looking for other options. Finally, in June of 1919, an opportunity presented itself when the American Federation of Labor, led by Samuel Gompers, lifted its previous ban on granting union charters to police departments and allowed the Boston police to form a union affiliated with the AFL (Russell, 2005, p. 58). This was a huge step because it aligned the Boston police with a number of other police departments across the country, as well as with the country's largest and most powerful union organization. The Boston police were aligning themselves with a wave of unionization that had begun to rise following the Industrial Revolution and World War I, and it looked like this new solidarity might be enough to gain them changes to their salary and working conditions (Brecher, 2000, p. 91) However, this was also the first step towards the strike's eventual failure, because the unionization of the Boston police (which Commissioner Curtis viewed as illegal) prompted Curtis to seek assurances from Governor Coolidge that the state would back him up in countering any collective action (Russell, 2005, p. 58).

When the Boston police finally decided to strike on September 9, 1919, roughly seventy percent of the department went on strike (Dempsey & Forst, 2012, p. 19). Almost immediately rioting and looking began, and after only a day, Mayor Peters called in the National Guard (. Seeing an opportunity to cement his national reputation, Governor Coolidge soon took over the operation and framed his breaking of the strike as a kind of defense against Communism and anarchism (Buckley, 2003, p. 596). The militia took over the duty of patrolling the streets with mixed success, and the matter of the strike was soon out of the hands of the Boston police and in the control of Coolidge, Curtis, and Gompers, whose AFL could either support the strike or encourage the striking workers to return.

Sensing that the public had turned against the strike thanks to the combination of looting, violence, and Coolidge's red-baiting, Gompers and the AFL opted not to organize any further support, such as a general strike, and instead recommend that the striking officers return to their duties. Both Coolidge and Curtis held to their hard line, and Coolidge responded with an open letter, arguing that the striking police should be fired and that "there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time" (Buckley, 2003, p. 596). Thus, the strike ended with striking officers fired and replaced, the cause of police unionization set back for decades, and Calvin Coolidge primed to go on to win the 1920 presidential election, having secured his national reputation as a defender of law and order.

In assessing the strike one must be careful to differentiate between what was justified and what was effective. In the opinion of this author, the Boston police were entirely justified in striking due to the almost-comically outdated salary and working conditions coupled with the rigid intransigence of both Commissioner Curtis and Mayor Peters. The Boston police had grievances that could not be met through the available channels, and so striking really was one of the few options they had left. Furthermore, research shows that collective bargaining is one of the most effective ways for police departments to ensure reasonable pay and working conditions for their members (Wilson et. al., 2006, p. 19). However, the question of whether the Boston police were ethically justified in striking is entirely different from whether or not it was the most effective or reasonable course of action, because while they had a right to strike, striking clearly was not as effective as they had hoped. Thus, the Boston police should have either pushed for different methods of addressing their grievances, or else engaged in a far more aggressive campaign to gain public and union support. The strike failed not because Curtis and Coolidge had the moral high ground, but rather because they won the battle for public opinion. Had the Boston police managed to maintain public support or encourage a general strike in solidarity, then the outcome may have been entirely different.

Although it is difficult to draw direct comparison between the 1919 Boston police strike and today, there are some commonalities that can help one imagine what would happen were a strike to occur in a contemporary major city. In short, it seems as if the strike would likely not succeed, or would only manage to secure minimal recompense. For one, union support has decreased dramatically over the course of the twentieth century, making it difficult for strikes or other collective actions to gain much ground in the public eye. Furthermore, in the case of the police… [END OF PREVIEW]

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