On September 9, 1919, the police force in Boston went on strike, the most aggressive action to date by American public sector workers. The harsh response from the government of Massachusetts both set back public sector unionism and changed American political history.
The police had basic demands. They wanted union recognition, a pay raise, and improved working conditions. Boston police had not received an effective pay raise since 1854, with the starting salary for new officers the same as it had been 65 years earlier. Cops made only about half an average worker’s salary in 1919 and had to pay for their own uniforms. They worked between 75 and 90 hours a week and did not get paid for time they spent in court. Police stations were dilapidated and unsanitary. In other words, it was a bad job.
The officers’ first response was to petition to join the American Federation of Labor. The AFL first accepted police officers in June 1919 and cops around the nation immediately signed up. Soon, there were 37 police locals around the nation.
As the Boston police began talking about a strike, a key question was one that still dominates discussion of public unions today. Can public workers go on strike? This was not the only issue, as the state was fighting with the police over their right to affiliate with the AFL. But this is a central question of public sector unionism. It is still often debated, with the most resounding position from a politician taken by Ronald Reagan with the PATCO strike in 1981. Today, some states allow public employees to strike, while most do not. On this blog we’ve had debates about whether BART workers should go strike because it inconveniences San Francisco commuters.
The forces of order also worried whether unionized police would continue to break strikes upon orders from their superiors. The police commissioner and Boston Chamber of Commerce argued that police could not be unionists because it would create “divided loyalty,” a phrase clearly demonstrating their fear that the cops would no longer be a force dedicated to defending the interests of capitalists and busting the heads of those who challenged those interests. The Boston Police Department responded to its police joining the AFL by ordering them to disassociate with it. When the officers refused, the police moved toward a strike. After the police commissioner suspended 19 men on September 7 for union activity, the police responded by voting to go out on strike on September 9. By a vote of 1134 yes, 2 no. They were all fired on September 13.
Boston police officers on strike
The police going on strike at this particular time was especially incendiary. The wave of strikes that year no doubt emboldened the cops to take this unprecedented action, but it also helped ensure a belligerent response. Right in the middle of the Red Scare, with Eugene Debs serving time in prison, activists like Emma Goldman about to be deported, and the Centralia Massacre just around the corner, the forces of order were in no mood to respond rationally. Instead, they blamed it on the Bolshevism that threatened the United States. The New York Sun claimed that unionized police would lead to “virtual Soviet rule” while the Newport Daily News wrote that the “whole movement was the very essence of Bolshevism.”
The strike also put the American Federation of Labor in a sticky situation. The AFL had encouraged these police unions after World War I. But this was a new thing. The AFL had rejected applications from police going back to at least 1897. Gompers was trying to build on his close relationship with the Wilson Administration he developed during World War I to expand the AFL into the heart of American life, a plan that would fail miserably in the coming years. He wanted to start organizing public sector workers and began referring to them as fellow workers to the private sector. At the same time, the AFL was nothing if not an organization dedicated to public order and a strike that portended spikes in crime was nothing that Gompers wanted any part of, especially if it portrayed labor’s interest as opposite to the public’s interest.
And what would happen if cops went on strike? Would anarchy result? The answer was sort of. There was a rise in assault, public gambling, and robbery. Moreover, the poor of Boston saw the strike as the class warfare it was, attacking the property of the rich and stoning a group of reserve police with chants of “Kill them all.” After the second night, state police opened fire on a crowd, killing 9.
In response, Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge called out the state guard to restore order in Boston and urged the Wilson Administration to prepare to send troops if needed. The guard busted the police strike and Coolidge fired all 1147 striking cops. Coolidge had opposed the police union from the beginning and completely rebuffed efforts from the police officers before the strike started to help mediate the situation.
Gompers and the AFL really struggled to respond to this strike for the reasons laid out above. Gompers told Coolidge that the federation did not support public sector strikes, even if it did support public sector unionism. But the ability of the AFL to control the workers federated with it was always pretty limited. Plus there was plenty of labor support for the strike. The Detroit Labor News wrote that policing “may be a sacred trust but the landlord will not accept it in lieu of rent, nor does the grocer consider it a medium of exchange.”
The strikers hoped to be reinstated to their jobs and placed their hopes in the 1920 Massachusetts election for governor, with Coolidge running for reelection against Democratic candidate Richard Long. Long pledged his support for reinstatement and the fired police officers worked for him, but Coolidge won reelection despite losing Boston.
Not surprisingly though, the strike did win real gains for the replacement police. The minimum yearly pay for patrolmen jumped to $1400 a year (still only about $17,000 in 2012 dollars). But the strike devastated public sector unionism around the nation. Even as the government grew, total numbers of unionized public workers declined with remaining unions fearful of even thinking about striking. Public sector unions would always have to be watchful about using the confrontational tactics of private sector workers, a conundrum it continues to face today. The strike’s failure and overwhelming repression also almost certainly delayed collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. The private sector gained those rights during the New Deal, while the public sector had to wait until the 1960s to begin that process. Overall then, crushing the strike was a huge victory for governments who sought to keep their employees union-free.
Coolidge received the Republican vice-presidential nomination for his actions in suppressing the strike and of course became president in 1923 when Warren Harding died, winning election for himself in 1924.
For more, see Public Workers: Government Employee Unions, the Law, and the State, 1900-1962, by our valued frequent commenter Joseph Slater.
This is the 75th post in the series. The rest are archived here.