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This Day in Labor History: September 9, 1919

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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.

Calvin Coolidge

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.

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  • I would really love to see this series published as

    365 Days of Labor History in the US. There’s a nice format which is used for some gorgeous books–long and narrow with a picture on one page and text on the other. I like to read your series here but I’d love to have it as a reference work just to dip into.

    • The world’s most depressing page-a-day calendar.

      • Well, I actually find it inspiring.

        • ChrisTS

          He’s a bear. He’s supposed to be pessimistic.

          • It’s tough when you’re being tormented by miniature Russian girls.

            • Bill Murray

              really, you eat one and a smaller one pops up from inside. That must be very frustratingly tasty

              • Isn’t that the beauty part? That you can never eat just one?

        • Origami Isopod

          +1

    • It’s probably the next thing after I publish after I finish these 2 books. Which isn’t exactly like saying I’ll do it after I finish making dinner. But it’s on the agenda.

      Rights for the pictures ought to be a joy to figure out….

    • DrDick

      Agreed!

  • Ramon A. Clef

    This incident is the setting for Dennis Lehane’s The Given Day. Excellent reading just for story, but his attention to historical detail is also quite compelling.

    • Bruce Vail

      Lehane is not as gentle in his treatment of the AF of L as Erik.

      • efgoldman

        But, as a lifelong Bostonian, I found a lot of real local history in the book. The Molasses Flood, f’rinstace.
        Of course using Babe Ruth as a literary device to connect events is kind of bull, but it is a novel, after all.

        • Bruce Vail

          There is a lot of good history in the book. I read it with great pleasure, although I found it unsatisfying in the end. A noble effort on Lehane’s part, though.

          • Mike Schilling

            The sequel is pointless and awful, though.

        • Mike Schilling

          What, you don’t think a factory team could have beaten the 1918 Red Sox? They were black, after all.

  • ChrisTS

    A trivial question: what was it about the clothing of that era that made everyone look slope-shouldered? Or, were they just all slope-shouldered?

  • kindasorta

    The same thing happened with PATCO. They struck and Reagan fired them, but by the time the controllers reorganized under NATCA in 1987, almost all of the demands PATCO made had been met.

  • Michael Rebain

    One quibble: Coolidge was reelected governor in 1919, not 1920 (when he was running for vice-president).

  • daveNYC

    On this blog we’ve had debates about whether BART workers should go strike because it inconveniences San Francisco commuters.

    Inconvenience is not exactly the word I’d be using if I were talking about a less well off individual needing to buy an extra two to four hours of child care a day.

    • But this happens all the time given that less well off individuals are at the mercy of, for example, schools and family to manage their child care needs. All over the country governments are shifting school hours willy nilly, even cutting off entire days from the school week.

    • MPAVictoria

      You are right. They should just work for free.

      /Erik just wanted to say that I love this series. I think you may be the only writer on a big name blog that really focuses on labour issues. Thank you/

    • wengler

      In transit work especially there are a lot of issues surrounding worker safety. The kids of dead transit workers need more than 2 to 4 hours of extra child care a day.

      • daveNYC

        Sigh. Yes, when I made a post saying that Erik’s use of the word inconvenience was covering items that are a hell of a lot more than simply an inconvenience, I was explicitly saying that school’s closing and/or cutting hours, transit workers not getting paid for their labor, and unsafe working conditions leading to orphan generation are ALL GOOD THINGS.

    • Origami Isopod

      That’s kind of a feature rather than a bug of the system, isn’t it, that the strikes have the potential to pit two or more groups of disadvantaged people against one another?

  • LeeEsq

    Strikes are supposed to be inconvenient. Thats one reason why they can be really effective at times. Its just that some strikes are more inconvenient than others. A transit workers strike can be inconvenient for hundreds of thousands or millions of people trying to get to work, including lots of working and lower-middle class people. A strike by waiters at high end restaurants is only an inconvenience for their bosses and people rich enough to dine at high end restaurants.

    The issue with public sector strikes is that they tend to be inconvenient for most people in the surrounding area regardless of class. This creates a risk of alienating people that would normally support you.

    • It drives me crazy that the very reason public sector workers are important is used as a reason to attack them for organizing and defending their (and our) interests in a safe and functioning middle class and work space. Yes–thousands of people will be discommoded when railworkers or police strike. Thats because their work, as opposed to the work of unimportant people or frivolous producers of (say) hello kitty purses is incredibly important.

      When nurses strike for better wages and working conditions its no real rebuke to them to say “hey, what about the people you ought to be caring for?” Yeah: that’s right. People need these services and the government or the hospitals had better figure out a way to pay for them. Why don’t the Hospital heads and administrators go on strike and see how fast the patients give a fuck about that?

      • Marek

        Harrumph!

      • LeeEsq

        I’m just pointing out an issue with public sector strikes. I’m not saying that they don’t have a right to strike. A union that can’t engage in strikes has lost one of its most powerful tools.

        • Origami Isopod

          Well, they could “risk alienating their supporters,” or they could just carry on as before. In the latter case there would definitely be no gain.

          I think people who are genuine supporters of labor understand that strikes are sometimes necessary. For other people who might be sympathetic, outreach and education could be helpful.

      • DrDick

        Excellent points! I do not know if it is still true, but there used to be a number of states where it was illegal for public sector workers to organize. You still hear a lot of conservatives whingeing about how public sector workers do not need unions. Libertarians are especially bad about this and do not seem to see the contradiction with their free market ideology (which really only applies to capital).

        • Bruce Vail

          North Carolina is pretty bad. Instrumentalities of the state government are forbidden by law to sign collective bargaining agreements with their employees.

          Virginia has something similar.

          • Bruce Vail

            NC General Statute 95-98 (passed 1959):

            http://www.ncleg.net/enactedlegislation/statutes/html/bysection/chapter_95/gs_95-98.html

            Very artfully written in that it doesn’t prohibit unions or union organizing, but blocks the instrumentalities (including even local school boards and fire departments) from signing collective bargaining agreements.

            • Joseph Slater

              Public employees (generally speaking) have a constitutional right to form/join unions, but no constitutional right to engage in collective bargaining. NC and VA are especially aggressive in that they ban any such bargaining even if a local union and employer voluntarily want to do it.

              • Linnaeus

                I’m shocked at this blatant abrogation of freedom of contract imposed by the state.*

                *no, not really.

              • Bruce Vail

                I have no direct knowledge of the case, but have read that the city of Alexandria VA has managed to violate the spirit of the anti-union law by establishing relationships with the police and fire unions that fall short of the legal definition of collective bargaining, but have the same practical effect.

  • LeeEsq

    Somewhat unrelatedly, has anybody ever done a demographic study of anti-unionism and anti-strike beliefs in the United States. For a lot of American history, there hasn’t been what you would call mass support for unions in the United States. At peak unionization, only about a third of the workforce was unionized.

    Demographically this is still kind of weird to me. I can understand why the rich and upper-middle class would be opposed to unionization even if I disagree with it. However, the numbers seem to suggest that large parts of the American working class and lower-middle class, key targets for unionization, were oppossed to unions and strikes or at least antipathetic towards unions outside of their field.

    • Anna in PDX

      I think it is just a drumbeat of negative publicity/propaganda for the past many decades.

      • LeeEsq

        I was speaking in terms of the entirely of American history.

        • Davis X. Machina

          If you need a union, and the safety in numbers it provides, then you’re not the autonomous, self-reliant American, master of your destiny, and just as good as the next man, if not better, that is the national myth.

          You’re one interchangeable atom of an undifferentiated, proletarian mass, and that’s hard truth to confront.

          Lincoln’s vision: “There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us. Twentyfive years ago, I was a hired laborer. The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow” is still what people believe, however much their own lived experience belies it.

  • partisan

    There have been two books published this year about the glory of Calvin Coolidge, one by Amity Shlaes, the other from Encounter Books. Since 2009, neocons are no longer pretending they liked the New Deal. Straussians praise Coolidge for his “natural law” view of the constitution against the heresies of both Roosevelts. There was an excerpt about the Shlaes book which praised Coolidge for making sure that government workers used pencils down to the very nub. So at a time when Mussolini has seized power, when dictatorship is rising from Spain to Poland, when “Taisho Democracy” is deciding Japan isn’t going to pretend to be a democracy anymore, when the West thinks it doesn’t matter whether Bukharin or Stalin rules the Soviet Union and when Weimar democracy is fatally fragile, what we have is someone who worries that civil servants are using too many pencils. But crushing the strike was pretty dreadful too.

    • Bruce Vail

      Schlaes is paying homage to George Will, who has been arguing for years that Coolidge was one of our best presidents. Schlaes and Will are out of step with modern Republicanism, of course, which prefers a president more aggressively awful. You wait, it won’t be long before modern Republicans lay claim to a president that modern Democrats find increasingly distasteful — Andrew Jackson!

      • sharculese

        In my experience Jackson is already pretty popular with the end-the-Fed/goldbug types so it’s really just about getting the eugenicist nutjobs on board and you have a plurality of the Republican Party.

  • Joseph Slater

    Great post, and glad to see this event covered, given its lasting impact on public-sector unions (which have been for some time a very important part of the U.S. labor movement).

  • Mike Schilling

    Erik, what do you think of the presentation of the strike in Dennis Lehane’s This Given Day? In his version, the police union never wanted to strike; they would have continued negotiating with the city for improved wages and conditions if Edwin Upton Curtis hadn’t made that impossible.

    • Joseph Slater

      I’ve written about the strike, and I think it’s absolutely true that the police union never wanted to strike. The union only struck after Commissioner Curtis barred the police officers from affiliating with the AFL and suspended union leaders who refused to comply.

  • Passing By

    The post and its comments are a bit-This is not a situation peculiar to the US. To my knowledge, no developed democracy [Canada, UK

  • Passing By

    SORRY … MIS-POSTED

    The post and its comments are a bit too US-centered. This not a situation peculiar to the US. To my knowledge, no developed democracy [Canada, UK, France, Netherlands, etc.] allows its police to strike lawfully. And unlawful strikes have almost-always been met with some combination of outright strike-breaking [by other police forces, military troops, deputized citizens, etc.] and efforts to split the strikers [e.g., singling out strike leaders for retribution while offering incentives for those who return to work].

    From that perspective, Boston 1919 seems pretty mainstream.

    • Joseph Slater

      True, but public-sector workers (including police) got collective bargaining (or similar) rights in many other countries well before they did in the U.S., and the Boston police strike was one of the major reasons why such rights were so delayed in the U.S. Even today, many/most western European countries permit most public workers to strike; only a a small minority of U.S. states allow any public workers to strike.

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