Subscribe via RSS Feed

Author Page for Erik Loomis

rss feed

Visit Erik Loomis's Website

This Day in Labor History: September 9, 1919

[ 60 ] September 9, 2013 |

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.

Christians for Gay Marriage

[ 115 ] September 5, 2013 |

Glad to be friends with Evan Hurst, who is leading this great campaign.

The Everlasting Irrationality of Oklahoma

[ 56 ] September 5, 2013 |

The Oklahoma legislature is awesome:

An Oklahoma state representative said he wants voters to decide whether the state should issue bonds to help fund storm shelters in public schools, a day after the House refused to consider such funding.

Oklahoma Rep. Joe Dorman, a Democrat, said on Wednesday he will hold a special committee meeting on Friday to discuss a possible ballot initiative.

The Republican-led House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to exclude the issue of safety in schools from consideration as part of a special legislative session. The decision came three months after two historic twisters hit the state, including one that killed seven students in a Moore elementary school that did not have a shelter.

“The motion to kill it means to me that no one else had a plan or that they wanted to leave it up to local schools to fund shelters, many of which cannot afford to do so,” said Dorman.

The state House voted 57 to 26, largely along party lines, to not consider shelter funding. One of the Republicans who voted against the discussion represents Moore.

As for the representative from Moore, it’s awesome that Republican ideology doesn’t get phased by dead children.

I assume all readers are familiar with oeuvre of The Sons of the Pioneers, but in case anyone is not, here’s the post title reference:

Wolves

[ 45 ] September 4, 2013 |

Whether in Europe or the U.S., the wolf debate is kind of the ultimate in the urban-rural environmentalism divide. I have to admit that while I sympathize with the French shepherds, I mostly side with the city dwellers because the wolf is a natural part of the ecosystem and has the right to be there. I think the chance the wolves are in Europe in 100 years is about 5% and I’m really extra curious to see what happens as the population continues to grow and moves toward more populous places, but as it is, the wolves deserve to live. This is a place where the French government could step in and compensate the shepherds, not that this strategy has worked all that well in the United States.

Racism, Oklahoma Style

[ 59 ] September 4, 2013 |

Lovely.

Own Something!

[ 36 ] September 4, 2013 |

Today is the first day of class at URI. I need some motivation to get me pumped for teaching. These 1920s workplace motivational posters should do the trick.

I thought about titling this post “Keep the Wad!” but figured that might be misconstrued.

A More Perfect Union

[ 122 ] September 4, 2013 |

Just in case anyone wasn’t aware that Teach for America is a tool of the capitalists, the organization has teamed up with Goldman Sachs to funnel TFA members into a career with a corporation that only played a major role in the crisis that helped bring down the world economy in 2007 and 2008.

Rheeism and toxic investments–what could be a more perfect union in the 21st century?

Deportee

[ 17 ] September 3, 2013 |

Glad to see the Mexican immigrants killed in a 1948 plane crash near Fresno on an federal plane deporting them back to Mexico finally remembered with a proper gravestone.

Woody Guthrie wrote a song about it. I don’t know if he ever actually recorded it, but it’s been covered a ton of times. I’m a fan of the version Joe Ely did on the Los Super Seven album.

A Meeting

[ 28 ] September 3, 2013 |

In a story almost too good to be true, Jeremy Fugleberg of the Casper Star-Tribune chronicles a meeting between a local NAACP member and the regional leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

[UPDATE BY ROB] Erik neglects to mention that Mr. Fugleberg is an esteemed graduate of the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce...

Hurt

[ 226 ] September 3, 2013 |

Of course “Hurt” is a Johnny Cash song. In the public mind, any song sung by Johnny Cash is automatically a Johnny Cash song, be it “Cocaine Blues” or “Bird on a Wire” or “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Why even research such an obvious fact? You don’t have to listen to a single country music album to know Johnny Cash is the best country singer since Hank Williams, even if you’ve never listened to Hank either. Any other opinion on these matters will result in scorn toward those who dare say Johnny Paycheck or Merle Haggard are just as great, especially those who actually know those artists’ albums.

The Persisting Vision

[ 67 ] September 3, 2013 |

Martin Scorsese gave a great talk for the 2013 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. It’s reprinted in the New York Review of Books and is on the importance of preserving our language of film in a culture that values little but the weekly game of box office numbers. A snippet:

So not only do we have to preserve everything, but most importantly, we can’t afford to let ourselves be guided by contemporary cultural standards—particularly now. There was a time when the average person wasn’t even aware of box office grosses. But since the 1980s, it’s become a kind of sport—and really, a form of judgment. It culturally trivializes film.

And for young people today, that’s what they know. Who made the most money? Who was the most popular? Who is the most popular now, as opposed to last year, or last month, or last week? Now, the cycles of popularity are down to a matter of hours, minutes, seconds, and the work that’s been created out of seriousness and real passion is lumped together with the work that hasn’t.

We have to remember: we may think we know what’s going to last and what isn’t. We may feel absolutely sure of ourselves, but we really don’t know, we can’t know. We have to remember Vertigo, and the Civil War plates, and that Sumerian tablet. And we also have to remember that Moby-Dick sold very few copies when it was printed in 1851, that many of the copies that weren’t sold were destroyed in a warehouse fire, that it was dismissed by many, and that Herman Melville’s greatest novel, one of the greatest works in literature, was only reclaimed in the 1920s.

Just as we’ve learned to take pride in our poets and writers, in jazz and the blues, we need to take pride in our cinema, our great American art form. Granted, we weren’t the only ones who invented the movies. We certainly weren’t the only ones who made great films in the twentieth century, but to a large extent the art of cinema and its development have been linked to us, to our country. That’s a big responsibility. And we need to say to ourselves that the moment has come when we have to treat every last moving image as reverently and respectfully as the oldest book in the Library of Congress.

What’s more, he referenced one of my favorite films of all time, Edison’s boxing cats. Because of that, I will once again embed it. Maybe we should get Scorsese to write a guest post here about it.

Labor Day IX

[ 5 ] September 2, 2013 |

An appropriate song to end this exploration of labor and song is this piece on deindustrialization, Tom Russell’s “U.S. Steel.” I hope you enjoyed this set of labor music.