Boston strikers denounced as un-American, Communist
At 5:45 p.m. on Sept. 9, 1919, Boston police officers walked off the job. They were fed up with inadequate pay - they had not received a pay increase in 60 years - work weeks that could last 96 hours and working conditions that required them to live in vermin-infested stations and to ask for permission just to go to Revere Beach on their days off. A decision by Police Commissoner Edwin Curtis to suspend several officers for seeking to form a union affiliated with the AFL proved the final straw, and union members voted Sept. 8 to strike.
If the people who put out the current police union's newsletter had any sense of irony, they might be struck how political leaders from the governor to the president and most newspapers across the country immediately denounced the strikers as anti-American Bolshevists helping to bring about the Sovietization of the United States.
"I want to say this, that a strike of the policement of a great city, leaving the city at the mercy of an army of thugs, is a crime against civilization," President Wilson said.
"These men are deserters," Gov. Calvin Coolidge said. "This is not a strike. These men were public officials. We cannot think of arbitrating the government or the form of law. There can be no opportunity for any compromise. There is not right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time."
The next morning, the Globe summarized the state of Boston with most of its police force on strike:
MOBS SMASH WINDOWS. LOOT STORES WILD NIGHT FOLLOWS STRIKE OF POLICE
Following a quiet and orderly strike of the police patrolmen of Boston last night, hoodlums took possession of the downtown streets, and by midnight had done a great deal of damage all over the city. ...
Shortly after midnight, a crowd of about 300 young men, with several girls in the midst, started up Washington st. from Milk st. They smashed window after window, robbing the place each time. A single policeman remonstrated with them, but they laughed at him. Opposite Macullar Parker Company's store, two sailors held up a man in real movie fashion, and went through his pockets with 500 persons looking on.
Another crowd was roving about upper Washington st., near Castle, where a storekeeper stood in his doorway with a revolver and stood them off. ...
Shoe stores were favorites. Somebody in the crowd would say "Let's go!" Laughing and joking, they would surge along to the next shoe store; somebody would lean against the show window, or give it a kick and a scramble to reach in for shoes would follow.
Men sat down calmly on the curbstone to try on their new acquisitions. If they didn't fit, no matter; they could be traded for something else a few minutes later.
Gov. Coolidge called out the National Guard to patrol the city.
Faneuil Hall become the Guard headquarters:
Guardsmen were also called out to protect the Chestnut Hill pumping station.
The Guardsmen quickly proved they had no idea how to police a large city, firing into crowds on the Common and in South Boston and killing people who were slow to follow their orders to disperse. In Jamaica Plain, the New-York Tribune reported, a man died when Guardsmen raided a dice game:
The shooting of Groat occurred after some of the players and spectators had refused to leave the place. They were ordered to move on and when they failed to budge, the guardsmen fired.
The paper said a striking policeman died when he was shot by a storekeeper who thought he was a looter, and added:
With Governor Coolidge, as commander in chief of the state's forces, in complete charge of the situation, the city to-night took on a warlike appearance. Six machine guns were mounted at police headquarters and troopers, wearing "tin haits," by order of Adjutant General Stevents, patrolled the streets. The order followed injury to several soldiers by flying missiles.
In the end, the police officers lost. At the urging of the AFL - which saw the strike as hurting the cause of labor as Red Scares swept the country - they agreed to return to work. Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis - appointed by the governor - refused. The police commissioner then hired a new police force from returing veterans. Ironically, they got the raises, reduced hours - and payments to buy uniforms - the strikers had been asking for.
Coolidge, with a newfound "law and order" reputation, got nominated as the Republican candidate for vice president in 1920. He became president three years later when Warren Harding died in office.
In 1965, police officers formed the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association - and affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
- Boston Police Strike - Wikipedia.
- Boston Police Strike - Mass. AFL-CIO.
- Boston Police Vote to Unionize - Mass. Moments.
- A City in Terror: Calvin Coolidge and the 1919 Boston Police Strike - Book.