BOSTON — Official government documents often are masterpieces of deadened prose, but few contain an understatement quite like this sentence, from the Annual Report of the Police Department for the City of Boston, issued at the end of 1919:
“It is unfortunate that there were no provisions of law adequate to meet the circumstances of this extraordinary situation.”
The “extraordinary situation” occurred a century ago this week. It was the strike of more than 1,100 Boston police officers, and its implications went far beyond the city, where rioting and lawlessness prevailed in an atmosphere of crisis and terror. By the time the conflict ended, organized labor received a serious setback, the very notion of police unions was under assault, and an obscure, introverted governor with old-fashioned rectitude, rusticated habits and an aversion to soaring rhetoric was on the path to national celebrity and, eventually, the White House.
“The strike was about better wages for the police but also recognition of the union,” said Steve Striffler, director of the Labor Resource Center and Labor Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “That was not common, as unions and collective bargaining were looked at with suspicion two years after the Russian Revolution — and public employees didn’t usually go on strike.”
Today hardly anyone outside Boston — indeed, hardly anyone in Boston — pays much mind to the Boston police strike. In fact, it was overshadowed in 1919 by the Black Sox baseball scandal nationwide and by the tragic explosion of a storage tank in Boston’s North End that set a torrid river of 21 million gallons of hot, sticky molasses barreling through city streets, trapping horses, crushing buildings and leaving 21 dead and 150 injured.
But the fluid dynamics of the Boston police strike had great implications for the nation’s politics.
“This strike was a huge moment in the labor movement,” said former U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, the grandson of a patrolman who led his fellow officers out of the Joy Street station, then the largest precinct in the city. “These men worked 96-hour weeks. There was no overtime. Their strike awakened the conscience of society, and they were the people who opened the public’s eyes — and though they did not benefit from it, their courage gave the labor movement a respectability.”
Delahunt’s family lore maintains that his grandfather was personally fired by Gov. Calvin Coolidge, who won national attention for stating, in another 1919 single sentence freighted with enormous significance, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”
It was typical, and ironic, that Coolidge, known for relentless reticence, should emerge as a formidable political figure on the basis of a mere 24 syllables. Nine months later, Coolidge would become the Republican vice-presidential nominee and then, in 1923, would ascend to the White House when Warren G. Harding died.
This was a conflict with context. World War I had ended a year earlier, wages were static, slogans of socialism and communism circulated with ease and with growing appeal. In a 1966 article in the journal Labor History, University of Toledo professor Joseph Slater argued that the strike was “intimately connected to nationwide battles” over the issue of police unions.
In Boston, telephone workers and elevator carmen already had struck, and police officers saw that the strikers had won higher wages.
“This occurred in a very angry period in American history, with enormous hysteria over radicals,” said Michael S. Dukakis, who followed Coolidge in the governor’s office on Beacon Hill 55 years later and, though a Democrat, developed a late-life affinity for his Republican predecessor. “But when cops walk off the job, bad things can happen — and I don’t think Coolidge had any alternative.”
The strike brought violence and looting. Store windows were broken, fights broke out in the streets, mobs formed and reformed. “Freed from the restraining of the law,” The New York Times reported, “hundreds of young gangsters and hoodlums in a few districts proceeded at once to break windows, loot stores, and cause disorder.”
More than 250 Harvard students and 150 Harvard faculty and alumni heeded the call “to prepare themselves for such service as the Governor of the Commonwealth may call upon them to render.” The volunteers included a Harvard alumnus with the evocative Yankee name of Godfrey Lowell Cabot who, with pistols on his belt, reported for duty cloaked in a naval cape.
Eventually the police department fired the strikers and hired replacement officers. The strike was over. Some 18 years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was Coolidge’s opponent for vice president in the 1920 national election, essentially sided with Coolidge. So did public officials from coast to coast, though the pain of the strike was felt most severely in Boston.
“The failure of the Boston strike saw the ebb tide for the police, leaving the strikers high and dry,” a young witness to the strike, Francis Russell, wrote in a 1975 account titled “A City in Terror.”
Some of the police officers were blackballed and never worked again. In one family the children were scattered with various relatives. Many moved. One went to work for the Charlestown State Prison and was shot and killed on Christmas Eve. Another went to work in nearby Newton, Massachusetts, as a plumber, and his two sons became police officers there, both dying on duty.
“For so many of them, the situation was devastating,” said Margaret R. Sullivan, the records manager and archivist of the Boston Police Department, where efforts are underway to assemble the stories of the strikers. “The one thing about being a police officer in Boston was security, and even in recessions the police were safe. People knew they would get a paycheck. Then men knew they could afford to get married. What was lost was that security.”
The strike raised serious questions about whether workers in one segment of society lacked the labor rights, including the right to strike, of workers in the rest of society — and whether the public’s right to safety and security trumps workers’ rights to strike.
“The strike was crushed but the issue was not settled,” Richard L. Lyons wrote in the New England Quarterly. “It remains unsettled to this day.” Lyons, who died in 2011, wrote that assessment in June 1947. It is just as true in 2019, a century after the Boston police strike.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of
the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
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