Boston Police Strike

views updated May 17 2018

Boston Police Strike

United States 1919


To protest poor working conditions and low pay, the Boston police unionized and affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Boston police commissioner Edwin U. Curtis, in the belief that the police would take orders from the AFL—thereby hampering discipline—banned the officers from associating with any outside organization. When he suspended several union officials for disobeying his order, the police walked out in the first strike by public safety workers in U.S. history. Poor strike preparations left the city without any protection, and Bostonians quickly ran amok. Assaults, rapes, vandalism, and looting went unpunished as the city struggled to get replacement police in place. Angered by the violence, Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge proclaimed, in a remark that would catapult him to the presidency, that no one had the right to strike against the public safety. Striking officers were fired, and the collapse of the strike sounded the death toll for the early police labor movement.


  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1907: U.S. markets experience a financial panic.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1915: At the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans introduce a terrifying new weapon: poison gas.
  • 1917: The intercepted "Zimmermann Telegram" reveals a plot by the German government to draw Mexico into an alliance against the United States in return for a German promise to return the southwestern U.S. territories taken in the Mexican War. Three months later, in response to German threats of unrestricted submarine warfare, the United States on 6 April declares war on Germany.
  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles is signed by the Allies and Germany but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.
  • 1919: The Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibits the production, sale, distribution, purchase, and consumption of alcohol throughout the United States, is ratified.
  • 1919: In India, Mahatma Gandhi launches his campaign of nonviolent resistance to British rule.
  • 1919: In Italy, a former socialist of the left named Benito Mussolini introduces the world to a new socialism of the right, embodied in an organization known as the "Union for Struggle," or Fasci di Combattimento. Composed primarily of young war veterans discontented with Italy's paltry share of the spoils from the recent world war (if not with their country's lackluster military performance in the conflict), the fascists are known for their black shirts and their penchant for violence. Like their communist counterparts, however, they are incapable of winning an election.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.

Event and Its Context

In the aftermath of World War I, Americans feared that Bolshevik agents were seeking to duplicate the success of the Russian Revolution. The spirit of tolerance and the desire to push for social justice that had marked progressivism vanished, with Americans coming to view strikes as efforts by "Reds" to subvert the United States. In this climate, the Boston police embarked on a futile effort to remedy years of neglectful treatment by city authorities.

Trouble Brewing

The Boston police, in their dome-shaped helmets and high-necked frock coats with rows of glittering buttons, enjoyed a reputation as one of the most law-abiding forces in the nation and once earned the best pay of all skilled workers in the city. During the war, living costs jumped, but police pay remained static. A new recruit, who had to be 25 years of age, received only $2 a day, the same amount that he would have received in 1854 when the police department was first established. After completing a probationary year and receiving a promotion to patrolman, an officer received a yearly salary of $1,000, which then increased annually until it reached a maximum six years later of $1,400. Out of this pay, well below the government-set subsistence minimum of $1,575 for a family of five, the officer had to provide his own uniform and equipment at a cost by 1919 of more than $200. To further infuriate the police, they suffered poor working conditions. Patrolmen worked a seven-day week with one day off in 15. Day men typically put in 73 hours a week, and night officers worked 85 hours. Day men additionally were required to spend one night a week in the station house on reserve, with two to four men sharing beds in succession with insects so voracious that they ate the leather of the police belts and helmets in the station behind City Hall. No patrolman could leave the city limits without express permission. Running errands for superiors had become part of the job, and, without civil service, promotion hinged on the word of captains who could keep men at the patrolman level indefinitely.

To address their complaints, the Boston police relied on the Boston Social Club, created in 1906 by Police Commissioner Stephen O'Meara as a fraternal organization that crossed precinct boundaries. In 1917 and 1918 city authorities rebuffed representatives of the club when they requested a $200 across-the-board raise and only agreed to grant a pay hike to a small number of officers in May 1919. The officers decided to apply for an AFL charter.


Under the leadership of Samuel Gompers and with a membership of about four million in 1919, the relatively business-friendly AFL was not a particularly radical organization. Gompers, who had worked with the U.S. government to prevent strikes during the war, espoused the right of unions to conduct their own affairs without interference from the AFL. In June 1919 the AFL announced that it would grant charters to police unions, and in the next month men began circulating petitions in each of the 19 Boston police districts requesting the formation of an AFL-chartered union. By this time, O'Meara had died and his replacement had no sympathy for the many Irish Americans in the police ranks.

A man who lacked any police experience and who resented the growing Irish American domination of politics that had made him a one-term mayor at the turn of the century, Edwin U. Curtis reacted to the brewing trouble with a mindset based on years of class and ethnic conflict in Boston. Because police powers had been removed from the mayors of Boston as a result of conflicts between the traditionally Democratic mayors and largely Republican state legislature, Curtis answered only to Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge. Curtis informed Coolidge of his intent to oppose any police union and asked for support. Rather noncommittally, Coolidge advised Curtis to perform his duties. On 29 July, Curtis stated that an officer could not both belong to a union and perform his duty, as his loyalty would be divided between two masters. By this time, the Boston firefighters and city clerks had affiliated with the AFL and had gained both wage hikes and shorter hours. On 9 August the police officially requested an AFL charter to form a union separate from the Social Club. Six days later, on 15 August, the Boston Police Union was established.


Although Boston police had many grievances, Curtis's un-bending attitude became the principal cause of the strike. On the night before the AFL election, he determined to assert his authority by ordering 1,000 blank dismissal notices to be printed and distributed to station house captains. The plumbers, firefighters, boilermakers, and machinists passed resolutions that if Curtis persisted in his course, the unions would call a sympathy strike. The transportation workers announced that they would refuse to transport strikebreakers, and Boston's city council announced its support for organized labor. On 17 August the Boston Central Labor Union, the coordinating body of all the AFL unions in the city, denounced Curtis for his "tyrannical assumption of autocratic authority" and promised support to the police. The AFL's New England organizer, Frank McCarthy, characterized Curtis's order as an attempt to undermine collective bargaining as well as an attack on the individual rights of police officers. Remaining adamant that the police must surrender the AFL charter, Curtis summoned eight union leaders to his office on 26 August and interrogated 11 more three days later. He intended to suspend the officers immediately. The police threatened to strike if he did so, but Boston mayor Andrew Peters intervened to avoid a showdown. At this point, 90 percent of Boston's 1,544 police officers had joined the new union. Coolidge refused to intervene with the justification that he did not possess direct responsibility over Boston police matters.

To fend off a strike, Peters formed a committee with investment banker James Storrow as its head. The Storrow committee proposed a wage hike and the establishment of a grievance committee. Curtis, infuriated that an outsider would attempt to interfere with the discipline of the police department, declared that the grievance board would result in a state of divided responsibility that would weaken policy and slow action. On 8 September he suspended the union leaders indefinitely. The police held a meeting that evening and voted 1,134 to 2 to strike. The walkout began on 9 September. Aware of antistrike sentiment, Curtis expected that two-thirds of the police would remain on the job, but only 400 patrolmen stayed on duty.

City in Terror

When the police left, Boston began to prepare for the worst. Hospitals established emergency care stations and posted their telephone numbers and locations in the morning newspapers. Fearful of vandalism, many factories, stores, and banks armed their male employees. To replace the striking police, Curtis assigned 225 command officers to patrol and attempted to mobilize 100 Metropolitan Park Police who had been placed at his disposal by Coolidge. In response to their refusal to perform street duty, Curtis suspended 58 of the park police. Substitute police also arrived as the railroad assigned 220 men to assist, and 3,142 Bostonians, including a large Harvard University contingent, volunteered for duty. Curtis refused to mobilize the volunteer police or call out the National Guard.

The night of 9 September became one of the most violent in Boston history. Mobs roamed at will across the city, robbing men and raping several women. They smashed windows and looted stores. Firefighters responding to false alarms were pelted with any material at hand. Officers attempting to quell disturbances were generally ineffective. Throughout the night, mobs advanced on small groups of loyal policemen and retreated only at gunpoint.

On 10 September a panic-stricken Mayor Peters called out the National Guard, and the volunteers went into action. Despite these efforts, violence continued for a second night before calm was restored. The strike toll stood at 8 dead, 21 wounded, and 50 injured, with property damages estimated at $350,000.


The rioting had destroyed any chance for a police victory. Urged by Gompers to stay at work and perhaps disgusted by the violence, other unions failed to support the police. In a speech, Coolidge declared, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by any body, any time, any where." City leaders dismissed the suspended and striking officers, and by November more than 1,300 new patrolmen were on the beat.

The heavy newspaper coverage given to the rioting ensured that fears of police unionization spread across the nation. Other states subsequently passed laws forbidding the police to unionize and, even when those laws were eventually relaxed, few police showed any enthusiasm for organizing until the 1950s. The failure of the strike ultimately destroyed police attempts to make demands from city governments and solidified repressive managerial tactics in law enforcement administration.

Key Players

Coolidge, Calvin (1872-1933): A lawyer who became a professional Republican politician, the notoriously taciturn Coolidge served as governor of Massachusetts (1918-1920) until selected as Warren Harding's vice president. Ascending to the presidency upon Harding's sudden death in 1923, Coolidge espoused limited government. He declined to run for reelection in 1928 despite his great public popularity.

Curtis, Edwin Upton (1861-1922): Elected mayor of Boston in 1894, the Republican Curtis came from one of Boston's oldest families. He served one uneventful term and then relied on political connections to become a long-standing member of the Metropolitan Park Commission (1896-1916). A Republican governor, Samuel McCall, appointed Curtis police commissioner of Boston in 1918, and he held this position until his death.

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): The English-born Gompers founded and led the American Federation of Labor (AFL), an umbrella union for skilled workers. Known for a willingness to work with business and government to reduce industrial tensions and avoid strikes, he was appointed to the National War Labor Board by President Woodrow Wilson during World War I.

See also: American Federation of Labor.



Russell, Francis. A City in Terror: The 1919 Boston Police Strike. New York: Viking, 1975.


Lyons, Richard L. "The Boston Police Strike of 1919." New England Quarterly 20 (July 1947): 148-159.


White, Jonathan Randall. "A Triumph of Bureaucracy: The Boston Police Strike and the Ideological Origins of the American Police Structure." Ph.D. diss., Michigan State University, 1982.

Additional Resources


Fogelson, Robert M., ed. The Boston Police Strike: Two Reports. New York: Arno, 1971.

Harrison, Leonard V. Police Administration in Boston.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934.


Koss, Frederick Manuel. "The Boston Police Strike." Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1960.

—Caryn E. Neumann

Boston Police Strike

views updated May 08 2018


BOSTON POLICE STRIKE. About three-quarters of the Boston, Massachusetts police force went on strike 9 September 1919, when the police commissioner refused to recognize the officers' right to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor. To prevent the strike, Mayor Andrew J. Peters and a citizens' committee made compromise proposals relating to pay and working conditions, but the police commissioner rejected them. The resulting strike left Boston virtually unprotected, and disorder, robberies, and riots ensued.

At the time of the strike, Boston's police commissioner was appointed, not by the mayor of the city, but by the governor of the state. Before the strike occurred, Calvin Coolidge, then governor, was urged by the mayor and the citizens' committee to intervene, but he refused to act. When the rioting occurred, Peters called out the Boston companies of the militia, restored order, and broke the strike. With the city already under control, Coolidge ordered the police commissioner again to take charge of the police and called out the entire Massachusetts militia, declaring, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." This action gave Coolidge a reputation as a courageous defender of law and order, which led to his nomination for U.S. vice president (1920) and his eventual election (1924) to the presidency.


Russell, Francis. A City in Terror: 1919, The Boston Police Strike. New York: Viking, 1975.

Sobel, Robert. Coolidge: An American Enigma. Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1998.

Clarence A.Berdahl/a. g.

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Boston ; Conciliation and Mediation, Labor ; Labor ; Massachusetts ; Police ; Trade Unions .

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Boston Police Strike 1919

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