The Boston Police Strike That Impacted Labor For Generations

August 15, 2014

This week in 1919, Boston police voted to unionize. That vote led to a police strike that sparked riots, changed the lives of hundreds, and helped send Calvin Coolidge to the Oval Office.

Coolidge biographer Amity Shlaes described the scene in Downtown Boston in early September 1919.

"Many, many streets of people running around, taking things out of stores, busting windows, going into stores and taking all the shoes; bayonets and bullets and fear and trampling; altercations with crowds and they shoot into crowds — what started out as mean mischief ended up being riots and then death,"she said.

The shots that Shlaes refers to were not fired by police but by the state guard. At the time, there were no police on the streets of Boston.

"Many of these were Irish Americans, they served ably in the war, and the policeman were absolutely, incontrovertibly underpaid," she said.

And fed up. And so the seeds of the violent melee were sewn on August 15, when the Boston police voted to form a union, despite warnings from then-Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis and then-Governor Coolidge.

Shlaes said that a strike was not imminent, but everyone knew it was on the table. Earlier in the year, the telephone workers and trolly men had gone on strike.

"Everyone was going on strike in the United States in 1919," she said.

The rank and file believed that by affiliating with Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor, who had signed up dozens of police forces across the nation in recent months, they’d have more leverage.

'There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, anytime.' — Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge

"They also kind of thought that Coolidge, the governor, might negotiate with them and it would all work out well, because on the record are many instances where Coolidge, as a governor and as a lawmaker, before that, was party to negotiations with workers."

But that’s not how it played out. And on September 9, more than 1,100 of the police force's roughly 1,500 police failed to report for duty. The strike was on. The chaos was unleashed. The state guard was called in to restore order.

"They come and they police the city," Shlaes said. "They bunk in big warehouses. They stay up all night and they walk around with bayonets."

The striking police took a beating in the press. They were called deserters and worse, Bolsheviks. And so the AFL brought out their biggest gun.

"Sam Gompers, the old union man, the wise man, the one who has been to Paris with the president," Shlaes said. "So, you want to imagine someone very respected nationally asks Coolidge to please negotiate."

But Coolidge would not be dissuaded and "Cranky Cal" told Gompers as much in a now famous telegram. Coolidge had deliberated at length on the matter, and had come to a steadfast conclusion, which he expressed in a single, cutting sentence.

"There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, anytime," Coolidge wrote.

Today, police forces around the country are heavily unionized. But it wasn’t happening here on Coolidge’s watch. The striking officers were dismissed, and once order was restored, the force was restocked with a new, non-union rank and file. The Boston police would not again unionize until 1965.

"Hundreds and hundreds of people lost their job, hundreds and hundreds of horses lost their mount, at a time when it wasn’t that obvious that you’d find another job," Shlaes said.

Shlaes points out that Coolidge’s hard line was a huge political risk at the time. Most of the police were Irish immigrants, and immigrants were Coolidge’s political base.

"His whole career is built on being the new Republican party, representing immigrants, and he turns against immigrants and he fires them in a dramatic way," she said.

But the risk paid off — big time. It rocketed him to a national stage.

The union vote that led to riots in the streets, the dismissal of hundreds of police officers, and launched Calvin Coolidge on a path to the White House happened — right here in Boston — 95 years ago this week.

WGBH News is supported by:
Back to top