Boston Police Strike by John J Flood

Boston Police Strike

 In the Boston Police Strike, the Boston police rank and file went out on strike on September 9,1919 in order to achieve recognition for their trade union and improvements in wages and working conditions. They faced an implacable opponent in Police Commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis who denied that police officers had any right to form a union, much less one affiliated with a larger organization like the American Federation of Labor (AFL).Attempts at reconciliation between the Commissioner and the police officers, particularly on the part of Boston’s Mayor Andrew James Peters, failed. During the strike, Boston experienced several nights of lawlessness though actual property damage was not extensive. Several thousand members of the State Guard supported by volunteers restored order. Press reaction both locally and nationally described the strike as Bolshevik-inspired and aimed at the destruction of civil society. The strikers were called “deserters” and “agents of Lenin. “Samuel Gompers of the AFL recognized that the strike was damaging labor in the public mind and advised the strikers to return to work. The Police Commissioner, however, remained adamant and refused to re-hire the striking policemen. He was supported by Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, whose rebuke of Gompers earned him a national reputation. The strike proved a setback for labor and the AFL reversed its attempts at organizing police officers for another two decades. Coolidge won the Republican nomination for vice-president of the US in the 1920 presidential election.


Massachusetts altered the management structure of the Boston Police Department twice in the years before the strike. First, in 1895, it removed the department from the control of Boston’s mayor and placed it under the control of a five-person board of commissioners appointed by the governor. In 1906, it abolished that board and instead gave authority to a single commissioner appointed by the governor for a term of five years and also subject to removal by the governor. The mayor and the city had responsibility for pay and physical working conditions, but had little incentive to devote resources to the department while the commissioner controlled department operations and the hiring, training, and discipline of the police officers. In the years following World War I inflation dramatically eroded the value of a police officer’s salary. From 1913 to May 1919, the cost of living rose by 76%, while police wages rose just18%. Police officers worked long 10 hour shifts and often slept over at the station without pay incase they were needed. Officers were not paid for court appearances and they also complained about the conditions of police stations, including the lack of sanitation, baths, beds and toilets. They typically worked between 75 and 90 hours per week. After repeated requests from local police organizations, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) began accepting police organizations into their membership in June 1919. By September, it had granted charters to police unions in 37 cities, including Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Miami, and St. Paul, though not without protests from some city officials, who also opposed the unionization of firefighters and teachers. In Boston, firefighters threatened mass resignations in August 1918 and won raises. Police officers had their own association called the Boston Social Club, founded by the Police Department in 1906 and operating under its sponsorship. In 1918, the Police Commissioner made it clear to the rank and file that they were not entitled to form their own union. The next year, their new Police Commissioner, Edwin Upton Curtis, refused to deal with the Social Club and set up his own grievance committee to handle management-employee disputes.

Events leading to the strike

Edwin U. CurtisBoston Police Commissioner 

The police determined to organize under an AFL charter in order to gain support from other unions in their negotiations with the Commissioner and, if it came to it, a potential strike. On August 9 the Boston Social Club requested a charter from the AFL. On August 11, Curtis issueda General Order forbidding police officers to join any “organization, club or body outside the department,” making an exception only for patriotic organizations like the American Legion. His argument for such a rule was based on the potential union membership carried for conflict of interest: It is or should be apparent to any thinking person that the police department of this or any other city cannot fulfill its duty to the entire public if its members are subject to the direction of an organization existing outside the department….If troubles and disturbances arise where the interests of this organization and the interests of other elements and classes in the community conflict, the situation immediately arises which always arises when a man attempts to serve two masters, ± he must fail either in his duty as a policeman, or in his obligation to the organization that controls him. On August 15 the police received their AFL charter. On August 17 the Central Labor Union of Boston welcomed the police union and denounced Curtis for his assertions that the police had no right to unionize. Curtis then refused to meet with the 8 members of the police union’s committee. He suspended them and 11 others who held various union offices and scheduled trials to determine if they had violated his General Order. At this point, Curtis was already a hero to business interests. Late in August the New Hampshire Association of Manufacturers called him “the Ole Hanson of the east,” equating the events they anticipated in Boston with the earlier Seattle General Strike.

Mayor Andrew James Peters then sought to play an intermediary role by appointing a Citizen’s Committee to review the dispute about union representation. He chose a well-known local reformer as its chair, James J. Storrow. Storrow’s group recommended that Curtis and the police agree to a police union without AFL ties and without the right to strike. Curtis would recognize the police union and the union would agree to remain “independent and unaffiliated.” Storrow’s group also recommended that no action be taken against the 19 Curtis had suspended. Four of Boston’s 5 newspapers backed the compromise, with only the Boston Transcript holding to a consistent anti-union position.[13]The Boston Chamber of Commerce backed it as well. Curtis, with the backing of Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, rejected Storrow’s proposal. Curtis proceeded with department trials of the 19 and on September 8 found them guilty of union activity. Yet rather than punish them with dismissal from the police force, he merely extended their suspensions. He later explained that he was giving them an opportunity to reconsider their actions and avoiding discharges, which would have been irrevocable. The police union members responded that same day by voting 1134 to 2 in favor of a strike and scheduled it to start at evening roll call the next day. Their stated grounds omitted wages and working conditions. They were striking to protest the Commissioner’s denial of their right to ally themselves with the AFL.


On September 9, Boston Police Department officers went on strike at 5:45 p.m Of the force’s1,544 officers and men, 1,117 (72%) failed to report for work. Coolidge assigned 100 membersof the state’s Metropolitan Park Police Department to replace the striking officers, but 58 of themrefused to participate and were suspended from their jobs. Despite assurances fromCommissioner Curtis to Mayor Peters and Governor Coolidge, Boston had little police protectionfor the night of September 9. Volunteer replacements were still being organized and due to reportthe next morning.

Newly arrived Massachusetts Militia tries to keep order in Scollay Square

Over the night of September 9±10, the city witnessed an outbreak of hooliganism and looting. Some was just rowdy behavior that scared respectable citizens, throwing rocks at streetcars and overturning the carts of street vendors. More overtly criminal activity included the smashing of store windows and looting the displays. In the morning the Mayor asked the Governor to furnish a force State Guards and Coolidge promptly agreed and eventually provided almost 5,000.

Commissioner Curtis later praised the State Guards’ performance in his Annual Report : “The whole community is now aware of the effectiveness with which the [Massachusetts State Guard]worked when it came into the city. I cannot add anything to the universal chorus of commendation that has greeted their work.”

Violence peaked the next evening, the night of September 10±11. Businesses were better  prepared. Some had boarded up and others stayed open all night with armed guards visible todiscourage any thoughts of taking advantage of the absence of peace officers. Gamblers playeddice in open view and women had their handbags snatched. But the Guard proved inexperiencedat handling crowds and quick to assert control without regard for loss of life. Gunfire in SouthBoston left two dead and others wounded. Scollay Square, a center of amusement halls andtheaters, was reportedly the scene of a riot where one died. Whether the crowds were threatening property or making trouble because they were in sympathy with the strikers is unknown. Thedeath total ultimately reached nine.

At the same time, life continued normally, especially during daytime hours. Schools, for example, remained open. Later claims against the city for losses incurred during the two nightsof disorder ran to $35,000, of which the city paid $34,000. Those figures represent a non-partisancalculation of the costs of the strike to the Boston business community.

When Governor Coolidge called the strikers “deserters” and “traitors,” a mass meeting of the Boston Police Union responded with wounded pride and a taunt of its own:

When we were honorably discharged from the United States army, we were hailed as heroes and saviors of our country. We returned to our duties on the police force of Boston. 

Now, though only a few months have passed, we are denounced as deserters, as traitors to our city and violators of our oath of office.

The first men to raise the cry were those who have always been opposed to giving to labor a living wage. It was taken up by the newspapers, who cared little for the real facts.

You finally added your word of condemnation….

Among us are men who have gone against spitting machine guns single-handed, and captured them, volunteering for the job. Among us are men who have ridden with dispatches through shell fire so dense that four men fell and only the fifth got through. 

Not one man of us ever disgraced the flag or his service. It is bitter to come home and be called deserters and traitors. We are the same men who were on the French front. Some of us fought in the Spanish war of 1898. Won’t you tell the people of Massachusetts in which war you served?

On the evening of September 11, the Central Labor Union met to consider calling a general strike in support of the striking police. Earlier it had expressed enthusiasm for a general strike, more likely as an expression of solidarity than a declaration of serious intent. It collected the votes of its constituent unions and then delayed a decision on September 21, only deciding against a general strike on October 5. When it came to a vote, the proposal failed, demonstrating how the labor movement understood the public reaction to the police strike. Their statement advertised their sensitivity to popular perceptions: “We are not to act in a manner that will give the prejudiced press and autocratic employers a chance to criticize us.”

Samuel Gompers, just returned from Europe, quickly assessed the situation and the strength of  public sentiment and urged the strikers to return to work. The police accepted his recommendation immediately. On September 12, Gompers telegraphed Mayor Peters and Governor Coolidge asking for the strikers to be reinstated and that all parties agree to wait for arbitration “to honorably adjust a mutually unsatisfactory situation.” Coolidge replied with a statement of support for Curtis’ hard line. Gompers telegraphed Coolidge again, this time blaming Curtis for the crisis. Coolidge dismissed the Commissioner’s behavior as irrelevant, because no provocation could justify the police walkout. His terse summation created his reputation on the national scene: “There is no right to strike against the public safety, anywhere, anytime.” He said he would continue to “defend the sovereignty of Massachusetts.”

By the weekend, the presence of the State Guards had become a curiosity. Larger than usual crowds strolled in the center of the city. Thousands attended a band concert on the Boston Common. “The shootings of the last few days for interference with guardsmen,” said the NewYork Times, “seem to have had a marked effect.”

Governor Coolidge said he originally hoped to reinstate the officers, stating in a telegram to a labor convention that “I earnestly hope that circumstances may arise which will cause the police officers to be reinstated”. Nevertheless, over the objections of Mayor Peters, Commissioner Curtis announced on September 13 that he planned to recruit a new force. He fired roughly 1,100and hired 1,574 replacement police officers from a pool of unemployed World War I veterans.

Members of the United Garment Workers Union refused to sew uniforms for the new hires, whohad to report for work in civilian clothing.

The new officers hired in the wake of the strike received higher salaries, more vacation days and city-provided uniforms, just as the original strikers had sought. They enjoyed a starting salary of $1,400 along with a pension plan, and the department covered the cost of their uniforms and equipment. The population of Boston raised $472,000 to help pay for the State Guards until new police officers could be recruited.

Views of the press and political leaders

“Bolshevism in the United Sates is no longer a specter. Boston in chaos reveals its sinister substance.”-Philadelphia Public Ledger 

In anticipation of the strike, all of Boston’s newspapers called it “Bolshevistic,” pleaded with the police to reconsider and foresaw the most dire consequences. One also warned the police that their eventual defeat was guaranteed, that they would lose because “behind Boston in this skirmish with Bolshevism stands Massachusetts, and behind Massachusetts stands America.”[37] The morning papers following the first night’s violence were full of loud complaints and nasty terms for the police: “deserters,” “agents of Lenin.”

Newspaper accounts exaggerated the level of crime and violence that accompanied the strike, resulting in a national furor that shaped the political response. A Philadelphia paper viewed the Boston violence in the same light as many other of 1919’s events: “Bolshevism in the United States is no longer a specter. Boston in chaos reveals its sinister substance.” President Woodrow Wilson, speaking from Montana, branded the walkout “a crime against civilization” that left the city “at the mercy of an army of thugs.” The timing of the strike also happened to present the police union in the worst light. September 10, the first full day of the strike, was also the day a huge New York City parade celebrated the return of Gen. John J. Pershing, the hero of the American Expeditionary Force.

A report from Washington, D.C. included this headline: “Senators Think Effort to Sovietize the Government Is Started.” Senator Henry Cabot Lodge saw in the strike the dangers of the national labor movement: “If the American Federation of Labor succeeds in getting hold of the police in Boston it will go all over the country, and we shall be in measurable distance of Soviet government by labor unions.”

The Ohio State Journal opposed any sympathetic treatment of the strikers: “When a policeman strikes, he should be debarred not only from resuming his office, but from citizenship as well. He has committed the unpardonable sin; he has forfeited all his rights.”


In the police commissioner’s Annual Report for 1919, Curtis presented his view of the strike. He argued that he could not have requested State Guards for the strike’s first night because the city remained quiet and he had reports that many policemen would not join the strike. By the end of the year the strikers had formed a new organization called the Association of Former Police of the City of Boston.

The strike gave momentum to Coolidge’s political career. In 1918, he had narrowly been elected governor. Now in 1919 he won 62% of the votes running against an opponent who favored reinstating the strikers. The voters of Boston were less enthusiastic than those of Massachusetts. He failed to carry the city by 5,000 votes.

He later stated that “No doubt it was the police strike in Boston that brought me into national prominence.” President Wilson’s post-election telegram shows he shared that view: “I congratulate you upon your election as a victory for law and order. When that is the issue, all Americans must stand together.”

In 1920, Coolidge was nominated as the Republican candidate for vice-president.

The strike heightened public fear of labor unrest and the possible radicalism that lay behind it, making it another component in the ongoing public anxiety of the period known as the Red Scare of 1919±1920. The failure of this and other strikes in the years following World War I contributed to declining union membership in subsequent years.

The American Federation of Labor responded to political pressure experienced during the strike and revoked the charters it had granted to police unions. That put an end to police unionism in the U.S., which would not reappear until World War II.

In 1930, a history of the Boston Transcript , the most resolutely anti-union of Boston’s newspapers in 1919, perpetuated its original account of urban chaos during the strike’s first nights. It described large crowds, including a number of sailors from docked naval ships, that took to the streets, smashing windows, committing robbery and stoning bystanders and cars, andit said that the northern, southern, and western areas of the city were all taken over by armed gangs.

In 1931, the Massachusetts legislature voted to allow the officers, who had struck, to be rehired. However, the Boston police commissioner refused to admit them to the force.