Police Unions, Then and Now: The Boston Police Strike of 1919

Controversies surrounding recent police shootings have angered the public, and both citizens and officials have demanded internal investigations, disciplinary actions, dismissal, or criminal charges for accused officers. In many cases, such actions have been blocked or rescinded by police unions, despite evidence of unethical to downright criminal behavior.

This has prompted attacks on the unions from liberals, progressives, libertarians, and conservatives alike. Critics claim police unions cover up criminal behavior, remove officers’ accountability, and prevent oversight by civilian authority — in effect supporting abuse by officers. A 2014 article in The Atlantic presents a damning list of incidents in which policemen, with the help of their unions, remained on the force despite actions that would have caused suspension or dismissal in any other profession.

Condemnation of police unions isn’t universal, though. Last month in The Week, Jeff Spross made a case for the unions. Police, he writes, are being watched with heightened vigilance even as they’re expected to fix social problems like drug addiction, gang violence, and poverty. Also, they have inherited the ill will of minorities from generations of racist policies by past government and police administrations.

Police unions were a touchy subject in 1919, too. After a disastrous police strike in Boston that year, Americans were largely against police unionization. But like today, there were two sides to the argument.

Police in Boston then made miserable wages: $1,100 a year — the equivalent of $15,760 today — less than a streetcar conductor. For this salary, they were expected to work up to 98 hours a week with no overtime pay and to buy their own uniforms. They lived in run-down, vermin-infested police stations, sleeping in beds shared with other officers. Fifteen years of appeals to improve conditions went nowhere.

When the police unionized in 1919, the police commissioner arrested 19 officers and charged them with disobeying orders. Despite urgings from a civilian advisory board and the governor to negotiate instead of punishing the officers, the commissioner fired all the men.

In retaliation, 1,117 patrolmen of Boston’s police department walked off the job at 5:45 p.m. on September 9. They left Boston streets protected by the remaining police officers, park police, and civilian volunteers.

Despite the commissioner’s assurances that the city had sufficient forces to maintain peace, chaos and looting quickly followed. When news spread across America, the nation was outraged, and public opinion turned squarely against the police. The strike was abandoned two days later, after Governor Coolidge ordered the National Guard into the city.

The commissioner fired all 1,117 patrolmen who walked out, to be replaced by American servicemen then returning from the war in Europe. The new policemen received the benefits the old officers had petitioned for, and the Boston police didn’t unionize again until 1965.

Post correspondent George Pattullo reported on the situation from the streets of Boston. Like many Americans, he had begun with a hostile attitude toward the unionized police. But, as you’ll read, he learned that the situation was more than a choice between right and wrong, and some officers were left with no option other than walking out.


The National Crisis in Boston

By George Pattullo

Excerpted from an article originally published on November 15, 1919

To the United States, the policemen’s strike came like a bolt from a clear sky, but in reality there was nothing sudden about it. It had been looming as a possibility for a month, and the causes leading to the impasse are of long standing. Until I investigated the situation, my voice was joined to the chorus of unqualified denunciation which was directed against the police from coast to coast; they were damned from every quarter of America, branded as deserters, traitors, and fit bedfellows for Trotsky. The condemnation was justified, but some of the denunciation was grossly unfair.

Nothing can excuse or palliate the offense of walking out and leaving a city unprotected, but intention counts both in law and morals and the police stoutly contend they hadn’t an inkling of what the consequences would be. They had real grievances, which experience had taught them were impossible of redress through the usual channels, and they thought only of those. They point to assurances given to the public by the commissioner that ample protection would be provided for the city in event of a strike and declare that they accepted these assurances at their face value. If so, the cops pulled a bone.

Two hundred and five members of the policemen’s union served in the Army during the world war; 89 were veterans of the trouble with Spain — to stigmatize men like those as traitors and cowardly deserters seems going it a bit strong. A statement from one of their number, who received the Croix de Guerre, gives their viewpoint. His name is Edward M. Kelleher, Division 15: “I have never been accused of disloyalty or lack of gameness before. Gameness is part of the policeman’s job.”

Passing the Buck of Responsibility

“You say our grievances could have been redressed. I know that. But they were not redressed in 15 years. Now the policeman’s pay has been raised and the stations are to be fixed; the hours even may be made better. But it took a strike to do it. I want to say that I joined the union because we could not get our grievances redressed or even listened to any other way.

“I didn’t want to strike and I don’t know any other man who did want to. I went out when 19 men were discharged by the commissioner because I and the others had elected them officers of the union. They were no more guilty than I was, and I wouldn’t be yellow enough to leave them to be the goats for all of us.

“I wouldn’t have gone on a strike if I had thought the city was undefended and there was going to be a riot. The papers said there were plenty of men to keep order and handle the crowd. The commissioner himself said so.”

However, the measure of their guilt is a matter of purely local concern. Nor has the country at large any special interest in the effort to fix the blame for failure to protect Boston adequately after the police went out. Debate over that point has frequently been of the knock-down-and-drag-out variety in The Hub. The mayor blames the police commissioner and Governor Coolidge; the commissioner has passed the buck to some of the metropolitan park police, who failed to obey orders; the governor and Samuel Gompers had a telegraphic tilt from which Gompers emerged a bad second; the union men assert that the strike could have been entirely averted and the policemen withdrawn from affiliation with the federation if Commissioner Curtis had indicated willingness to meet the men anywhere near halfway; the police feel they were deliberately jockeyed into an impossible position; and charges have been hurled that the whole affair was a frame-up by the capitalistic interests, which desired a showdown at a moment highly favorable to them. Indeed I heard numerous claims that influences were at work to make a test of strength at an opportune time on the general labor situation, entirely apart from the policemen’s union, with an eye to the impending steel strike. Such reports are characteristic of every trouble.

On every side they’ve been denouncing and calling names, and feeling has grown intensely bitter. The inevitable injection of politics into the trouble did not ease the rancor, and the issue livened the gubernatorial contest. Politics has a way of horning into every dispute and capitalizing it, and this is especially true of Boston, whose large population of Irish descent has furnished more politicians to the square yard than any other community in the United States.

Wherever blame may lie, two facts stand out baldly: The police abandoned their posts, and from 6:00 Tuesday night until 8:00 Wednesday morning, Boston remained without protection, a prey to marauding bands of hoodlums. Those occurrences speak for themselves — a grievous blunder was committed somewhere.

A very unusual situation exists there in regard to control of the police. For many years, the police commissioner has been appointed by the governor, an arrangement made during an earlier city administration which did not enjoy public confidence. Boston finds the money to pay the force, but the department is under state control. However, the consensus of opinion appears to be that the scheme worked very well.

The unionizing of policemen had been threatening for two years. Organizers of the I.W.W. stripe and the element in the American Federation of Labor belonging to the same school of thought discerned tremendous possibilities in the affiliation of police unions throughout the country with organized labor. It would give them control of a weapon frequently employed against labor in strikes; in an emergency, they could practically dominate the communities where the police were affiliated; they would have the country by the throat.

The Old Leaders Outvoted

Conservative leaders like Gompers saw all this, but saw also the dangers. They were not blind to the impossibility of winning anything against an aroused and united public, and they perceived clearly that if a police force should strike and leave a city defenseless, the entire American people would clamor for action. In such event, what chance would the federation stand with a sympathetic strike? And yet they would be bound to stick by their brothers. So the conservatives headed off the movement as long as they could. But the wild-eyed factions were persuaded they could throttle the public into granting labor’s demands — or at any rate they were not afraid to try, and they pressed for membership of police unions in the federation. Last June at the convention in Atlantic City, they triumphed. Against the better judgment of the old leaders, it was decided to grant charters to the police. And right there the radicals played hob.

By the time the Boston police had organized, the police forces of 20 cities already belonged to the federation — not without protests and some strenuous opposition from civic officials. But in the main, affiliation took place quietly, and the general public either did not know of it or remained in ignorance of its significance and the menace hanging over them.

The Boston union cannot complain they did not receive fair warning. They did it with their eyes open. As far back as June, 1918, the then police commissioner, Stephen O’Meara, issued a general order setting forth his objections to the organization of a union to be affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, of which there was talk. Commissioner Curtis repeated the warning on July 29 last, and on August 11 promulgated a rule. In this he pointed out it 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,” and he forbade any member of the force joining any body which was affiliated with any organization outside the department except the Grand Army of the Republic, the United Spanish War Veterans, and the American Legion of World’s War Veterans…

It has always been the popular belief that a policeman’s job is a sinecure — that he has it pretty soft and easy, with fine pay, little to do and plenty of perquisites. Indeed the notion that policemen could possibly have grievances calling for drastic action roused derision everywhere; sympathy for the Boston cops was nonexistent except among their personal friends. Had anyone suggested to the average citizen that possibly they had a strong case and were not receiving fair treatment, he would have been hooted. The very mention of a cop suggested easy pickings.

Long Hours and Low Pay

But as Boston learned with a shock and to its deep humiliation, the police scale of pay was pitifully low and their hours longer than almost any class of labor. The minimum pay was round $21 a week, and the maximum — reached the sixth year — $31. Out of this, a policeman had to buy a complete uniform and equipment, which cost $207.

The wagon men worked 98 hours a week, the night men did a total of 83 hours a week, and the day men averaged round 73 hours. Pay ran from 21 to 28 cents an hour — and, of course, any sort of labor can command higher rates than those nowadays.

Also, conditions in several of the station houses were deplorable. In the dormitories, beds were used by two and three men in succession during a day and night without being remade.

“At Division Two,” declared John F. McInnes, president of the policemen’s union, “there is but one bathtub for 135 men and only four toilets. Bedbugs, rats, and other forms of vermin roam at will in Stations 9, 13, and 18.”

The police received no extra pay for overtime work. They had to attend every unusual event, like a parade, band concert, or large gathering, and they wanted that considered in their pay. They also objected to delivering unpaid tax bills when it was obviously the duty of a civilian employee, and complained of being forced to do the listing. They condemned the conditions under which civil-service examinations were held and objected to the commissioner reserving to himself the right to promote a man regardless of the showing made in competitive examination.

Those are a few of the grievances which the men assert they could not get redressed. They were news to Boston and gained lots of sympathy for the strikers — without, however, weakening one iota the conviction that the policemen had no right to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor and no right either in law or morals to go on strike. The Hub stands like Gibraltar on that issue.

Not an officer or sergeant of the force joined the union, being ineligible, and many a policeman who followed the crowd did so against his judgment and inclination. They were coerced. As always happens, the leather-lunged aggressive minority practically compelled the others to fall in line. I talked with a striking policeman who had been nine years on the force. He did not want to join the union in the first place, but he could not stand the ostracism which “scab” entails for a nonunion man and his wife and children; and though he was opposed to a strike, he could not leave the others in the lurch after they had decided to walk out.

“How many wanted to go on strike? Less than 50 percent, but a lot were led to vote that way because they didn’t want to desert the boys,” he said.

Another member of the force, who had been with it so many years that he could have retired on half pay in another seven months, joined the union virtually under compulsion, and once in it had to walk out when ordered. And now in his old age he is out of a job and without means of support. What’s more, it is doubtful if he could perform any work but that of a policeman, for when a man has put in many years on a police force, he is unfit for most other jobs. “I didn’t join the union at first,” he said. “But one day I went into the station house and opposite my name on the bulletin board somebody had written in red ink, ‘Scab.’ The kids at school yelled it at my children too. What is a man going to do?”

The Trouble-Making Minority

Well, the police formed their union and persuaded practically all the men of the force to join it. Charges were soon filed against 19 of them.

“At the request of counsel for the men,” says a statement from Commissioner Curtis, “I heard the cases myself instead of referring them to a trial board. The facts were undisputed. I found the men guilty and delayed imposing the finding, merely suspending them from duty.”

Threats of a strike if the members of the union under charges should be suspended were freely made before their cases came up for hearing. In view of the gravity of the prospect, Mayor Peters appointed a committee to investigate the trouble and act as mediators, and endless negotiation and argument and conferences followed. This committee did their utmost, but to no avail. Their executive committee succeeded in drawing up a plan to which the tacit consent of the policemen was given, but the commissioner could not see his way to accept it. The plan received Mayor Peters’ endorsement, and the committee which presented it was composed of well known Bostonians. Briefly, it provided that the policemen should give up affiliation with the American Federation of Labor but maintain a union within the department to deal with questions relating to hours and wages and physical conditions of work; called for an investigation of the police demands and grievances by a committee of three citizens, which should continue to act as a sort of court of arbitration; and stipulated that no member of the force should be discriminated against because of any previous affiliation with the American Federation of Labor — neither should there be any discrimination on the part of the policemen’s union against any member of the force because of refusal to join.

The main objection to the plan, of course, was that it gave immunity to the ringleaders in the unionization of the police. Anyhow, the commissioner would not agree to it; the 19 policemen were suspended; and after taking a vote, about 1,400 policemen made good their threat to strike.

Everybody knows what happened after that. The spectacle of Boston given over to lawless mobs shook the whole country. President Wilson denounced the strike as a crime against civilization, and Elihu Root told the National Security League: “What does the police strike in Boston mean? It means that the men who have been employed and taken their oaths to maintain order and suppress crime as the servants of all the people are refusing to perform that solemn duty unless they are permitted to become members of a great organization which contains perhaps 3 percent of the people. Now, if that is done that is the end — except for a revolution. Government cannot be maintained unless it has the power to use force. If the power to use force passes from the 97 percent of the whole people of the United States to this organization of 3 percent, the 97 percent are no longer a self-governing people.”

The whole country blazed into resentment. If policemen could join the American Federation of Labor and go on strike, leaving their communities helpless, where would unionization end? The police in a score of cities were watching the outcome. Already many fire departments were affiliated with the American Federation of Labor; what if they should strike too? What of sympathetic strikes? And if the police could owe allegiance to a union, why not the Army? Where would it all end? In soviet government? A night of rioting in Boston woke the United States to the real nature of the menace.

The Governors Reply

The bulk of organized labor disapproved of the cops’ action. Only the newer membership of the unions supported them and favored a sympathetic strike. And what about the federation? Gompers realized immediately that the policemen’s case was hopeless and sought to exert pressure to the end that the men might be taken back and all action against them suspended until after the labor conference in Washington in October. To this request Governor Coolidge of Massachusetts made a reply which struck a responsive chord in every corner of America and lifted him into national prominence overnight:

“The right of the police of Boston to affiliate has always been questioned, never granted, is now prohibited. The suggestion of President Wilson to Washington does not apply to Boston. There the police have remained on duty. Here the Policemen’s Union left their duty, an action which President Wilson characterized as a crime against civilization.

“Your assertion that the commissioner was wrong cannot justify the wrong of leaving the city unguarded. That furnished the opportunity, the criminal element furnished the action. There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.

“You ask that the public safety again be placed in the hands of these same policemen while they continue in disobedience to the laws of Massachusetts and in their refusal to obey the orders of the police department. Nineteen men have been tried and removed. Others having abandoned their duty, their places have under the law been declared vacant on the opinion of the attorney general. I can suggest no authority outside the courts to take further action.

“I wish to join and assist in taking a broad view of every situation. A grave responsibility rests on all of us. You can depend on me to support you in every legal action and sound policy. I am equally determined to defend the sovereignty of Massachusetts and to maintain the authority and jurisdiction over her public officers, where it has been placed by the constitution and laws of her people.”

I asked Governor Coolidge whether he thought the American Federation of Labor had advised or sanctioned the strike. “The federation has never advised a strike there was no hope of winning,” he replied cautiously.

I asked one of their counsel whether he had done so.

“No, I advised against it,” Mr. Vahey declared earnestly. “They had already affiliated with the federation before I was called in, but both Feeney and I urged them to give up their membership in it. We told them we could get more for them than they could through the federation. But they stuck. When their leaders were suspended the men had to stand by them.”

Mayor Peters had received assurances that ample protection for the city would be available in the event of a police strike. Consequently the tangle was left to the police commissioner, and statements from the department persuaded the public that the situation was well in hand. He had at his disposal all the sergeants and officers of the force; also a hundred men of the Metropolitan Park Police, an organization distinct from the Boston department.

Such was the official force the commissioner could count on, and it seemed adequate to him. For the protection of the banking houses and large business establishments of the city, bodies of guards had been organized privately, and these were supplemented by hundreds of volunteers who offered their services as patrolmen.

In fact, big business and the larger mercantile concerns had prepared fairly well for eventualities. But Boston hadn’t guessed a tenth of what those eventualities would be.

The police went out before 6:00 on a Tuesday night. Several hours later the scum of South Boston and the West and North End were on a rampage. Scollay Square, the district between Boylston and School streets, all along Washington and Tremont streets, echoed to the crash of glass as the mobs of rowdies and thieves looted where they willed.

The Shop-Window Raiders

A crowd of more than 5,000 persons gathered in the vicinity of Broadway in South Boston, and when charged by about 50 of the park police met them with a barrage of stones and sticks and bottles and eggs. The rioters rocked the streetcars and stoned some loyal patrolmen of D Street station who had declined to go on strike.

Long before midnight, the mobs held undisputed possession of the streets. With nobody to hinder, huge bands of hoodlums went prowling through the heart of the city, holding up any unlucky pedestrians who came their way and pillaging stores which caught their fancy. A swift kick on a plate-glass window, then a scramble for the spoils. …

A night of unbridled hoodlumism was followed by a day of rioting, of fights and thievery, accompanied by considerable property loss, assaults on women, and several casualties. The losses were much exaggerated in the press reports and probably did not exceed $50,000, for there was no organized looting. One of the youths charged in court with larceny of six shoes had the stolen property on him — and not a pair in the lot.

After grabbing some shoes or shirts, a boy would sell them to another member of the mob for 25 or 50 cents. And the novel sight was witnessed of rowdies gravely fitting stolen shoes to one another’s feet while they sat on the sidewalk.

Business concerns took steps to fortify their places against possible raids. Some shops became veritable arsenals. I saw one with barbed-wire entanglements across the entrances at night; wire and all metal trimmings round the door were charged with electricity. Windows were stoutly boarded. Inside a force of guards stood ready, with a system of alarms designed to meet any emergency, powerful arc lights to blind any intruders, and rifles, revolvers and riot guns available for instant use. To supplement these defenses they had a fire hose all set. It would have taken trained troops to storm the place.

For several days no goods were displayed in the windows or showcases of the principal stores. Retail trade was paralyzed. Owners of valuables stored them away in vaults or other safe places. It seems remarkable that no really high-priced stuff was looted the first night. Rich furs and dress goods, silks — all manner of articles which would tempt a professional thief with a knowledge of values — escaped. And they grabbed shoes and cheap jewelry and shirts and umbrellas!

Equally remarkable is it that there was no incendiarism — plenty of false alarms, but no fires. Boston began to speculate about a week later on what might have happened had booze been on sale in the city.

It would take too long to tell all that happened before order was restored, but as Bill Hamilton once remarked in an account of proceedings after a bum decision at a prize fight, “pantomime reigned.” Besides old families and men and women of culture and breeding, besides safe and sane business men, a conservative professional class, and a labor population which is substantial and self-respecting, Boston possesses in considerable numbers a red-necked type which is always eager for a fight and packs a wallop in either hand. And these gentry had free run of the city.

Things became so bad that troops were called out and the Massachusetts State Guard took over the policing under Brigadier General Samuel D. Parker. The mayor is empowered in case of tumult or riot to take over the police department, which Mr. Peters did on Wednesday morning. He called out that part of the State Guard living within the city limits, but their number being totally inadequate, it became necessary to call all the State Guard throughout the commonwealth. Authority for this action rested in the governor, and accordingly Mr. Coolidge took charge of the situation, reinvesting police authority in Commissioner Curtis and instructing him to obey only such orders as the governor might issue.

The State Guard is equivalent to the Home Guards and is composed of men who volunteered for duty to replace the National Guard when it was called into service during the war. Most of them are either above or below draft age or had disabilities which prevented their going into the Army, and they come from all walks of life. You can find wealthy men in the State Guard, and college professors, and boys just beginning to use a safety razor.

These troops were distributed about the city, with a strong force held in reserve for emergency. They patrolled the streets and did guard duty, kept everybody moving, permitted no sidewalk conversations and made scores of arrests. Also they killed a few who resisted the enforcement of law. In spite of their three-speed rifles — you have to cock them three times, but luckily there is no reverse — the State Guard proved themselves efficient troops and handled the troubles firmly.

Commissioner Curtis told me that crime dropped 50 percent below normal as soon as they brought in the soldiers to restore order. And I was able to see for myself the salutary effect the presence of the guard had on soapbox agitators and Bolshevik windjammers. They had been fond of street meetings, but evidently something told them that the time was not propitious for incendiary talk. You couldn’t have found a soapbox orator with a search warrant after the troops got on the job. …

No Jobs and No Union 

Some sentiment has been created in Boston recently in regard to taking back the striking police. The argument is advanced that the city needs these trained men, and since the union is beaten and out of business and the police have learned their lesson and now have their hands up, punishment of the ringleaders ought to suffice. On the other hand, one can hear in Boston and all over the country that there should be no compromise — that by walking out the police vacated their jobs in a manner which prevents their reinstatement under the law, and if they were restored to duty what would be their attitude toward those who had remained faithful to their posts? What would be their attitude in case of trouble toward those unions which had voted them financial help in the crisis?

Whatever may happen to the ex-police, they surely started something. Losing all else, they now take cold comfort in the claim that their strike brought higher pay and better conditions for other police forces — a belated thought, which did not occur to them until they needed its solace. Discerning observers class the complete defeat of the Boston union as a lusty blow against the radical elements of labor. Round One went to the public — to law and order.

Read George Pattullo’s full, unedited article, “The National Crisis in Boston.”