The Boston Police Strike of 1919: In Response to Low Wages, Poor Working Conditions, and the Inability to Affiliate Themselves with the American Federation of Labor, Boston Policemen Went on Strike

By Farmer, Brian | The New American, July 18, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Boston Police Strike of 1919: In Response to Low Wages, Poor Working Conditions, and the Inability to Affiliate Themselves with the American Federation of Labor, Boston Policemen Went on Strike


Farmer, Brian, The New American


In 1919, America was still recovering from what was then called the Great World War (now referred to as the First World War). Inflation and the cost of living had increased much faster than wage growth. From 1913 to May of 1919, the cost of living had risen by 76 percent, while police wages had risen just 18 percent. Adding to the problem, soldiers returning from the war were flooding the labor market, putting downward pressure on workers' earning power.

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During 1919, one-fifth of the country's workers would strike. The year started with New York's harbor workers striking in January, followed by the dressmakers. In February news headlines reported a "prelude to revolution," when a general strike in Seattle closed all businesses from February 6 to 11.

Bombs were mailed to the Mayor of Seattle, who broke the strike and, in April, 40 more mail bombs were found en route to other public leaders for May Day, the international communist holiday. With the backdrop of apparently spreading communism, many American citizens believed that they were on the verge of a workers' revolution.

In Massachusetts, textile workers in Lawrence walked out in protest of a six-days-a-week, nine-hours-a-day work schedule. Boston telephone operators interrupted much of New England's phone service in an April work stoppage and, in July, Boston's elevated train workers staged their own walkout. Boston's business and political leaders could see this national trend of strikes disabling their own businesses and communities, and they became increasingly alarmed.

Generous Grievances

There is no doubt that the Boston police force had legitimate grievances, which they had expressed as early as 1917. Starting pay for new officers had not risen in 60 years, since 1857, when new recruits received two dollars per day. Their wages were even lower than the earnings of most unskilled factory workers. Officers worked seven days per week, with a day off every other week, during which they could not leave town without special permission. Depending on duty assignments, officers worked between 72 and 98 hours per week, and were required to sleep in the station houses, in case they were needed. Officers were not paid for court appearances and they also complained about the deplorable conditions in police stations, which included the lack of sanitation, baths, beds, and toilets.

Since 1885, the Boston police had been under the command of a commissioner appointed by the state Governor. Though Boston's Mayor controlled their budget, their operation and how they used the budget was controlled by this commissioner appointed by the Governor. This placed the Mayor, Andrew Peters, in a difficult position. His city was protected by a police force not under his control. When the police would succeed, the state would take the credit; but when there were problems, Peters, who was closest to them, could readily be made the scapegoat.

There was also an ethnic overlay. Protestant Yankees sought to control the Irish-Catholic rank and file of the Boston Police Department. This made the dispute about more than wages or work conditions; it quickly developed along lines of ethnicity.

By June of 1919, the grievances made by the police officers had not been addressed, so they turned to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to consider unionization. Although police officers already had their own association called the Boston Social Club, founded by the police department in 1906 and operating under its sponsorship, Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis was outspoken in his condemnation of the movement to unionize. After all, the labor union movement had long been viewed with suspicion by many Americans, and those suspicions were heightened by the so-called workers' revolution in Russia and by efforts to spread communism throughout the Western world.

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In August the police were granted a union charter, which Commissioner Curtis opposed on the grounds that a policeman was not "an employee, but a state officer. …

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