From Coolidge to Christie: Historical Antecedents of Current Government Officials Dealing with Public Sector Labor Unions

By Soukup, Bryan J. | Labor Law Journal, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

From Coolidge to Christie: Historical Antecedents of Current Government Officials Dealing with Public Sector Labor Unions


Soukup, Bryan J., Labor Law Journal


I. Introduction

One might ask: what do Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, Scott Walker and Chris Christie have in common? The most obvious answer is that they all are (or were) Republican Governors, but these four men have something much deeper in common. All four have faced-off against powerful public sector labor unions and won. This paper will address and examine the similarities between the anti-union actions taken by these men- Coolidge and the Boston Police Strike of 1919, Reagan and the Professional Air Traffic Controllers ("PATCO") Strike of 1981, and Walker and Christie's recent dealings with public employee unions. In the end, the reader will view the work of these political figures as an inspirational passing of the torch between political eras. This paper will also briefly look ahead and discuss where this new wave of government-union interaction might lead public sector labor relations in the future.

II. Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan

a. Governor Coolidge and the Boston Police Strike of 1919

No man's house, no man's wife, no man's children will be safe if the police force is unionized and made subject to the orders of Red Unionite bosses...

- The Los Angeles Times in response to the 1919 Boston Police Strike.1

1919 was a year of extreme labor unrest. Between 1915 and 1921, the total number of public workers in unions nearly doubled, rising in numbers from 4.8% to 7.2%.2 This was "an especially impressive increase given that the total number of government employees in these years grew by more than one-quarter, from [1.8 million to 2.4 million.]"3 Not only were their numbers increasing, but also, these unions' demands were becoming more extreme. "From 1916 to 1922 .. . demands became too heady for the [American Federation of Labor ("AFL")] ... to contain . . . and too menacing for business and the state to tolerate."4 By that year's end, an astounding one-fifth of the United States workforce had been on strike.5 In February of that year, media headlines heralded "a 'prelude to revolution' when a general strike in Seattle closed all business February 6 to 11th."6 In addition to slowing commerce, the menace of public safety strikes by police and fire departments, strikes that took on militant characteristics, caused great civil turmoil.7 On May Day (the Socialist/Bolshevik worker's holiday), 1919, forty mail bombs were sent to public leaders across the country.8

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, where futurePresident Calvin Coolidge was the Republican Governor, members of the Boston Police Department, seeking a pay increase, approached the AFL to aid in its unionization.9 The timing of this request was especially inopportune for government leaders, coming just one year after the Boston Firefighters Union achieved a pay raise only after "threatening to resign en masse."10 In May, the department was granted a charter by the AFL." In response, Police Commissioner Curtis issued General Order 110, barring police officers from "belonging to almost any organization with ties outside the police department."12 Furthermore, the Commissioner suspended eight leading union organizers. The Mayor of Boston responded by organizing a commission to study the prospect of unionizing.13 The commission came to the conclusion that "[t]he majority need for public safety outweighed the officers' asserted right to collective bargaining."14

On September 9, as a result of the City's lack of cooperation and refusal to agree to the union's salary demands, the police union voted to strike. Strike action was approved by a whopping margin of 1,134 to 2, leading 1,100 officers to abandon their posts, leaving only 400 officers on active duty.15 As word of the strike spread throughout the city, a crowd gathered in Scollay Square, swelling to more than 10,000 people by 8pm.16 Rioting, violence, and looting ensued, and the next morning Coolidge ordered in the National Guard to restore order.17 By the end of the conflict, five people had died. …

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