1919 Boston Police Strike

A Boston Post Article on the Police Walkout
A Boston Post Article on the Police Walkout

The political climate after World War I was characterized by immense fear, instilled by “government and business propaganda”  about a Communist takeover of the United States. One of the main targets of this propaganda was the Labor Movement, which organized workers in order to collectively bargain for fair wages and hours. The Red Scare was increased as police forces across the nation began to organize in unions. Propaganda made it seem as if the Communists were attempting a take over from within.

Nothing fueled the anti-union, Red Scare propagandists more than the Boston Police Strike of 1919. Police in Boston had a number of reasons why they wanted to join a union. Like any other worker in any other sector, they felt that their wages were too low and their hours were too long. “Their wages were even significantly lower than the earnings of most unskilled factory workers. For this meager pay they were asked to work as many as seventy-two to ninety-eight hours a week.”  The Boston Police force, discouraged by lack of attention paid to their numerous grievances, joined the “Boston Social Club, affiliated with the AFL”  in August of 1919. Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis believed that a police officer could not belong to a union and serve his proper duty at the same time. As a result of his misguided beliefs, Curtis promptly suspended nineteen police officers who were working as union organizers.

In retaliation to the suspension of the nineteen union officers and the Police Commissioner’s refusal to allow the them to join the AFL, the Boston Police went on strike. A few people took advantage of the situation, looting stores and breaking windows. As a result, the State Guard was called in to stop the criminals. Public opinion began to turn against the Police, and national AFL President Samuel Gompers suggested that the officers return to work and to the bargaining table. Commissioner Curtis opted to not allow the striking officers their jobs and to completely replace the force. The Commissioner had the full support of President Woodrow Wilson and then Governor Calvin Coolidge, who had made himself a national hero by quelling the strike.

Public response to the strike was staggering. Few sided with the police, and the strike became damaging to the entire Labor Movement due to the increasing fear of Communist Revolution in the United States. After the strike the LA Times wrote, “...no man's house, no man's wife, no man's children will be safe if the police force in unionized and made subject to the orders of Red Unionite bosses."  Since the strike, public opinion of public sector strikes has been much less sympathetic than toward strikes in the private sector. None of the striking Police Officers ever returned to the force. An entirely new Police Force was hired at “at increased wages and with better working conditions.” 

Years later in 1965 the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association was founded and years later they affiliated with the AFL-CIO.