September 9, 1919 | Boston Police Strike

 Gamblers rounded up on Boston Common by the Massachusetts State Guard after the Boston Police went on strike, 1919.
 

"A strike of the policemen of a great city, leaving that city at the mercy of an army of thugs, is a crime against civilization. In my judgment the obligation of a policeman is as sacred and direct as the obligation of a soldier.”

-President Woodrow Wilson

Boston’s police officers were fed up. They hadn’t had a salary raise in 20 years and the cost of living had increased by almost 80%. They typically worked 73 hours a week, with only one day off every 15 days. And adding insult to injury, the station houses were filthy and rat infested.

On September 9, 1919, in protest for the suspension of 19 newly elected union officials, 1100 officers walked away from their posts leaving only 500 police officers to maintain order in the entire city of Boston. Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge and Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis called in the State Guard, but they were too late. Riots and looting broke out in the city overnight, resulting in major property damage. Within two days, guardsmen and volunteers had restored order to the city.

The damage to police unions was less easily undone. The Boston police union’s newly formed association with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was castigated in newspapers across the country and President Wilson and Governor Coolidge both denounced the actions of the strikers. Coolidge’s swift actions during the crisis and his strong condemnation of the strikers brought him to national attention and eventually garnered him the presidency.

The Boston police strike fed into the widespread fears of bolshevism and anarchy at the time, and the national reaction to the strike stopped most departments from any further affiliation with national trade unions like the AFL. One thing was clear. Low pay and long hours were poor motivators for increasing professionalism amongst the rank and file. The strikers themselves were fired and replaced by new officers at a higher wage.