A short history of the Boston police strike, 1919

A scab police officer during the 1919 strike

A short history of the unsuccessful strike of Boston police officers in 1919. libcom.org does not support strikes of police officers but we host this article for reference.

In Boston in 1919, police officers worked 83-98 hour weeks and were paid $.21-$.25 per hour. Amidst a nationwide strike wave, the local policemen's organization, known as the Boston Social Club, decided to affiliate with the American Federation of Labour (AFL) when nineteen of their leaders were fired by the Police Commissioner, the club members voted 1,134-2 to strike.

They also demanded higher wages and shorter working hours.

Only around 400 of the 1500-strong force continued to work during the strike.

The Central Labor Union ordered. affiliated unions to vote on a general strike in support of the policemen.

The president of Harvard offered 1,000 students to replace the police, and many volunteers offered their services, but city officials preferred to let various minor disorders develop unopposed - looting of stores, stoning of trolley cars, and dice-playing on Boston Common.

The result was a huge public uproar over riot and revolution in Boston. "Lenin and Trotsky are on their way," stated the Wall Street Journal.1

On the second day the State Guard occupied the city, then patrolled the streets for the next three months. The entire police force was fired and a new one gradually recruited.

Against such pressures the strike was clearly doomed, and the C.L.U. decided that "the time is not now opportune for the ordering of a general strike."2

The main effect of the strike was to greatly increase fear of threats to "law and order" by showing that even the minions of law and order themselves were workers not immune to the spreading spirit of revolt.3

Most of this text has been excerpted from Jeremy Brecher's excellent book, Strike!, but some text has been added by libcom.org.

  • 1. Wall Street Journal, Sept. 12, 1919, cited in Robert K. Murray, Red Scare, A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920 (N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1964), p. 129.
  • 2. Boston Evening Transcript, Sept. 12,1919, cited in Murray, p. 129.
  • 3. Arthur Warner, "The End of Boston's Police Strike," The Nation, Vol. 109, No. 2842, Dec. 20,1919, p. 790.

Comments

cresspot
Oct 4 2013 22:06

You don't support policer strikers? I hope police go on strike forever, ha, ha!

Steven.
Oct 5 2013 00:17
cresspot wrote:
You don't support policer strikers? I hope police go on strike forever, ha, ha!

well yes we would support that!

Gregory A. Butler
Oct 30 2014 12:33

Why don't you support strikes by police officers?

That makes zero sense to me.

Policing badly needs to be reformed and a successful police strike might contribute to that. Also in the event of widespread strikes by other workers - especially other public sector workers - a police strike might be the difference between victory and defeat

Steven.
Nov 9 2014 15:12
Gregory A. Butler wrote:
Why don't you support strikes by police officers?

That makes zero sense to me.

Policing badly needs to be reformed and a successful police strike might contribute to that. Also in the event of widespread strikes by other workers - especially other public sector workers - a police strike might be the difference between victory and defeat

Can you point to historical examples of where successful police strikes have contributed to policing being reformed in a good way? Or helping other workers win disputes?

Now it's a bit tricky, because in most places strikes by police are illegal, so there aren't many historical precedents to learn from.

However in the UK at least they are comparable to prison guards. Unfortunately prison guards in the UK are one of the best organised and most militant groups of workers nowadays.

And sometimes they have gone on illegal national strikes for pay increases.

But they have also had wildcat strikes in recent years, which are spread across several facilities, in response to prison officers being disciplined for abusing prisoners.

Clearly this isn't something which we would support: because it is not in the interests of the working class as a whole to have prison guards who can abuse primarily working class prisoners with impunity.

This is similarly true for the police.

As you can see from the article above, police is to be treated very badly as workers in the past. However under Margaret Thatcher police got huge wage increases. This was in return for their loyalty in smashing the rest of the organised working class movement (in the miners strike and at Wapping being the two major examples). So police pay and conditions are not so linked to the pay and conditions of other workers in the way that the rest of us are.

The police officers' union, the Police Federation, also isn't something which advocates progressive police reform. Police for the most part oppose these sorts of measures (like civilian oversight, properly independent complaints investigation, officers having to display their numbers, officers being observed by cameras etc), which is unsurprising. But it does directly set their interests against those of their fellow workers who it is their job to police.

Now, in a different climate, say one of mass upheaval and class struggle, some police could potentially start to essentially mutiny against their role as police, which could manifest in strikes. Which would be a good sign. However nothing like that is on the cards for the foreseeable future, in the West at least.

Kdog
Apr 19 2017 16:47

The novel The Given Day by Irish-American author Dennis Lehane (who also wrote Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone) covers this history including the east coast Italian insurrectionary anarchist milieu and the Greenwood district of Tulsa - "Black Wall St." - that was burned to the ground a few years later in a racist pogrom. I liked the book, tho the main character is a conflicted, liberal cop.