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In the Boston Police Strike, the Boston police rank and file went out on strike on September 9, 1919, in order to receive recognition for their trade union and improvements in wages and working conditions. They faced an implacable opponent in Police Commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis, who denied that police officers had any right to form a union, much less one affiliated with a larger organization like the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Attempts at reconciliation between the Commissioner and the police officers, particularly on the part of Boston's Mayor Andrew James Peters, failed.
During the strike, Boston experienced several nights of lawlessness, although property damage was not extensive. Several thousand members of the State Guard, supported by volunteers, restored order. Press reaction both locally and nationally described the strike as Bolshevik-inspired and directed at the destruction of civil society. The strikers were called "deserters" and "agents of Lenin."
Samuel Gompers of the AFL recognized that the strike was damaging the cause of labor in the public mind and advised the strikers to return to work. The Police Commissioner remained adamant and refused to re-hire the striking policemen. He was supported by Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge, whose rebuke of Gompers earned him a national reputation. The strike proved a setback for labor, and the AFL reversed its attempts to organize police officers for another two decades. Coolidge won the Republican nomination for vice-president of the US in the 1920 presidential election.
The Massachusetts legislature altered the management structure of the Boston Police Department twice in the years before the strike. First, in 1895, it removed the department from the control of Boston’s mayor and placed it under the control of a five-person board of commissioners appointed by the governor. In 1906, it abolished that board and gave authority to a single commissioner, appointed by the governor for a term of five years and subject to removal by the governor. The mayor and the city had responsibility for pay and physical working conditions, but had little incentive to devote resources to the department while the commissioner controlled department operations and the hiring, training, and discipline of the police officers.
In the years following World War I, inflation dramatically eroded the value of a police officer's salary. From 1913 to May 1919, the cost of living rose by 76%, while police wages rose just 18%. Police officers worked long ten-hour shifts and often slept over at the station without pay in case they were needed. Officers were not paid for court appearances. They complained about the poor conditions of most police stations, including the lack of sanitation, baths, beds and toilets. They typically worked between 75 and 90 hours per week.Boston police grievances
By 1913, the Boston Police Department had not significantly increased the salary of new officers since 1854, a period of 60 years, when patrolmen were paid two dollars a day. In 1898, a graduated scale was set, but because of a "running dispute" between the mayor and city council, the pay increases were not implemented for 15 years. By the time they were finally put in place during 1913, living costs had increased 37 percent from what they had been in 1898 and by 1918 they increased another 79 percent. The salary for patrolman was set at $1,200 a year, which was less than half what many World War I workers were earning; and out of this they had to buy their own uniforms and equipment which cost over $200. New recruits, who had to be at least 25 years old, received only two dollars a day, or $730 a year, the same pay they would have received in 1854 when the department was formed. During the second year of service, the pay was increased 25 cents a day to $821.25 annually and in the third year, the wages were raised to $1,000 finally reaching $1,200 during the fourth year of service.
What had been acceptable before the war became less so after 1917. The cost of living was high and discontent and restiveness among the Boston police force grew. They were "resentfully aware" that in the wartime boom they were earning less than an unskilled steelworker, half as much as a carpenter or mechanic and 50 cents a day less than a "motorman" or conductor on the streetcars. Additionally, Boston city laborers were earning a third more on an hourly basis.
Although pay was the primary grievance of the Boston police, there were many other problems. Beyond the pay scale there was the matter of hours, which had not changed in over half a century. Patrolmen worked a 7-day week, with one day off every 15 days. Patrolmen who worked the day shift put in 73 hours a week and "night men" worked 83 hours a week, while "wagon men" worked 98 hours. After a day off, the men were required to serve a "house day" which meant they were on call at the station from 8:00am until 6:00pm performing various tasks such as recording duty, wagon runs and attending to the "signal desk." After a three-hour break, they reported back to the station house at 9:00pm where they slept for three hours until 12:00am at which time the bell rang for roll call and they "went out on the street" until 8:00am. After that, they could go home, but had to be back at 6:00pm for what they called an "evening on the floor" which meant performing the same type of duties such as taking care of prisoners, wagon trips or "whatever turned up." At 9:00pm the patrolman went back to bed for three hours.
The "day men," in addition to their 10-hour day, were required to spend one night a week in the station house on reserve. Although the commissioner and mayor had agreed to give the police a 24-hour holiday for every 8 days of work, this could be taken away "at will" and often was. Additionally, even during his free time, a patrolman could not leave the city limits without express permission. According to one patrolman; "That was the way it was day after day, round after round. We had no freedom, no home life at all. We couldn't even go to Revere Beach without the captain's permission."
Many of the "extra duties" assigned to the police were deemed "arbitrary and capricious." The patrolmen did not understand why 10 or 15 officers should be assigned to a Sunday band concert, when two would have sufficed. Nor did they feel they should be "delivering unpaid tax bills, surveying rooming houses, taking the census, or watching the polls at election." They also objected that promotions were subjectively based on the judgment of the patrolman's captain, who if he disliked could keep him a patrolman indefinitely in spite of his qualifications and assign the patrolman to an "undesirable beat" if he protested. There were many "petty tyrannies" performed by the captains and higher-ups, who in many cases, "made errand boys of their men, sending them out to bring in lunches and Sunday dinners or to pick up daily newspapers" which the patrolmen were expected to pay for, hence called "peanut graft."
Living conditions were deplorable for the patrolmen who were required to live in one of the 19 station houses which were "overcrowded, decaying, rodent and vermin ridden." As the condition of the station houses deteriorated, ordinary patrolmen began to feel that their officers were little concerned about how the men had to live as long as their own private offices were in order. Until 1912, there had been no new police stations constructed in Boston in 30 years and the existing stations had not been significantly altered since before the Civil War. Beds were used by two, three, or even four men in succession in a single 24-hour period, the man coming off duty "merely pushing the duty man out of bed and taking his place." Bedbugs and roaches swarmed in the sleeping quarters and as example, the Court Street station had four toilets for 135 men and one bathtub.
In a dozen years, the Boston police force grew from 1,358 to 1,877, yet the weight of the work increased disproportionately. In 1906, the police made 49,906 arrests and by 1917 the number had increased to 108,556. The war greatly expanded the demand for police services and in 1917, the men performed 20,000 tours of duty exclusively related to the war effort. Other "special duties" were also added by the order of legislature such as "checking the backgrounds and character of some 20,000 prospective jurors" and the regulation of automobile traffic.
During 1917, a committee of policemen met with Commissioner Stephen O'Meara to ask about a raise. He was sympathetic, but advised them to wait for a more "auspicious" time. The police did not raise the issue again until the summer of 1918, when spokesmen for the Boston Social Club again complained about the inadequacy of their pay and the commissioner told them that while he himself favored an immediate increase, his hands were tied.
O'Meara died in office in December 1918, and his successor, former Mayor Edwin Upton Curtis was appointed as the Commissioner of the Boston Police Department by Governor Samuel McCall.