Boston Police Go On Strike - 9/9/1919

US History |


On September 9th of 1919, the dissatisfied police department of Boston went on strike, confirming the growing influence of unions on American life. Also on that day, gangs of criminals looted the city of Boston.

Coincidence, perhaps? We think maybe not. 

In Boston, Massachusetts, the first night watch was established in 1635. Starting in 1703, these night watchmen started getting paid 35 schillings a month. Starting in 1796, the night watchmen began wearing badges of office. At the same time, they were outfitted with a noisy rattle and a pole that was six feet long. The pole had a hook on one end and a rounded board on the other. The hook end was used to catch fleeing criminals. The board end could be used as a weapon. The rattle was like today's police whistle, used for calling assistance.

The Boston police department (also known as the Day Police, and having no connection to the night watchmen) was formed in 1838. That same year, legislation passed that allowed the city of Boston to appoint police officers. It was the first police department in the nation. However, as society grew up during the 20th century, police officers were expected to act more professionally. Their standard explanation, “illegality is necessary to maintain legality.” was no longer acceptable to their increasingly sophisticated citizens. Police officers were then fitted into a framework of civil service, and received training for the very first time. Soon after, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) would create police unions.

The Boston police went on strike in 1919 because they were unhappy with fixed, stagnant wages and poor working conditions. However, Police Commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis refused to allow the police to form unions. So one fine day, 1,117 Boston police officers failed to show up for work.

America's newspapers went all tabloid about it, exaggerating the stories to no end. They had people believing that Boston had gangs running wild in the streets and attacking women in every dark corner of the city. There was no place the poor lady could hide. Some people even saw the strike as evidence of the spread of communism. In reality, the strike caused a lot of property damage and some theft, but did not significantly endanger the fair city of Boston. 

The Massachusetts government responded speedily. Calvin Coolidge, who was the governor of Massachusetts at that time, called in the military to assist Harvard students who were filling in as a volunteer police force. Coolidge later referred back to the incident when he ran for president. The Boston police strike had disastrous effects on the forming of police unions at the time. However, the police were eventually allowed to be unionized.

It is illegal for a police force to go on strike. So, whenever police have a reason to go on strike, they try another technique, like all of them (or most of them) calling in sick on the same day. This phenomenon is called the “Blue Flu,” and is also strongly discouraged. 

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