Labor Day: A Tip of the Cap to the Men of 1919

If your workplace is even adequately humane and safe you should thank the labor movement today.  Labor has been the driver behind every major advance in the quality of life of working people.  In fact, if you are enjoying this weekend, well, that’s a gift from labor as well.

On this Labor Day in the police service, we remember the courageous men who 93 years ago at this time of year stood up to a mean-spirited gubernatorial and department administration to seek some relief for their brothers in the Boston Police Department.  At that time and until the 1960’s the governor appointed the Boston police commissioner. (The priority: keep the top cop out of the hands of the Irish!)

The union leadership in 1919 stood up to class prejudice and ethnic prejudice to try to alleviate the hellish working conditions — pay you couldn’t live on decently, tours of duty stretching over several days and restrictions on where and how officers could spend their few days off.  At that time an officer who wanted to take his family to Revere Beach on a day-off needed permission from his division commander.

In 1918, with the support of Commissioner Stephen James O’Meara, the officers formed the Boston Social Club as a means of redressing those conditions.  But O’Meara died in December.  Over the course of 1919 as Governor Calvin Coolidge and his commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis worked to undermine the organizing leader John F. McInnes fought back by winning affiliation with the American Federation of Labor.

On September 13 from headquarters at 29 Pemberton Square Curtis branded McInnes and the leadership “deserters.”  That same day he fired the leaders at the nominal behest of his henchman, Superintendent Michael H. Crowley.  A department regulation prohibited members from belonging to any “organization, club or body”  except for veterans’ groups, such as “a lodge of The Grand Army of the Republic, United Spanish War Veterans” or the fledgling American Legion.   The technical basis for firing was that membership in the Social Club, with its AF of L affiliation, violated the prohibition.

In response to the action against the leadership, the 155o members of the new-born union struck.  Looting and other disorders prompted Coolidge to mobilize the state militia and volunteer companies from the city’s Protestant elite, such as a unit made up of Harvard undergraduates.  These were the same forces that crushed the Bread and Roses strike seven years earlier in Lawrence.  The Commonwealth and Curtis gave no quarter.  Even when Samuel Gompers recommended that the union go back to the table, the governor refused.  He replaced everyone with strike breakers.

Historians believe Coolidge’s crushing the strike helped position him to run for president.  A lot of pain and destruction were also part of the legacy.

The immediate effect of the mass firings was the social and economic injury to union families.  The firings also wiped out the command structure and the normal generational spread in command.  Hastily trained, inexperienced  commanders supervised their inexperienced age-group peers.  Huge waves of officers reached retirement age at the same time, a dramatic peak and valley effect felt into the 1980’s.

As Prohibition-generated corruption attacked virulently in American cities, the weakened Boston Police Department was especially vulnerable.  The effects of corruption would also extend into the 1980’s.

Police unionism would not reemerge until the mid-1960’s.

The Boston Police Patrolman’s Association was again one of the first.

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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