The defining moment of Calvin Coolidge’s time as governor of Massachusetts was the Boston Police Strike:
There is no doubt that the Boston police force had legitimate grievances, which they had expressed as early as 1917. Starting pay for new officers had not risen in 60 years, since 1857, when new recruits received two dollars per day. Their wages were even lower than the earnings of most unskilled factory workers. Officers worked seven days per week, with a day off every other week, during which they could not leave town without special permission. Depending on duty assignments, officers worked between 72 and 98 hours per week, and were required to sleep in the station houses, in case they were needed. Officers were not paid for court appearances and they also complained about the deplorable conditions in police stations, which included the lack of sanitation, baths, beds, and toilets.
Since 1885, the Boston police had been under the command of a commissioner appointed by the state Governor. Though Boston’s Mayor controlled their budget, their operation and how they used the budget was controlled by this commissioner appointed by the Governor. This placed the Mayor, Andrew Peters, in a difficult position. His city was protected by a police force not under his control. When the police would succeed, the state would take the credit; but when there were problems, Peters, who was closest to them, could readily be made the scapegoat.
There was also an ethnic overlay. Protestant Yankees sought to control the Irish-Catholic rank and file of the Boston Police Department. This made the dispute about more than wages or work conditions; it quickly developed along lines of ethnicity.
By June of 1919, the grievances made by the police officers had not been addressed, so they turned to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to consider unionization. Although police officers already had their own association called the Boston Social Club, founded by the police department in 1906 and operating under its sponsorship, Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis was outspoken in his condemnation of the movement to unionize. After all, the labor union movement had long been viewed with suspicion by many Americans, and those suspicions were heightened by the so-called workers’ revolution in Russia and by efforts to spread communism throughout the Western world.
In August the police were granted a union charter, which Commissioner Curtis opposed on the grounds that a policeman was not “an employee, but a state officer.” Mayor Peters was unreachable, being on an extended vacation in Maine, but Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge and Attorney General Albert Pillsbury put forward legislation to make unionization illegal for public employees. Pillsbury would note that the “organized work man has taken us by the throat and has us at his mercy.” The lines of “us” versus “them” were quickly drawn.
From this point on, state officials focused on the legitimacy of public employees unionizing rather than the validity of the officers’ complaints. On August 20 Commissioner Curtis suspended eight of the leading police union organizers, followed soon thereafter by another 11 suspensions. The rank and file were ordered to turn in their nightsticks, and Curtis began to organize volunteer police substitutes.
Coolidge’s strong action and response helped make his place in politics:
AFL chief Samuel Gompers, who had just returned from Europe, quickly assessed the situation and the strength of public sentiment and urged the strikers to return to work. The police accepted his recommendation immediately. On September 12, Gompers telegraphed Mayor Peters and Governor Coolidge, asking for the strikers to be reinstated and that all parties agree to wait for arbitration “to honorably adjust a mutually unsatisfactory situation.” Coolidge replied with a statement of support for Commissioner Curtis’ hard line. Gompers telegraphed Coolidge again, this time blaming Curtis for the crisis. Coolidge dismissed the commissioner’s behavior as irrelevant, because no provocation could justify the police walkout. His terse summation elevated his reputation on the national scene: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” In the end, the show of force rapidly caused the strike to collapse and earned for Coolidge the image of a strict enforcer of law and order, as he declared that he would continue to “defend the sovereignty of Massachusetts.”
Labor was plentiful, so by mid-December Commissioner Curtis was able to hire an entirely new police force. The State Guard was able to return to their homes, but striking officers were not allowed to return to their jobs with the Boston Police Department, which went overwhelmingly to unemployed servicemen. The new recruits were granted higher pay, better working conditions, and additional holidays, and gained the additional benefit of free uniforms.
Governor Coolidge’s strong action was soothing to a fearful public, and he was easily reelected on November 4, 1919 with a 62-percent majority. A year later he would become the Vice President of the United States and, following the death of President Warren Harding, he became our 30th President on August 2, 1923. Mayor Peters would be defeated in his next election by his political rival James Curley, who had preceded him as Mayor.