Throwback Thursday: When Boston’s Police Stopped Working

The Boston Police Strike of 1919 helps explain why we don't let police go on strike today.

A Boston Post article on the police strike

A Boston Post article on the police strike

There’s always an intense public interest in what happens when police don’t do their work as they normally would, fueled in part by memories of events like the Boston Police Strike of 1919. Though union leaders for New York Police Department deny any organized work slowdown this month, for instance, statistics show that officers there have significantly diminished the number of citations and arrests they’re making. It’s an expression of their discontent following widespread protest against police and the murder of two plainclothes officers last month, but it falls way short of the actions taken by another police department nearly a century ago.

In 1919, Boston’s police officers did far more than stop issuing parking citations. They walked off the job following a dispute with government leaders over their right to unionize. The strike began at 5:45 p.m. on September 9, when nearly three quarters of the police failed to show up to work. That first night, there were reports of looting and unrest. The second night, a face off between troops rallied by the governor and rioters led to casualties. Businesses that feared looters posted guards and boarded up their windows. By the third day, Gov. Calvin Coolidge’s state guards had organized and been put in place, and peace largely prevailed for the rest of the strike.

National opinion did not back the strikers. Newspaper editorials accused them of communism. Reports of violence were wildly exaggerated. Gov. Coolidge, who took a hard line, came out of the whole thing a winner. His actions fueled his successful rise to the presidency. The police who struck, meanwhile, were replaced, and not allowed to rejoin the department until over a decade later. Police did not try to organize again until World War II. Indeed, while they are unionized today, police are still banned from striking in this country, in large part because of events like the Boston strike.