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Boston — Official government documents often are masterpieces of deadened prose, but few contain understatements quite like this sentence, from the Annual Report of the Police Department for the City of Boston, issued at the end of 1919:

"It is unfortunate that there were no provisions of law adequate to meet the circumstances of this extraordinary situation."

The extraordinary situation occurred a century ago this week. It was the strike of more than 1,100 Boston police officers and its implications went far beyond the city, where rioting and lawlessness prevailed in an atmosphere of crisis and terror. By the time the conflict ended, organized labor received a serious setback, the very notion of police unions was under assault, and an obscure, introverted governor with old-fashioned rectitude, rusticated habits and an aversion to soaring rhetoric was on the path to national celebrity and, eventually, the White House.

"The strike was about better wages for the police, but also recognition of the union," said Steve Striffler, director of the Labor Research Center and Labor Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. "That was not common, as unions and collective bargaining were looked at with suspicion two years after the Russian Revolution — and public employees didn’t usually go on strike."

Today hardly anyone outside Boston pays much mind to the Boston police strike, overshadowed in the year 1919 by the Black Sox baseball scandal nationwide and by the tragic explosion of a storage tank in Boston’s North End that set a torrid river of 21 million gallons of hot, sticky molasses barreling through city streets, trapping horses, crushing buildings and leaving 21 dead and 150 injured.

But the fluid dynamics of the Boston police strike had great implications for the nation’s politics.

"This strike was a huge moment in the labor movement," said former U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, the grandson of a patrolman who led his fellow officers out of the Joy Street station, then the largest precinct in the city. "These men worked 96-hour weeks. There was no overtime. Their strike awakened the conscience of society and they were the people who opened the public’s eyes — and though they did not benefit from it, their courage gave the labor movement a respectability."

Delahunt’s family lore maintains that his grandfather was personally fired by Gov. Calvin Coolidge, who won national attention for stating, in another 1919 single sentence freighted with enormous significance, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time."

It was typical, and ironic, that Coolidge, known for relentless reticence, should emerge as a formidable political figure on the basis of a mere 17 syllables, a haiku for history. Nine months later, Coolidge would be become the Republican vice presidential nominee and then, in 1923, would ascend to the White House when Warren G. Harding died.

"This occurred in a very angry period in American history, with enormous hysteria over radicals," said Michael S. Dukakis, who followed Coolidge in the governor’s office on Beacon Hill 55 years later and, though a Democrat, developed a late-life affinity for his Republican predecessor. "But when cops walk off the job bad things can happen — and I don’t think Coolidge had any alternative."

The strike brought violence and looting. Store windows were broken, fights broke out in the streets, mobs formed and reformed.

More than 250 Harvard students and 150 Harvard faculty and alumni heeded the call "to prepare themselves for such service as the Governor of the Commonwealth may call upon them to render." The volunteers included a Harvard alumnus with the evocative Yankee name of Godfrey Lowell Cabot who, with pistols on his belt, reported for duty cloaked in a naval cape.

Eventually the Police Department fired the strikers and hired replacement officers. The strike was over. Some 18 years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was Coolidge’s opponent for vice president in the 2020 national election, essentially sided with Coolidge. So did public officials from coast to coast, though the pain of the strike was felt most severely in Boston.

"The failure of the Boston strike saw the ebb tide for the police, leaving the strikers high and dry," a young witness to the strike, Francis Russell, wrote in a 1975 account titled "A City in Terror."

The strike raised serious questions about whether workers in one segment of society lacked the labor rights, including the right to strike, of workers in the rest of society — and whether the public’s right to safety and security trumps workers’ rights to strike.

Official government documents often are masterpieces of deadened prose, but few contain understatements quite like this sentence, from the Annual Report of the Police Department for the City of Boston, issued at the end of 1919:

“It is unfortunate that there were no provisions of law adequate to meet the circumstances of this extraordinary situation.”

The extraordinary situation occurred a century ago this week. It was the strike of more than 1,100 Boston police officers and its implications went far beyond the city, where rioting and lawlessness prevailed in an atmosphere of crisis and terror. By the time the conflict ended, organized labor received a serious setback, the very notion of police unions was under assault, and an obscure, introverted governor with old-fashioned rectitude, rusticated habits and an aversion to soaring rhetoric was on the path to national celebrity and, eventually, the White House.

“The strike was about better wages for the police, but also recognition of the union,” said Steve Striffler, director of the Labor Research Center and Labor Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “That was not common, as unions and collective bargaining were looked at with suspicion two years after the Russian Revolution—and public employees didn’t usually go on strike.”

Today hardly anyone outside Boston pays much mind to the Boston police strike, overshadowed in the year 1919 by the Black Sox baseball scandal nationwide and by the tragic explosion of a storage tank in Boston’s North End that set a torrid river of 21 million gallons of hot, sticky molasses barreling through city streets, trapping horses, crushing buildings and leaving 21 dead and 150 injured.

But the fluid dynamics of the Boston police strike had great implications for the nation’s politics.

“This strike was a huge moment in the labor movement,” said former U.S. Rep. Bill Delahunt, the grandson of a patrolman who led his fellow officers out of the Joy Street station, then the largest precinct in the city. “These men worked 96 hour weeks. There was no overtime. Their strike awakened the conscience of society and they were the people who opened the public’s eyes — and though they did not benefit from it, their courage gave the labor movement a respectability.”

Delahunt’s family lore maintains that his grandfather was personally fired by Gov. Calvin Coolidge, who won national attention for stating, in another 1919 single sentence freighted with enormous significance, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”

It was typical, and ironic, that Coolidge, known for relentless reticence, should emerge as a formidable political figure on the basis of a mere 17 syllables, a haiku for history. Nine months later, Coolidge would be become the Republican vice-presidential nominee and then, in 1923, would ascend to the White House when Warren G. Harding died.

“This occurred in a very angry period in American history, with enormous hysteria over radicals,” said Michael S. Dukakis, who followed Coolidge in the governor’s office on Beacon Hill 55 years later and, though a Democrat, developed a late-life affinity for his Republican predecessor. "But when cops walk off the job bad things can happen — and I don’t think Coolidge had any alternative.”

The strike brought violence and looting. Store windows were broken, fights broke out in the streets, mobs formed and reformed.

More than 250 Harvard students and 150 Harvard faculty and alumni heeded the call “to prepare themselves for such service as the Governor of the Commonwealth may call upon them to render.” The volunteers included a Harvard alumnus with the evocative Yankee name of Godfrey Lowell Cabot who, with pistols on his belt, reported for duty cloaked in a naval cape.

Eventually the Police Department fired the strikers and hired replacement officers. The strike was over. Some 18 years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was Coolidge’s opponent for vice president in the 1920 national election, essentially sided with Coolidge. So did public officials from coast to coast, though the pain of the strike was felt most severely in Boston.

“The failure of the Boston strike saw the ebb tide for the police, leaving the strikers high and dry,” a young witness to the strike, Francis Russell, wrote in a 1975 account titled “A City in Terror.”

The strike raised serious questions about whether workers in one segment of society lacked the labor rights, including the right to strike, of workers in the rest of society — and whether the public’s right to safety and security trumps workers’ rights to strike.

David Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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