Police History 101 E-mail
Written by James Redfearn   

An air of conflict and change pervaded Boston and the America of 1919. Four million WWI veterans returned to high unemployment, a poor economy, high cost-of-living and a conflicted and dispirited citizenry.

Many observers felt that America had lost its way during the Post World War I period, as radical revolutionaries, high unemployment, and labor unrest challenged the nation's democratic institutions. Labor and management fought over better working conditions and fair pay, a rising Socialist movement challenged traditional American values and women marched for the right to vote. Crowds formed quickly and often without warning.

In Boston, a different challenge was playing out by the city's predominantly Irish and underpaid police force and by echoes of Ireland's guerilla war of independence. The underpaid police force struggled to keep the peace while working in run-down and infested stations.

A patrolman earned an annual salary of $1200 and worked seventy-five to one hundred hours per week. Sympathetic Bostonians and even the politicians agreed they were underpaid and their working conditions deplorable.

When the patrolmen acquired a charter with the AFL, Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis suspended their union leaders. The police went on strike; Curtis terminated them and Governor Calvin Coolidge rode this decision to the White House.

Fast forward to the 1970’s. Similar to 1919, the seventies marked a period of high unemployment, the poorest economic performance since the Great Depression and OPEC shortages that created long gasoline lines. The Vietnam War split the nation and protestors took to the street to battle the police who represented a government they no longer trusted. The Massachusetts State Police marched into Harvard Square, the State Capitol, and Defense industries to quell disturbances, and put down prisoner uprisings at correctional institutions.

They contended with violent radical groups like the United Freedom Front, responsible for bombings, the murder of a New Jersey state trooper and attempted murders of two Massachusetts troopers. And when Judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered the Boston Public Schools desegregated and violent protests erupted, troopers provided security in the explosive South Boston High School.

A new trooper earned $10,288 which calculated against ordinary living expenses, could have qualified him for food stamps. And similar to the Boston patrolmen’s Social Club, the State Police Association attempted to address these issues with a contentious, arrogant and unresponsive state administration which employed stalling tactics during contract negotiations. Frustrated, the Association filed a prohibitive practice suit against the Administration while officers’ families protested at the State House and anywhere Governor Michael Dukakis made a public appearance.

In September 1978, after years of unproductive negotiations, the Association’s Board took two unprecedented steps.

They endorsed the Governor’s opponent in the primary, and called a general membership meeting to discuss strategies, including a strike. When it seemed the troopers might travel the same pell-mell route as the Boston patrolmen back in 1919, they listened to their leaders and overwhelmingly voted not to strike.

On September 15th, the Boston Globe supported the troopers’ decision to “stick to their posts” and described their salaries as unfair and demeaning. And on September 20th, it reported that Edward J. King had won the Democratic primary over incumbent Michael S. Dukakis.

Both departments had legitimate grievances, the people’s sympathy and excellent reputations. But the ability of the State Police Association to recognize the role of politics in negotiations became the linchpin in its historic victory.

James Redfearn is a former Massachusetts State Trooper and the author of The Rising at Roxbury Crossing, a historical novel that centers on The Irish Rebellion and the Boston Police Strike of 1919. www.therisingatroxburycrossing.com

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