delanceyplace.com 3/18/13 - silent cal and the boston police
In today's selection -- the years after World War I were tumultuous for the labor movement in the United States. Wartime inflation had eroded the buying power of the dollar, but wages during the war had been held constant through edict and political pressure. Now workers in labor unions, still a relatively new phenomenon in a rapidly industrializing country, were demanding their just due, and strikes had been threatened or held in industries ranging from steel to coal. The Boston police made these same demands through their union -- but a police strike was different in that it would endanger public safety. The Boston police did strike -- in 1919 -- and there was crime and rioting that was abetted by the striking police. And so it was that an obscure and fastidious Massachusetts governor named Calvin Coolidge gained the national spotlight and consideration as a presidential candidate by standing up to the police union, completely replacing all the striking policemen, and famously telegraphing union leader Samuel Gompers that "THERE IS NO RIGHT TO STRIKE AGAINST THE PUBLIC SAFETY BY ANYBODY COMMA ANYWHERE COMMA ANY TIME STOP." Sixty-two years later, President Ronald Reagan, whose favorite president was Coolidge, looked to this incident in crafting his response to the national air traffic controllers strike:
"[With the Boston police on strike, crime became rampant in the city.] In Roxbury, a streetcar conductor was shot in the leg. Ruffians went up and down Washington Street, breaking windows. At Washington and Friend streets, a cigar store, United Cigar, was looted and its windows demolished. ... All over, small tussles broke out. 'Men fought each other, not knowing why they fought,' one reporter wrote. ...
"At Scollay Square, a seventy-year-old worker at a fruit stand, James Burns, had held off a large crowd seeking to gain entrance, with a .38-caliber revolver. In the North End, small groups terrorized girls and women; there were reports of rapes, serious injuries and even fatalities. This was not a massacre. But for the City on a Hill, the events were unusual. ... The damage the night of September 9, the first night of rioting, the [Boston] Globe estimated, amounted to around $200,000 [$2.5 million in today's dollars].
"[Governor] Coolidge's and Mayor Peters's first action that Wednesday morning was to call out units of the state guard. ... [Police commissioner] Curtis was already looking past the striking police, hunting for replacements. ... Coolidge called out every last remaining man in the state guard, so that Curtis would command between five thousand and six thousand men, vastly outnumbering the striking police. ... Overnight, the new troops showed they were serious, mounting machine guns at the old station houses. ...
"[With the upper hand], Coolidge confronted a choice. The obvious move would be to declare victory and then give ground a bit, finding a way to reinstate the policemen on his own terms. ... The law made it clear that Coolidge might not only take over but also call the striking policemen to return, and if they failed to do so, fine or imprison them for three months. This first option was highly attractive because it conveyed authority yet spared the policemen's jobs -- some would come back. The reality, that they were losing not only a job but a trade, was sinking in with the men. The second option for Coolidge was to stand firm a few more days, and then give in and negotiate with the striking police.
"Coolidge chose neither. Instead he hardened, etching out, finally, a line, for himself and Curtis. The guards would stay and the police could never come back. What's more, Coolidge put this new idea in the old language, that of [his former professor] Garman and his textbooks, rather than the modern labor-capital lexicon of Wilson and Gompers: 'The action of the police in leaving their posts of duty is not a strike. It is a desertion.' 'There is nothing to arbitrate,' he said, 'nothing to compromise. In my personal opinion there are no conditions under which the men can return to the force.'...
"Coolidge [then] spoke back to Gompers and the country. His medium was the telegram with all its constraints, including a protocol that treated all punctuation the same, with the word 'stop' or the word 'comma.' ... The stops and commas of the telegram punctuation gave the effect of artillery fire:
"THE POLICEMENS UNION LEFT THEIR DUTY COMMA AN ACTION WHICH PRESIDENT WILSON CHARACTERIZED AS A CRIME AGAINST CIVILIZATION STOP YOUR ASSERTION THAT THE COMMISSIONER WAS WRONG CANNOT JUSTIFY THE WRONG OF LEAVING THE CITY UNGUARDED STOP THAT FURNISHED THE OPPORTUNITY COMMA THE CRIMINAL ELEMENT FURNISHED THE ACTION STOP THERE IS NO RIGHT TO STRIKE AGAINST THE PUBLIC SAFETY BY ANYBODY COMMA ANYWHERE COMMA ANY TIME STOP.
"The New York Sun framed Coolidge as a regional type: 'a plain New England gentleman, whose calm determination to uphold the law and maintain order ... has made him a national figure.' Coolidge was suddenly a person to be followed. ... The 'governor with the steel backbone.' "
|Copyright 2013 by Amity Shlaes|