How Calvin Coolidge handled a 1919 police strike in Boston holds lessons for New York today.
When television showed police turning their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio recently, many viewers instinctively rotated in their chairs along with the police.
After all, Mayor de Blasio's pandering to race-oriented special-interest groups has appalled many voters. More than half of New Yorkers recently told Quinnipiac pollsters that they disapprove of the way the mayor handles the police department. The next move, a strike by the policemen, may already be underway informally: Summonses and arrests have dropped dramatically since the murder of two patrolmen by a man who had said he would "put wings on pigs." And if the police formalize and escalate their strike to make their point that de Blasio is anti-police, many New Yorkers will likely back them up.
But they shouldn't. That's the takeaway from a similar labor action, the Boston police strike of 1919.
The stories of New York today and Boston after World War I have some similarities. In Boston in 1919, the policemen also had compelling reason to complain: Inflation had climbed wildly after World War I, but police pay was not keeping up. Strapped after the war, the authorities neglected upkeep of police-station houses, which were becoming unbearably filthy. In at least one house, vermin actually chewed on officers' helmets. Back then, as now, authorities agreed to serious negotiations with the police. The man at the top of the chain of command, Governor Calvin Coolidge, was famous for his ability to get along with just about any ethnicity, including the mostly Irish Catholic patrolmen. One of the few differences between Boston then and New York now was that in Boston the police commissioner reported to the governor, not the mayor.
When the policemen walked out in Boston, riots ran wild, with looting and fighting all across the city. In response, Coolidge called out the National Guard. The guard did not approach the troublemakers gingerly: In a famously controversial move, soldiers rounded up gamblers on Boston Common. Coolidge was a Republican, and Mayor Andrew James Peters, a Democrat, was furious. Yet Coolidge delved into the law books and quoted chapter and verse to make clear that he, not the mayor, was in charge. Coolidge backed up Police Commissioner Edwin Curtis's decision to fire the striking policemen.
Critics outside Boston also were not placated. President Woodrow Wilson had openly shown favor to Samuel Gompers, the labor leader with whose union the Boston police had affiliated. Gompers's American Federation of Labor was famously moderate, and conventional wisdom said public officials should befriend Gompers, or else the hardcore union, the Industrial Workers of the World, would win a greater following. Yet when Gompers, de Blasio–like, made a plea for moderation and more negotiation, Coolidge simply hardened, wiring, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime." Then, as now, it was tough for a politician to make such a categorical statement, especially when Wilson was close to Gompers. Coolidge feared the price he would pay for his stance would be to lose the gubernatorial election two months later.
This line has reverberated down the years. And as it turned out, Coolidge's disciplined reaction to the Boston police strike played out well for him – and the country. After Coolidge took his stand for what he called "the reign of law," others followed him. Though some Irish voters fell away, other citizens replaced them and Coolidge was reelected. Indeed, voter admiration for Coolidge's hard line proved national, rendering the Bay State politician material for a national ticket overnight. The shocked governor himself later acknowledged this: "No doubt," Coolidge wrote in his autobiography, "it was the police strike of Boston that brought me into national prominence." And now even President Wilson backed Coolidge up.
The very next year, the Republican ticket of Warren Harding and Coolidge defeated Democrats James Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Most important, Coolidge's policy became national policy. Public-sector strikes became less frequent following the Boston episode. So did industrial strikes. The relative rarity of such strikes in the 1920s contributed to the decade's prosperity.
What the 1919 Boston strike story reminds us is that policemen can't be policymakers. The policy has to come from the government. Those who back the beleaguered police of New York today do so only because they happen to share the policemen's policy position. Besides, as many New Yorkers are telling themselves, New York is such a safe city now that a police strike won't automatically lead to bedlam or even theft. "New York crime always goes down," runs the line. The collective amnesia is partially understandable. Many demonstrators were toddlers when the mayor who did the most to make the city safe, Rudolph Giuliani, took office.
It's important for the same people to ask themselves: What if the police were taking the position that their pay should be tripled? Standing with the police can be standing against common sense or the law.
The real quarrel this time lies with Mayor de Blasio. And the real problem is that voters who dislike the mayor's policy are not campaigning to get the mayor to change his position. Instead, news events are allowed to drive policy, with each side desperate to catch the other in a "gotcha" snapshot of killing or wrongdoing. The longer-term damage of letting incidents drive policy is that voters forget that they have power to change the situation. Voters could, for example, call their representatives and take their fight to City Hall. De Blasio might tell these critics that it would be political suicide for him to support anyone but minorities in New York. But again, de Blasio might be wrong in his estimate. He might gain votes that would offset any he lost. And of course, decisions should not merely be about votes.
If voters doubt that Mayor de Blasio will ever change his policy, they should concentrate on electing a new mayor, as happened when voters chose a law-and-order candidate, Giuliani, over the incumbent "conciliator," David Dinkins, in 1993. Giuliani doesn't look like Silent Cal, but his law-and-order policy certainly benefited the city. Indeed, the legacy of the Giuliani policy is one reason the city feels comfortable telling itself that a New York temporarily without police is a New York that can be safe.
Amity Shlaes chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation and serves as presidential scholar at King's College.
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