Uphill All the Way: The Fortunes of Progressivism, 1919-1929
By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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Chapter Three: Chaos at Home

Progressives in the Crucible of 1919

VIII. The Great Strike Wave

I. Terror Comes to R St.
II. The Storm Before the Storm
III. Enemies in Office, Friends in Jail
IV. Mobilizing the Nation
V. The Wheels Come Off
VI. On a Pale Horse
VII. Battle in Seattle
VIII. The Great Strike Wave
IX. Steel and Coal
X. The Red Summer
XI. The Forces of Order
XII. Mr. Palmer's War
XIII. The Fever Breaks
XIV. The Best Laid Plans

Nonetheless, the state of play had been determined. From March to November 1919, each month saw hundreds of strikes all over the country, from New England (telephone workers) to Dallas (construction workers) to Chicago (railroad operators) to New York City (harbor workers, tailors, tobacco workers, painters, streetcar operators). In total, and over the course of 2665 strikes, 20% of the workforce would strike in 1919 - over 4.1 million workers. But as Wilson and Congress grappled over the League, there would usually be little-to-no redress or relief from high places. And, more often than not, management could merely wave the flag of creeping bolshevism to break the strike - a charge often abetted breathlessly by newspapers, media outlets, and patriotic organizations.1

In point of fact, and as TNR had written of the Seattle strike, the massive labor unrest of 1919 had less to do with any intellectual debt to Soviet Russia than with laborers working to consolidate the gains the war had ostensibly been fought for. Reams of propaganda had promised workers a post-war America where their efforts were as central and patriotic as those of the industrialist and the doughboy. But, with the peace, the old habits of business returned, and laborers were among the first left out in the cold.

"It is a mess," William Allen White -- who saw the problem as clearly as TNR -- confided to former Kansas Congressman Charles F. Scott in October 1919. "The world, and particularly the American part of the world, is adopting a brand-new scale of living and a brand-new scale of prices all at the same time. It has given us the worst case of social bellyache that it has been my misfortune ever to see or hear about. By a prodigal wave of the hand, somewhere along during the war, we have raised the laboring men into middle-class standards of living and he is not going back. But he cannot stay where he is unless we cut down profits in some way, to pay him his increased wages." In short, White concluded, the problem was that America had "jumped about a hundred years in less than ten months in our economic growth."2

Writing to The Survey's Paul Kellogg two months later, White offered his prescription for the labor dilemma: massive federal intervention to secure a living wage to all. "It seems to me, he wrote, "that our practical objective should be to keep every man who wants work in a job three hundred days in a year, and that he should be kept at work at a living wage, that is to say a wage upon which he can maintain a family of six in the enjoyment of all the comforts of our civilization…That should be the first practical objective of society."3

How to accomplish such a thing "without overturning the present economic and industrial order," he asked? Through a constitutional amendment "giving Congress unlimited powers over commerce and industry…[U]nder that amendment I should establish a national minimum wage commission with full powers, and provide for federal employment agents who would take up the slack in our labor situation, thus securing so far as possible regular employment for people in the seasonal industries." In short, he argued, America "should not fight Bolshevism with guns, but with steady employment." (Of course, granting the government "unlimited powers over commerce and industry" to secure a living wage was not altogether different from what actual, honest-to-goodness Socialists were asking for.)4

White was not alone among progressives in desiring to see the federal government intervene on behalf of workers. Looking ahead to 1920, Chicagoan Harold Ickes, for example, argued in June that the chief election issue of the coming year would either be the League of Nations or "the relationship between labor and capital." "If we are really wise," he argued, "we will insist upon such measures of social and economic justice as will give the people what they are entitled to." But while White and Ickes saw more to labor unrest than simple bolshevist intrigues, he and similarly-minded progressives were in the minority at the time. And while they could dream of a powerful federal response to the situation, in reality the president was more often than not distracted by the League and, eventually, bedridden and incapacitated.5

This pattern held in the three of the most prominent worker actions of 1919 -- the Boston police strike, the Great Steel Strike, and the coal strike. The first of these began on the evening of September 9th, when, after months of back-and-forth with the city's police commissioner, Edwin Curtis, 1100 of Boston's 1544-member police force walked off the job. For months, Boston police had been trying to unionize under the decidedly un-revolutionary American Federation of Labor, who had shown reciprocating interest. But even though police forces in other major cities had unionized without incident, Curtis - previously a lawyer, banker, and mayor of Boston by trade - believed public safety officials "cannot consistently belong to a union and perform his sworn duty." And, so one day after Curtis fired nineteen officers for the crime of leading pro-union efforts, the rest of the force balked.6

The police strike lasted only three days, but those 72 hours struck terror in the hearts of Bostonians and sympathetic onlookers nationwide, inadvertently launched a presidency, and set back the unionization of law enforcement workers by decades. Once the police left the streets on the evening of September 9th, hooliganism and mild looting abounded, prompting officials to cobble together a volunteer force made up of concerned citizens, Harvard students, and members of patriotic organizations - They were eventually relieved by the Provost Guard, stationed at the Boston Navy Yard.

The next night, increased violence resulted in several deaths -- due more often than not to excessive force by untrained volunteers. By September 11th, the 5000-man Massachusetts State Guard called onto the scene by Governor Calvin Coolidge had control of the city. And on September 12th, at the urging of Samuel Gompers, the strikers unanimously agreed to go back to work - but were rebuffed by the Commissioner, who refused to re-hire them and made an entirely new police force of unemployed World War veterans instead. (These new recruits also received the wage hike and benefits that prompted police dissatisfaction in the first place.)7

In total, the damages to Boston for these three nights of terror came to $34,000, a paltry sum even by 1919 standards. While onlookers had feared another general strike like what had occurred in Seattle (and again in Winnipeg, Canada in May), none ever materialized. But that did not stop newspapers and opportunistic politicians from blowing up the strike into yet another arrival of the Red Menace onto American shores. "For the first time in the history of the United States," wrote The New Outlook the week after the dust had settled, "an American community was called upon to accept or resist the beginnings of Soviet government." The question on the table was whether "Americans wish to preserve their traditional democratic form of government, or is the United States ready for Bolshevism." "Lenin and Trotsky are on their way," lamented the Wall Street Journal. "Bolshevism in the United States is no longer a specter," opined the Philadelphia Public-Ledger. "Boston in chaos reveals its sinister substance." Others screamed lurid headlines like "TERROR REIGNS IN CITY." In the Senate, Henry Myers of Montana warned darkly of a Bolshevist domino theory, whereby police unions would lead to army and navy unions and then Soviet government. For the hometown papers' part, the Boston Herald decried the "Bolshevist nightmare" and the Boston Globe told of "lawlessness, disorder, looting…as never was known in this city."8

And just as Ole Hansen had climbed the ramparts of law and order in Seattle to become a national phenomenon, another political star was born in similar fashion in Governor Coolidge. Upon being asked by Samuel Gompers to allow for the reinstating of the striking police, Coolidge begged off. His letter of response included the curt and instantly famous rebuke: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time." With those words, Coolidge became a national hero. Speaking from Montana in the midst of his ill-fated Western swing, Wilson concurred with Coolidge's hard stance, calling the Boston police strike "a crime against civilization":
In my judgment the obligation of a policeman is as sacred and direct as the obligation of a soldier. He is a public servant, not a private employee, and the whole honor of the community is in his hands. He has no right to prefer any private advantage to the public safety. I hope that that lesson will be burned in so that it will never again be forgotten, because the pride of America is that it can exercise self-control."9
After Coolidge handily beat back a challenge from the fired policemen and won re-election in November 1919 by the largest margin ever, a now-bedridden Wilson was among the applauders. "I congratulate you upon your election as a victory for law and order," the president wrote Coolidge. "When that is the issue, all Americans must stand together."10

The police strike was also a bridge too far for the normally pro-labor New Republic. Using language similar to Wilson's, it argued that while "policemen were underpaid and have a very real human grievance" and "[t]o deny any body of free men the right to strike is a serious thing…the denial must be made." The police, like members of the armed forces, "exercises the ultimate force of the government as an agent of the government, and the right to exercise that force cannot be permitted to drift into the hands of any men other than the legal representatives of the community." To do otherwise, thought the editors of TNR, put the entire progressive project at risk:
Believing as we do in the evolution of the present state towards more complete democracy, we cannot believe in the surrender of any part of its ultimate force to a special interest, no matter how much we sympathize with that interest. To the assertion of the fact that the police are now often affiliated with special interests, only that they happen to be the employers' interests, they reply is that this is recognized as a form of corruption to be remedied as fast as labor and liberalism are adequately represented politically. In spite of the way the police are used in strikes, the tradition persists in American life that the state is not to be the instrument of a class. This tradition may in innumerable cases be a mere fiction, but even as a fiction it preserves an idea of social polity which no democrat can afford to abandon.11
A week later, once the strike had ended, TNR lamented the wreckage: "Rarely in the history of labor conflicts has a body of highly organized labor, occupying as strong an economic position as the Boston unions, suffered so decisive a defeat." And they excoriated the "vindictive spirit" of "state officials of Massachusetts," arguing it was "harsh, inexpedient, and wrong-headed" and "will infuse additional bitterness and fanaticism in the conduct of other labor controversies in other parts of the country." At the same time, they were glad to have seen the strike fail, as the "Boston police…did not deserve to win." Nonetheless, Coolidge and others should recognize that "labor is immensely more powerful than it was before the war", and that "the warfare between capital and labor which has smoldered for so long in American industry is on the point of becoming a dangerous conflagration," if not an "irreconcilable class war.12

For The Nation, that class war had already erupted - and ordinary workers like the Boston police force were losing it. "One takes leave of the Boston police strike," Arthur Warner wrote in its pages in December, "feeling not so much that injustice was done the men as that the city was the victim of a miscarriage of the normal processes of democracy, and that the public interest was flouted by three personally insignificant men - a Police Commissioner, a lawyer, and a Governor of Massachusetts." The lawyer joining Curtis and Coolidge in this casting was "Herbert Parker, a corporation lawyer, whom [Curtis] had retained as his personal counsel," and whom, according to The Nation, was "spoken of in Massachusetts as counsel for the Beef Trust and the Standard Oil interests…[and] alluded to as representing indirectly the United States Steel Corporation." Parker, Warner argued, convinced Commissioner Curtis to throw out the potentially strike-averting agreement fashioned by the mayor of Boston and a mediating committee, and to let the chips fall where they may."13

In short, the Boston police strike was, in Warner's eyes, a premeditated rope-a-dope by the established interests to goad organized labor into an ill-advised battle on unfavorable terrain. Arguing the strike "was forced upon the policemen against the wishes," Warner noted that "[c]ertain persons in Boston…see the hand of Big Business, grasping at a chance to discredit organized labor with the public and so make it easier to defeat union demands looming up elsewhere in the country":
"A police strike would be the most unpopular of any that union workmen could support. If we can force them to defend such an issue, we can give them a black eye that will weaken them all over the United States. Why not fight the steel strike in Massachusetts instead of Pennsylvania? Why not make Boston the Belgium of our struggle?" In some such words as these one can imagine certain national captains of industry discussing the tactical possibilities of the Boston police situation in the latter part of August and the early days of September. Indeed there is a man in a confidential business position in Boston who says that 'letters conveying such ideas were received by certain influential persons in the city from a high official of the United States Steel Corporation.14
"It may be," Warner concluded, "that the explanation of 'this otherwise almost inexplicable sequence of events is that, consciously or unconsciously, Messrs. Curtis, Parker, and Coolidge were serving the purpose, of Big Business - led by Mr. Gary and the Steel Trust - in its effort to perpetuate a decadent and despotic industrialism by discrediting the rising of organized labor."15

Continue to Chapter 3, Pt. 9: Steel and Coal.

Return to the Table of Contents.

1. Murray, 111-112. Pietrusza, 142-143.
2. White to Charles F. Scott, October 27, 1919. Johnson, 202.
3. White to Paul Kellogg, December 2, 1919. Johnson, 203.
4. Ibid.
5. Ickes to Chester Rowell, June 8, 1919. HLI, Box 38: Progressive Conference.
6. Murray, Red Scare, 123-125. Pietrusza, 99.
7. Ibid.
8. Gregory Mason, "No Bolshevism for Boston," New Outlook, September 15, 1919. (Volume 123). Murray, 129. Lloyd Chiasson, The Press In Times of Crisis (Westport: Praeger, 1995), 129. Zachary M. Schrag, "The Boston Police Strike in the Context of American Labor," (A.B. Thesis, Harvard University, 1992), at http://www.schrag.info/research/chap3.html
9. Mason, New Outlook. "Wilson Denounces Police Strike That Left Boston a Prey to Thugs," New York Times, September 12, 1919. Pietrusza, 99.
10. Bagby, 47. Pietrusza, 100.
11. "The Police Strike," The New Republic, September 24, 1919, Vol. XX, No. 255, 217-218.
12. Ibid. "The Policeman and the Police Power," The New Republic, October 1st, 1919, Vol.XX, No. 256, pp. 246-247. A week later, with the Great Steel Strike in full swing, TNR's subscription ads boasted of "unequivocal support to the striking steel workers" while they "unequivocally condemned the striking policemen of Boston" as a sterling example of their unbiased pragmatism in action. "You may not agree with either stand. But don't you believe in the kind of paper which judges each issue on the facts, not on sympathies, which 'lines up' with no class or party, which doesn't care who is with it or who is against as long as it keeps its balance in a world shaken by emotion, and gives its readers truthful reports and independent opinions?" The New Republic, October 8, 1919, Vol. XX, No. 257, p. vi.
13. Arthur Warner, "The End of the Boston Police Strike," The Nation, December 20, 1919 (Vol. 109, No. 2842), 790-792.
14. Ibid.
15. Ibid.

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