What Calvin Coolidge's Response to the Boston Police Strike of 1919 Tells Us About Scott Walker's Path to the White House in 2016

06/12/2015 03:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2016

In September of 1919, nine decades before Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker prevailed in his contentious battle against public sector unions and emerged a conservative hero, a little-known Massachusetts governor named Calvin Coolidge faced a major labor dispute.

More than 70 percent of Boston's police force -- whose origins go back to 1630s colonial Massachusetts -- went on strike.

Rioting, gambling, and looting followed. More than 50 people were injured, and eight people were killed in the crisis. President Woodrow Wilson called the police force's decision to strike "a crime against civilization."

Initially reticent to engage in the conflict, Coolidge finally mobilized the state guard to protect Boston, fired the striking officers, and famously proclaimed that "there is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime."

The political and media establishment of the day -- already preoccupied with bombing campaigns directed at public officials, labor unrest, and race riots -- lauded Coolidge's tough stand.

And a Republican star was born.

A few years later the Massachusetts governor, practically unknown before the police strike, would become the nation's 30th president.

Fast-forward to the eve of Scott Walker entering the GOP presidential race with frontrunner status, catapulted by a dramatic 2011 fight to curtail collective bargaining rights amidst startling images of 100,000 people protesting at the Wisconsin capitol building and Senate Democrats fleeing to neighboring Illinois.

It's instructive to compare how Coolidge and Walker, separated by nearly a century, galvanized their respective GOP bases, in the context of growing suspicion towards Bolshevism and anarchism in 1919, and populist discontent towards the federal government's interventionist policies from 2008 to 2010. Backed by powerful financial interests of the day, both governors were propelled to the national stage.

But there is a key difference: Whereas Coolidge reluctantly confronted a crisis in Boston that was not his doing, Walker proactively invited conflict in Madison by conflating the state's budget deficit with collective bargaining power in order to weaken public sector unions.

Let's start in 1919.

That summer, grievances were not unreasonable for the 1,134 men, out of a force of 1,544, who voted to strike: After sacrificing during World War I by delaying pay increases, police salaries in the city were outpaced by inflation; many officers clocked 70, 80, or even 90 hour weeks while paying for their own uniforms, and station houses were overcrowded -- with both men and rodents.

By affiliating with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), the police chose a union that was less controversial: The AFL was resistant to radicalism and voted against recognizing the Soviet Union.

But Boston's police commissioner, Edwin Curtis, who in that era reported directly to the governor, had expressly prohibited the policemen from affiliating with an outside organization, reasoning that a conflict of interest would invariably mean a man charged with protecting public safety would "fail either in his duty as a policeman, or in his obligation to the organization that controls him."

Only after the police officers left their posts on Sept. 9, 1919, and violence in Boston rattled an anxious nation for multiple days, did Coolidge act decisively and call up the state guard. With order gradually restored but a tense strike ongoing, the police sought to negotiate a new contract and return to work.

In a fateful decision, Coolidge said no. The striking policemen were permanently fired, even though many were Irish-American and an important part of Coolidge's winning coalition in 1918. Instead a new police force was hired and paid more generous compensation and benefits than what the striking men had sought.

Then history unfolded.

Coolidge was reelected by more than 125,000 votes a few weeks later, one of the largest electoral routs in Massachusetts history, which the Los Angeles Times called "a defeat of the Soviets." At the Republican convention in 1920, he was nominated to be Warren Harding's vice presidential nominee, and when Harding passed away in 1923, Coolidge ascended to the presidency. Due in part to events in Boston years earlier, today it is legal for police to strike in only two states.

In 2011 a similar series of events started to unfold in Madison.

After Scott Walker was elected during a conservative wave that put Republicans in complete control of 11 state governments, he could have proposed closing Wisconsin's budget deficit by -- among other policy prescriptions -- reforming the benefits packages of government workers. What suddenly altered the fiscal picture for Wisconsin were not the wages of state employees but a drop in tax revenue during the Great Recession.

But Walker took the ideological step of weakening public sector unions, which didn't directly address pensions costs. Indeed, Wisconsin had the most solvent pension system in the country. The governor also enacted a tax cut roughly equal to the size of the budget shortfall. And unlike Coolidge, who took a political risk by letting go of Irish-American police officers weeks before an election, Walker exempted public safety officer unions despite the fact they have higher salaries and benefits than most other state workers. (They tend to vote more Republican too.)

Mass demonstrations swept the capital and captivated the country. Just as Coolidge called up the National Guard to protect Boston, Walker made preparations to call up the National Guard to protect Madison.

The dramatic standoff -- which could have been avoided -- turned Walker into a conservative star even as 15 other states passed laws restricting public employee collective bargaining rights in 2011 and 2012, including in Ohio, where Governor John Kasich passed sweeping legislation that was later repealed by voters.

By 2012 Walker became the first sitting governor in U.S. history to win a recall election, and according to exit polls, 52 percent of voters approved of his move to limit collective bargaining power for public unions. Two years later he won a third election in four years in a state twice carried by President Obama.

Applying the maxim that "what's past is prologue" to predict U.S. presidential election outcomes is a challenge. Structural dynamics from the role of money to advances in technology to the nominating process have all evolved.

But as Scott Walker prepares to officially launch his bid for the White House, he'll be following a path paved 96 years ago.