Can’t strike now
There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time . . . . – Governor Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts in a telegram to Samuel Gompers, leader of the American Federation of Labour (AFL) following a strike by the Boston Police Union in September 1919.
??CALVIN COOLIDGE JR, who capped his political career by becoming the 30th president of the United States in 1923, was not only living in a less enlightened time, but also in an America virtually under siege from fear of the communist bogeyman.
Still, his words could possibly strike a chord today that would resonate worldwide with unionists and more particularly here where the two main representatives of 27 000 public workers are under increasing pressure to strike against Government’s 19-month austerity programme that could cost 6 000 their jobs.
There is no gainsaying that strike action by its very nature could pose a threat to the safety of any well ordered society, and it is mainly for that reason that in most countries, workers such as policemen and firefighters are deemed to be part of the essential services and therefore prohibited by law from striking.
Wikipedia records that in 1919, in response to rumours that officers in the Boston Police Department planned to form a union, Commissioner Edwin Curtis said the move would not be tolerated.
In August, the AFL issued a charter to the union, but Curtis said the leaders were “insubordinate” and planned to relieve them of duty, but pledged that the sentence would be suspended if the union were dissolved by September 4.
Mayor Andrew Peters persuaded Curtis to delay action for a few days, but Curtis suspended the leaders on September 8.
The following day, about three quarters of the policemen went on strike. That night and the next, there was sproadic violence and rioting in the lawless city. Peters, concerned about sympathy strikes, called up units of the Massachusetts National Guard and relieved Curtis of duty.
Coolidge, furious that the mayor had called out state guard units, called up more units, restored Curtis to office, and took personal control of the police.
That night, he received a telegram from Gompers: “Whatever disorder has occurred is due to Curtis’s order in which the right of the policemen had been denied . . .”.
Coolidge answered with the response that would launch him into the national consciousness: “Your assertion that the Commissioner was wrong cannot justify the wrong of leaving the city unguarded. That furnished the opportunity; the criminal elements finished the action. There is no right to strike against the public safety by anyone, anywhere, any time . . .”
Workers’ right to strike “anywhere, any time” went on the statute books here in 1937, two years after the “disturbances” that helped to expose the conditions in which they existed under a repressive colonial regime.
In a May Day address in 1987 Prime Minister Errol Barrow recalled: “We committed unlawful acts by unlawful means so that the law enforcement agencies had to shoot hungry people digging potatoes, which they had not planted, in order that these law enforcement agencies might be able to maintain something called law and order.”
Both unions, perhaps more keenly aware of their own straitened circumstances of declining memberships and the likely lack of the national support of two decades ago, have been resisting the clamant calls for action.
Barbados Workers’ Union (BWU) general secretary Sir Roy Trotman, who was in the forefront of those demonstrations when nearly identical economic conditions afflicted thousands of public workers, (about 4 000 of whom went home, while the others suffered the indignity of an eight per cent salary cut), candidly admitted that he was not sure the BWU could now provide for the workers if it called them out.
“I will be frank and say that I don’t know of anyone who has a strike fund big enough that will be able to take care of the needs of those people in the long run.”
His National Union of Public Workers (NUPW) counterpart, Dennis Clarke, was more forthright: “Are you going to take up people who don’t have a job and put them out there demonstrating? What would they be demonstrating for?”
Clarke, perhaps unwittingly, caught the mood of the wider population when he reported that an advocate of marching had said to him on the telephone: “If the Government is going to cut [workers], there isn’t anything much the union can do – and that is a fact.”
He stressed that 1991 was different, especially since permanent workers were then involved, and there was solidarity.
“You cannot get solidarity in this particular exercise at all,” the NUPW boss lamented.
Without the solidarity of the wider community and tacit support of the police, who were among those harshly affected in 1991, unions could therefore find themselves “striking against public safety”.
It could lead to the upheaval foreseen by a senior official who warned that “in order to restore order you have to crack some heads, you have to shoot some people”.
• Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent. Email [email protected]