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By Nick Alexandrov Ph.D.
Bobby Rush shouldn’t be here. Chicago Police meant to murder him in December 1969, when 14 of them invaded the West Monroe Street apartment to execute his fellow Black Panthers, killing one with a bullet to the heart and another, the one the FBI informant drugged, with two shots to the head. But Rush was miles away that night.
Now he’s a Congressman. When asked, last month, how police today compare to 1960s forces, his response was firm: they’re “more vicious now.” More menacing, he stressed, because of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP).
Strike – Chapter I
This was not a union. Delbert Nagle and Martin Toole wanted that clear from the start. They founded the FOP in 1915, in Pittsburgh—“the very heart,” wrote anarchist Alexander Berkman, “of the industrial struggle of America.”
The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers formed there in 1876, five years before the American Federation of Labor’s (AFL) birth. Women and children led the city’s 1845 and 1848 Textile Strikes. In the Great Railroad Strike, in 1877, militiamen “gunned down twenty-six persons” before the U.S. Army came to crush the uprising.
Police were also skilled labor suppressors, “often used on behalf of employers as against employees in circumstances which do not justify their interference at all,” Raymond Fosdick, attorney and writer, noted in 1920. “Lawful picketing has been broken up, the peaceful meetings of strikers have been brutally dispersed,” publications “favoring the strikers’ cause have been confiscated and printing establishments closed on the supposition that they would ‘incite to riot.’”
Nagle and Toole, to clarify their fraternity’s non-militant aims, met with Pittsburgh Mayor Joseph G. Armstrong. “The word strike is ruled out completely,” they assured him, “because we who are obligated to protect life and property will see that obligation fulfilled regardless of all else.” Armstrong was duly calmed. The FOP, its homebase established, began to look beyond Pittsburgh.
It soon founded branches in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, then in Youngstown, Ohio. Union men tried to stray the Order from its course as it grew. In 1918, when Nagle was in Zanesville, Ohio to set up a lodge, AFL representatives “met with [him] personally,” proposing an alliance. He refused. Police had to cut themselves off from the AFL and anyone like them, so that, during strikes, “law and order would be enforced, life and property protected,” and “social upheaval” prevented. The FOP’s first constitution codified this ban on strikes—language in effect until 1967, Justin E. Walsh, author of the only book ever written on the Order, emphasized. “We are not organized as a labor union,” Thomas Lloyd, with Pittsburgh’s FOP, affirmed.
This anti-union line made the group “the only viable alternative for policemen” in the decades after its founding. The era’s crackdowns on organized labor, the state laws banning police organizing thinned the competition, and in some cases slowed the Order’s expansion. City Manager H. E. Bailey, disbanding the Oklahoma City FOP in 1943, “called the organization a dressed-up union.”
But membership rose nationwide. It was under 5,000 in 1930, surpassed 15,000 by 1940, and exceeded 60,000 by 1967, spreading beyond the Midwest in those decades. Tulsa founded its branch in 1937—“thought to be the first FOP Lodge West of the Mississippi”—and Oklahoma’s statewide chapter dates to 1951. Now the Order has 330,000 members nationwide, 2,200 local chapters, and lobbies for legislation at the local, state, and federal levels.
The FOP had to adapt to reach this size. When it “found itself struggling with more militant police groups for policemen’s allegiance” in the 1960s, it took on “a more militant stance” to stay relevant, to win new members. Several FOP branches proceeded to strike: Youngstown in 1967; in 1975, Oklahoma City, where roughly “half the city’s normal number of officers” quit for five days, the full force returning only when their FOP secured “a 9% pay increase.” The Kansas City Order also took action that year, and Youngstown, again, in 1976. “In each instance the F.O.P. won favorable contract settlements,” Walsh observed.
Nick Alexandrov Ph.D. received his Doctors in philosophy from George Washington University and a bachelor’s in literature from Yale University. He’s currently an upper humanities teacher at Holland Hall School in Tulsa, Oklahoma.