Union Struggles at B.U., 1979

Working more or less chronologically through the WCVB assignment sheet records, it is much easier to follow stories linearly. In the middle of the April 1979 records, I started to notice a building story about a faculty strike at Boston University. Strikes and pickets are pretty common in these collections, so it didn’t seem especially notable. After a week or so of those stories, there were more about pickets at B.U., but these seemed a little different. They read, “On whether faculty will cross the picket lines of the clerical workers” and “The clerical workers and librarians are out in front of the parking lot at 881 Commonwealth Avenue trying to stop the professors from entering. 1 person goes to the hospital/several skirmish, good film” and “A.M. problems at the school with strikers blocking the entrance to the parking lot/then noon rally/then interview with Bergenheim.” With a final resolution of “It's not really a settlement, the school has agreed to negotiate with the clerical and librarian folk, if they all go back to work.” I was confused because I had thought the faculty had been striking. So why were the clerical workers and librarians striking, and why were they trying to stop the faculty from getting onto campus? While the WCVB records had indicated to me that there was some struggle occurring between the faculty and the clerical workers and librarians, what I uncovered was a story of solidarity and support.

According to a Harvard Crimson reporter, feelings towards John Silber, Boston University President, had been unfriendly since he took the office in 1971. Apparently he took away faculty and student powers and underpaid professors. He certainly wasn’t loved by all, demonstrated by the wearing of “Dump Silber” buttons by those who wanted him to resign. Not everyone required his resignation, but many faculty did demand substantial contract changes, including an over 32% salary increase over 3 years. Negotiations between the faculty union and the Board of Trustees began, and were supposedly finalized at the end of March 1979. The faculty approved the agreement with a vote of 252 to 17. The board was supposed to approve it next, but at the last minute they withheld their approval, asking for clarification about several sections which they claimed were ambiguous. These sections included the date of the end of the contract, the determining of the salary increases, and a no-strike clause. In response to this delay, the faculty voted to strike. They were joined by the clerical workers and librarians, which included around 900 and 20 people, respectively. These workers were striking, not only in sympathy with the faculty, but mainly to be recognized by the university as unions. (Their status as unions had been certified by the National Labor Relations Board in December.) Students also joined these strikes, prompted by support of their professors and staff, as well as wanting more student power in the administration. At this point, a huge portion of Boston University was on strike, working together to achieve better conditions for all.

This was obviously a major disturbance for typical university operations, so the administration wanted to clear it up quickly. They had originally threatened that a strike would result in negation of all agreements that had been reached, including the salary raises; however, they did not follow through since they wanted to resolve the faculty problems and get back to normal right away. They brought in two mediators from the Boston branch of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. In less than a week an agreement had been reached, again, but this time both parties signed. While the faculty union had gotten what it wanted, the clerical worker and librarians’ unions had been ignored thus far. Despite their NLRB certification as unions, B.U. refused to recognize them as unions or negotiate with them, as they were appealing the NLRB’s certification, a process which could take over two years. The clerical workers and librarians voted to continue striking. They picketed the school trying to stop faculty, students, and all vehicles from entering campus. While I had originally taken this as a sign of enmity between the picketers and the faculty, upon reading newspaper articles about the situation I realized that most of the faculty supported the clerical workers and librarians’ strike, and showed this support by not crossing the picket line, rather holding their now resumed classes outside or in buildings off campus. Faculty members reported that they wanted to support the strikers, but felt they had a responsibility to their students, especially so close to the end of the semester, when not going back could mean not finishing a class at all. Attendance for these classes was good, and the faculty union worked to ensure that professors would get paid for teaching their classes, even if they were not held in the assigned classrooms. I wonder if the WCVB stories show this same solidarity, or if they maybe paint a different side of the story.

Just days before the strike finally ended, 3 picketers— a union member, a freshman student, and a local resident who was friends with others of the picketers— were arrested for disorderly conduct while trying to prevent a truck from breaching the picket line. Police claimed they were violent, while picketers said they were not being violent, but were purposefully being very vocal in an attempt to show their strength. The diversity in the picketers, some union members, some students, others just sympathizers, again demonstrates the solidarity of feeling present at this time. Finally, on April 23, 1979 the strikes completely ended, and negotiations between the clerical workers and librarians unions began. The almost three-week-long upheaval of university operations had ended, the faculty and staff returned to work, much happier with their situation. The B.U. PR department said, "We're extremely pleased to have all our employees back to work… It will be great to have B.U. back to a full-scale operation.”


Kristof, Nicholas D. “B.U. Employees End Strike; Trustees Promise Negotiations.” The Harvard Crimson, April 24, 1979. Accessed April 5, 2012. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1979/4/24/bu-employees-end-strike-trustees-promise/

Kristof, Nicholas D. “B.U. Faculty And Trustees Sign Contract.” The Harvard Crimson, April 14, 1979. Accessed 5, 2012. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1979/4/14/bu-faculty-and-trustees-sign-contract/

Kristof, Nicholas D. “B.U. Professors Strike Back.” The Harvard Crimson, April 7, 1979. Accessed on April 5, 2012. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1979/4/7/bu-professors-strike-back-ppeace-is/.

Kristof, Nicholas D. “Classes Resume at B.U. After Faculty Walk-Out.” The Harvard Crimson, April 18, 1979. Accessed on April 5, 2012. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1979/4/18/classes-resume-at-bu-after-faculty/

Kristof, Nicholas D. “Mediators Seek Talks to End B.U. Strike.” The Harvard Crimson, April 11, 1979. Accessed April 5, 2012. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1979/4/11/mediators-seek-talks-to-end-bu/

Kristof, Nicholas D. “Police Arrest Three Picketers For Blocking Traffic at B.U.” The Harvard Crimson, April 21, 1979. Accessed April 5, 2012. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1979/4/21/police-arrest-three-picketers-for-blocking/

Kristof, Nicholas D. “The B.U. Faculty: Striking Back.” The Harvard Crimson, April 11, 1979. Accessed April 5, 2012. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1979/4/11/the-bu-faculty-striking-back-pbjbohn/