Strike at Boston University

Boston University staff/faculty strike, 1979. Image: Boston Public Library, photographer Spencer Grant.

Boston University staff/faculty strike, 1979. Howard Zinn is standing near the front. Image: Boston Public Library, photographer Spencer Grant.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 14 of Howard Zinn’s autobiography You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

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A poster announcing a benefit reading for the B.U. Five. Image: David Schaff. Read Schaff’s memory of Howard Zinn and the strike at the Zinn Education Project.

[Boston University President John Silber’s] employees had difficulty getting raises in their wages or their benefits. In self-defense, they organized into unions: the faculty, the secretaries and staff, the librarians. And in 1979, with various grievances not met, all these groups, at different times, went out on strike. For the faculty, the provocation was the university reneging on a contract at first agreed to by its negotiating committee.

I was one of the co-chairs of the strike committee of the faculty union (officially called, in the cautious language of college professors, the Postponement Committee). My job was to organize the picket lines at the entrance to every university building, to establish a rotation system among the hundreds of picketers. The faculty was admirable in its tenacity, showing up day after day, from early morning to evening, to walk the picket lines.

Some students complained about the canceled classes, but many came to our support. The normal functioning of the university became impossible. The College of Liberal Arts and a number of other schools were virtually closed down.

After nine days of picketing, endless meetings, strategy sessions, the university gave in. But Silber hated to acknowledge defeat. In a telegram sent to the trustees just before the settlement, he urged that in no way should it be conceded that it was the strike which brought about the university’s acceptance of the contract with the union.

In the meantime, however, the secretaries had gone out on strike, too, and we all walked the picket lines together, a rare event in the academic world. Some of us in the faculty union tried to get our colleagues to refuse to go back to work until the administration agreed to a contract with the secretaries, but we failed to persuade. Our contract was signed, and teachers returned to their classes, with the secretaries still walking the picket lines.

A number of us refused to cross those picket lines and held our classes out of doors. I met my class of about two hundred students on Commonwealth Avenue, one of the main Boston thoroughfares, in front of the building where we normally met. I rented a loudspeaker system and explained to the class why we were not going inside. We had a lively discussion about the reasons for the strike and how it connected with the subject of our course, “Law and Justice in America.”

In the midst of our sidewalk class, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts showed up and handed me a circular from the administration: faculty were expected to meet their classes in their regular places or be considered in violation of their contracts.

dailyfreepress_BU5A few days later, five faculty who had refused to cross the picket lines were charged with violation of union contracts, which prohibited “sympathetic strikes.” The article under which we were charged contained a provision which could lead to our being fired, though we all had tenure. In addition to me, there was my friend and colleague in the political science department, Murray Levin, one of the most popular lecturers in the university; Fritz Ringer, a distinguished historian; Andrew Dibner, a much respected member of the psychology department; and Caryl Rivers, a nationally-known columnist and novelist who taught journalism.

Ours soon became “the case of the B.U. Five.” We had the help of the faculty union attorney and several outside lawyers. A Nobel Prize laureate at M.I.T., Dr. Salvadore Luria, organized a defense committee and circulated support petitions to faculty members all over the country. A group of academics in France sent a letter of protest to Silber administration. The Boston Globe and other newspapers wrote editorials accusing the university of violating academic freedom.

A group of distinguished women writers—Grace Paley, Marilyn French, Marge Piercy, Denise Levertov—did readings for an overflow audience at the Arlington Street Church, to raise money for our defense.

The noise around our case must have become too much for John Silber. He backed down. The charges against us were dropped.

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View images of the 1979 BU strike, housed at the Boston Public Library, in a set created by Spencer Grant on Flickr.

 

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