Over on our Facebook page we've had a good deal of chatter lately because we unearthed some photos from the 1986 faculty strike, so it seemed like a good time to re-run this piece about those days with hindsight of 30 years.
by Mike Scott, past president, Berklee Faculty Union
The chance to dramatically alter the course of an institution seldom arises. Seizing that opportunity and actually implementing change is even more unusual. In 1986, against tough odds, the faculty at Berklee College of Music accomplished this very feat. On April 22 of this year they celebrate their thirtieth anniversary. On that date thirty years ago, the then fledgling Berklee Faculty Union ended a two-week strike and signed their first Faculty Contract Agreement with the previously intransigent Berklee administration.
The road had its share of potholes, as the road to a CBA will.
At midnight in mid March of ’86 the faculty negotiating team, a bunch of musicians really, huddled together in the cold and dark. We had just exited the plush but not overly ostentatious offices of Foley/Hoag, the Berklee administration’s legal eagles hired to crush the upstart faculty union. A bitter north wind whistled over grimy snow mounds.
Through chattering teeth, a team member complained, “All this time and the only thing we’ve got is the right to post union notices on two bulletin boards.”
“Not good,” mumbled another, pulling her stocking cap over her ears.
As though on cue, a member of management’s team rode by in a chauffeur driven limo heading home to his North Shore McMansion. When he noticed us standing on the sidewalk, he smiled and waved.
That was the worst moment of nine months of frustrating negotiations. Until…
In the wee small hours of April 7, 1986, the faculty team caucused in a conference room on the 17th floor of the Foley/Hoag offices. The clock showed 2:22a.m. The fluorescent lights buzzed overhead, their eerie glow deepening the worry lines on each team member’s face. The conversation went like this:
“Can you believe that?”
“They said they have the money, they just don’t want to give it to us.”
“(Unprintable anatomical reference)!”
“You’ve got to pull the trigger, man.” They all stared at me. “Pull the trigger!”
I nodded. “Call the strike captains,” I said. “Tell them it’s on.”
One telephone call and a very few minutes later, a solemn union team passed by the federal mediator on their way out of the building. “Hope you know what you’re doing,” he said.
“Me, too,” I answered, knowing that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Me, a sax player from Cambridge realizing that 138 people could lose their jobs if this backfired, thinking how I wished I could be somewhere else, anywhere else.
A few sleepless hours after we’d left Foley/Hoag, we headed for the strike site. A reluctant dawn sulked behind a bank of dark clouds when we arrived in front of a coffee shop on Mass. Ave. The cheerful, multi-colored Dunkin’ Donuts sign seemed to mock my decision-making ability. What if no one showed up? What if only a few people showed up? They and the entire negotiating team would be dead meat. The bad guys would win and our working conditions would never, ever change. The stench of defeat oozed from the cracks in the sidewalk.
As it turned out, that was the worst moment.
Berklee faculty began pouring into the Dunk as the sun sneaked a peek over the eastern horizon. By 7:30a.m. the bargaining unit, 96% strong, hit the bricks. The strike was most definitely on.
The fourteen days during the strike were chilly and damp—typical Boston springtime. But we sang, we played, we marched and, more than anything else, we walked in circles outside college entryways, chiding the very few colleagues who crossed our picket lines and chanting, “What do we want?” “Contract!” When do we want it?” “Now!”
It was indeed the best of times and the worst of times. And when the smoked cleared and the clamoring subsided, we’d won.
In the ensuing thirty years, our full-time faculty average salary, once the lowest in Massachusetts, has risen by nearly 400%. Part-time faculty hourly rates have increased by a whopping 700%. Our teaching load, then one of the most onerous full-time faculty teaching loads in higher education, has decreased by more than 50%. One-year contracts with no recourse upon non-renewal have become three to five year contracts with arbitration rights under a just cause standard. 86% of our part-timers are eligible for health, dental, management co-contrib 403(b), disability and life insurance. Over one hundred and twenty part-time faculty have been converted to full-time status since 1996, something unheard of even in public university systems with, literally, faculty numbering in the tens of thousands.
How did all this impact the institution? In the same time period, the faculty increased from 138 to 637. The student body grew from 1700 to over 4000. Most tellingly the college’s endowment rose from ten million dollars to over 270 million. What was good for the goose turned out to be even better for the gander.
Conditions at Berklee have improved dramatically over the past thirty years. However with the new college administration more intent on buying up the Back Bay than investing in its faculty, it could all go in a heartbeat.
In fact, collective bargaining itself could go in a heartbeat. Hardly a day passes when unions do not come under attack and/or have their hard-earned bargaining rights threatened. The watchword is vigilance. It’s time to stand against the wind, time to get involved. We must all fight to preserve one of the last hopes for the continued existence of a middle class in America—our unions.