For eight days they brandished placards decrying management's alleged tyranny and betrayal, with quotes from Shakespeare and Voltaire and St. Paul.
And today, linking themselves to the legacy of the labor movement, they claimed victory. The faculty strike that crippled the nation's fourth largest university, turning it into an academic ghost town, was over.
"This isn't your typical labor dispute," observed Jonathan Klarfeld, a veteran worker who has defied the union. "It's not Harlan County. These people don't have to climb into the mines every day and worry about black lung.
"And it's not like they're fighting for the rights of professors yet unborn," the professor said.
The boston University faculty, the first nationwide to unionize and strike at a major private university, fought for more money and a greater role in academic affairs, appointments, tenure and hiring and firing decisions.
They won a salary increase of over 30 percent. They agreed not to strike or to support other unions in labor disputes.
It was a drama watched intently by many of the nation's 1,500 private universities, hard hit by inflation, as a harbinger of impending financial crisis triggered by declining enrollments and higher costs.
"Many university administrators were watching the trustees of BU as a bastion against something they strongly object to faculty unionization and collective bargaining," said Morton S. Baratz, general secretary for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which represents about 440 of the nearly 850 fulltime professors here.
The AAUP, along with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, is a major collective bargaining agent for university faculties around the country. The AAUP represents about 50 faculties. Some 20 percent, or 500 of the nation's camouses, have faculty unions.
"Boston University is the testing ground, the template for other schools," Baratz said. "If the BU experiment works, it could very well thread throughout the country."
"As far as financial difficulties are concenrned, I think Boston University definitely is a bellwether," BU President John Silber said. "If the faculty in the union do not cooperate with us in maintaining quality and in maintaining productivity so that there is financial stability in the institution, the institution will be destroyed."
BU represents a warining "with respect to what happens to non-tax supported institutions in public higher education," he said.
The labor flareup happened here first, many of the faculty members say, because the campus was polarized by the school's controversial president.
Silber took the president's job in 1971 seeking to push BU to the front of the class financially and academically in a move he dubbed "Operation Transformation."
Almost everyone agrees that Silber improved the university by attracting new grants, boosting its flimsy endowment and hiring about 250 prestigious professors. But his style intimidated som and infuriated others.
Right from the beginning he "spit in the faces of the older faculty. He said the place was second-rate and he wanted to make it first-rate," one department chairman said.
"Silber dragged them kicking and screaming into the 20th century," said Assistant Proffessor of Broadcast Journalism David Klatell, a supporter. "They were afraid he was going to burn crosses on their front lawns and steal their children in the night."
Professor James Higgins, an old-line trade unionist, branded Silber as "arbitrary and autocratic. He is temperamentally disposed toward turmoil and combat with the faculty."
"John Silber." he said, "was an excellent union organizer."
The union was formed in 1973, said Professor Fritz Ringer, president of the faculty union, because of low salary raises, "arbitrary decision-making, importantion of all [Silber's] friends, incredibly high salaries to administratiors ... and his high-handed manner in dealing with committees and faculty recommendation."
Silber, convinced that the union's demands would "price the university out of the market," refused to negotiate until the union obtained a court order several months ago.
"The absolute critical fact about faculty unionization is, in my opinion, this: that in most places it has meant a severe loss of quality in a very short period of time, because cronyism and a concern for buddies at the department level has overcome the overriding concern for quality," Silber said.
But by the end of March, Silber, the trustees' labor committee and the union bargining team had hammered out a tentative agreement everybody could live with.
The professors thought they were averting a strike set for April 4 when they ratified the new contract by a 252-to-17 voted early last week.
The trustees, however, refused to ratify it, and demanded clarification on several points. The faculty struck.
"We are not in a position legally or morally to just rubber-stamp the contract blindly," said Robert Bergenheim, a trustee, when the professors set up picket lines. "We are not out to bust the union."
But Ringer claimed the "clarifications were substantial changes. President Silber and a small clique of Trustees deliberately and cynically engineered a blowup of these negotiations."
The faculty union, after several days at the bargaining table with the trustees and a federal mediator, to night ratified the new contract in a 271-to-23 vote.