When civil rights and labor struggles met at UNC

February 23, 2019

Joel Sronce tells the story of a hidden chapter of labor and civil rights history and its important implications for today’s struggles.

ON FEBRUARY 23, 1969, when Lenoir Hall on the University of North Carolina (UNC) campus opened to let in the Sunday dinner rush, 17 dining-service employees — mostly Black women — left their counters and took a seat at one of the tables.

Rattled and irate, a supervisor approached the workers, demanding an explanation. Someone in the group spoke up: “We’re on strike.”

The supervisor singled out Mary Smith, an 8-year employee and person of great influence among her co-workers, insisting that she come back to his office at once.

Mary Smith said nothing. Instead, her co-worker and cousin, Elizabeth Brooks, answered him. “You can’t talk to Mary in the office,” she said. “You’ll have to talk to all of us...Everybody’s name is Mary Smith tonight.”

By the following morning, nearly 100 dining-service workers had joined the strike. A month-long protest that would ultimately increase minimum-wage laws across the state had begun.

DESPITE REPEATED attempts by the workers to get their voices heard in the years leading up to the strike, their grievances were ignored.

UNC dining-hall workers during their strike in 1969 after SAGA took over
UNC dining-hall workers during their strike in 1969 after SAGA took over

Haunting the lives of the nearly all-Black food-service staff at a nearly all-white university were inaccurate job classifications, below-minimum-wage pay, split shifts, schedules fixed at 39.5 hours to avoid paying health benefits that began at 40, blatant racism and misogyny and — as damaging as anything else — the denial of respect and dignity.

When one worker asked a supervisor about a pay shortfall, the supervisor replied, “You’ve got enough to get drunk on.”)

Even when the workers sent a memorandum to the “Employers of Lenoir Dining Hall” a few months before the strike, their suggestions went unheeded. At a loss, the workers turned to a new campus group, the burgeoning and militant Black Student Movement (BSM).

Frustrated by the campus chapter of the NAACP — what he later called a “bullshit group...really antique” — UNC student Preston Dobbins began a campaign to abolish that organization and form a new one more actively dedicated to the fight for racial justice. Late in 1967, the BSM was formed at UNC.

As was the case across the country in 1968, Black student political activism was met by a world of racism and violence.

A few months after the founding of the BSM and a little more than a year before the food workers’ strike began, three African-Americans were killed by law enforcement officers in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Protests swept through cities in the South, including a BSM march across UNC’s campus and into the bordering streets. At the downtown post office, the BSM read Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die,” and burned the South Carolina governor in effigy.

A couple of months later, when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis, the BSM bought several Confederate flags and burned them in front of a UNC fraternity house. Throughout these months of intense state and vigilante violence, racial discrimination, fear and struggle, the group didn’t dissolve. It solidified.

In December 1968, aware of the conditions the food workers faced and striving to empower not only Black students but the local Black community, the BSM presented the university chancellor with a list of 23 demands — one of which called for the university to “begin working immediately to alleviate the intolerable working conditions of the Black non-academic employees.”

An alliance between the dining-service workers and Black students had solidified.

After the strike began, the workers and their supporters formed picket lines, occupied a campus building, distributed leaflets, encouraged student boycotts of the campus dining facilities and carried out militant direct confrontations against the university.

During those weeks, they also faced intimidation, arrests and intense repression, culminating in the state governor’s mobilization of four National Guard units and five riot-trained Highway Patrol squads in order to ensure that Lenoir Hall remained open after the BSM attempted to shut it down.

The governor’s threat of violence finally set into motion many members of the nearly all-white student body and faculty to express solidarity with the striking workers and the BSM — acknowledging not only the workers’ and Black students’ oppression, but an emerging threat to their own academic freedom.

As the strike continued, the workers succeeded in unionizing, forming the UNC Non-Academic Employees Union. Not long after, the strike finally ended when the governor met the union’s demands for higher wages, overtime pay, an end to other exploitative labor practices and the appointment of a Black supervisor.

Only weeks after the food workers’ strike, the university announced it would be outsourcing its dining operations to Saga Food Services starting in May. When SAGA soon backpedaled on the agreed-upon pay and benefits, more than 90 percent of the food-service staff went on strike again in November.

Again, the workers won, thanks in part to the support of Black students not only at UNC but across the state.

THE FRUITS of the UNC workers’ first victory wasn’t confined to the borders of campus. Other workers not only at UNC but throughout North Carolina — hospital aides, laundry workers, laboratory technicians, ferry deckhands, truck drivers and others — saw their pay increase thanks to new statewide minimum wages that the strikers put on the lawbooks.

Yet in spite of the courage and success of those workers and their supporters, in the half-century since the strike, more powerful forces have assaulted the labor gains won through collective action.

Anti-worker and anti-union practices and policies have ravaged living standards across the nation, across North Carolina, even across UNC’s campus.

According to a Center for Economic and Policy Research report in 2012, when measured by the benchmarks of inflation, average wages and productivity, low and minimum wages actually peaked in 1968 — the minimum at $1.60 an hour — the year before the workers’ strike at UNC began.

If wages were adjusted for inflation, the minimum would have been $10.52 in 2012. Even more shocking, if low and minimum wages had kept pasce with average productivity, the minimum wage in 2012 would have reached $21.72 an hour.

Nationally and locally, low-wage workers, particularly in the food-service industry, have been hit the hardest.

A living-wage calculator for Orange County, N.C., calculates a living wage based on local food, child care, medical, housing and transportation expenses, as well as required annual income taxes. Out of 22 professions evaluated, food preparation and serving-related comes in last with an annual income of $19,465, the only one under $20,000 a year — and well below the modest national living-wage estimate of $31,200, or about $15 an hour.

Though the workers in 1969 were fighting against more than low wages — unpaid earnings, exploitative practices, misogyny and racism all figured in — structural discrimination remains very much a part of food-service work. Women and workers of color are still overrepresented in the industry today.

Furthermore, in 1969, though there were many discriminatory barriers facing food-service workers who hoped for their sons and daughters (or themselves) to one day attend UNC, tuition for state residents for the entire academic year was $175 in 1968-69. In 2016-17, resident tuition was $6,882.

In other words, while low and minimum wages have increased by a factor of less than five — $1.60 an hour in 1968 to $7.25 an hour in 2019 for the minimum wage — tuition for state residents has increased by a factor of almost 40. Whatever other barriers existed for a predominantly Black workforce, cost is now another.

AT UNC today, the subcontracted campus food-service workers are employed by Aramark Corporation.

The subcontracting structure keeps workers from benefiting from existing public employee laws, such as the State Human Resources Act, which guarantees a minimum annual salary of $31,200 to other campus employees across the state — including full-time, in-house housekeeping workers at UNC or even the in-house, “permanent” food-service workers at nearby North Carolina State University.

Aramark has a record of terrible exploitation. In a 2015 report titled “The 10 Companies That Pay Americans the Least,” Aramark ranked sixth.

Across the country, a typical Aramark cashier makes about $9 an hour. Meanwhile, as this report indicates, Aramark CEO Eric Foss “was paid $32.4 million last year, up 44.2 percent from his compensation in the previous year.” That’s an annual income of “1,700 times that of some of his employees,” the report calculates.

Though Aramark claims that it offers competitive wages, this boast carries little weight considering that food service is notorious for poverty wages.

Therefore, UNC hasn’t just outsourced its food-service jobs. It has outsourced the responsibility of a dignified compensation for those who ensure that its campus functions.

At the very least, it should be the responsibility of UNC, as well as every other university, to see that all of its campus workers receive a living wage, regardless of the structure of their employment, if Aramark or another food-service corporation fails to do so.

This should be a lesson for all of labor. In many of the courageous and victorious teachers’ strikes across the country over the past year, strikers advocated for everyone in their workplaces, demanding that no worker get left behind or shifted out of the conversation. Teachers’ unions and their supporters have demanded and often won raises for all public-school workers.

Such a struggle is underway in North Carolina. In addition to increasingly common outsourcing of low-wage employment, workers also struggle under the state’s anti-union right-to-work laws.

Even in the law that passed last summer, raising public employees’ wages to $15 an hour, lawmakers in the General Assembly intentionally left out many sections of public school workers.

In order to confront such employment discrimination — in jobs where, of course, women and people of color are overrepresented — the North Carolina Association of Educators has started a petition to support the approximately 45,000 public school employees “including school bus drivers, custodians, and teaching assistants [who] are paid as little as $12/hour to do essential tasks like transporting our children to school, ensuring a safe and sanitary learning environment, and providing one-on-one educational support.”

AS LAWMAKERS and employers endeavor to disrupt collective action through exploitative employment structures or maintain low wages through imbalanced concessions, such acts of solidarity are necessary in the fight for a better world.

At the same time that we commemorate the courage of Mary Smith, Elizabeth Brooks, Preston Dobbins and all of those who organized, agitated and stood with them 50 years ago, we should fight for movements and unions that strive to support all campus workers, and that offer solidarity in any struggle those workers undertake.

In a master’s thesis titled “It Wasn’t Slavery Time Anymore”: Foodworkers’ Strike at Chapel Hill, J.D. Williams wrote:

The employees believed that if the university regarded its food service as successful, then success was a veil covering unfair treatment of service workers. The employees felt that if the university valued its commitment to academics, then it should commit itself as well to the needs of Black people and to non-academic workers in particular. If tradition meant that employees had to work under intolerable conditions, then that tradition must be broken.

Fifty years after these workers fought for their dignity, we must ask which aspects of this history of discrimination and exploitation have changed, and which remain intact. We must remove the veil that disguises modern universities’ complicity in the withholding of a living wage, and therefore of dignity, from workers on its campus, whether it employs them directly or not.

If the contracting-out of food-service jobs allows for the tradition of undignified conditions to ensure, then such traditions must be broken.

This article retells a great deal of the history thanks to J.D. Williams’ master’s thesis “It Wasn’t Slavery Time Anymore”: Foodworkers’ Strike at Chapel Hill, Spring 1969.

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