UNC Labor History

For decades, workers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have campaigned for gender and racial equality, dignity, and economic justice. This timeline is a summary of the history that does not appear in the official narratives about the university.

Early Organizing (1930-1947)

1930 – Janitor’s Association Holds First Meeting

Sparked by the threat of a 10% pay cut, the Janitor’s Association held its first meeting on April 14, 1930. The group was founded by four African-American housekeepers. Early victories included one week of paid vacation for janitors and the installation of restrooms with showers. At this time, workers were paid an hourly wage of 25 cents.

1932 – Janitor’s Association Supports the Student Loan Fund

In 1932, janitors’ wages were cut because of the financial difficulties suffered by the University during the Great Depression. To help students remain in school, the University established a loan fund for students. Despite their own financial hardship, the Janitor’s Association voted to donate to the student loan fund.

1940 – Janitor’s Association Publishes Newsletter

In April of 1940, the Janitor’s Association published the first edition of its newsletter, The Voice of the Janitor’s Association. The editorial staff, as listed on the front cover, included Eugene White, James Trioe, Willie Hargraves, Clyde Stevenson, and William Coker.

1942 – First Union Organized on Campus

In 1942, the Janitor’s Association reorganized into the Local 403 of the State, County, and Municipal Workers of America, affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Early minutes from the union’s meetings, recorded on July 2, 1942, show that the primary concerns of workers were job security, advancement, working conditions, and, “the most important matter,” pay. The organization existed on campus until 1947.

1947 – CIO Local 403 Petitions for Better Pay

In 1947, the state legislature passed a 20% pay increase for employees. The University responded by eliminating a war time pay bonus. In protest, workers in the CIO Local 403 gathered signatures and circulated flyers among students stating “We ask the students who do not want to see the University workers live in the very conditions condemned in the classrooms to sign these petitions.”

The Lenoir Strikes (1969)

1969 – Cafeteria Workers Strike

In February of 1969, the cafeteria workers went on a month long strike lead by Mary Smith and Elizabeth Brooks.

1969 – Students and Faculty Rally to Support Strikers

Throughout the strike, many students, lead by the Black Student Movement (BSM) and the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC), picketed alongside workers and boycotted the dining halls in solidarity. Faculty picketed as well, carrying signs that said “Faculty Supports Lenoir Workers.”

1969 – Workers and Students Establish Alternative Cafeteria

As the strike continued, workers and students set up a “food stand” in Manning Hall to serve as an alternative cafeteria. This allowed workers to support themselves while on strike, and also gave students who were boycotting the cafeteria a place to eat. Workers earned more by collectively operating their own cafeteria than they had earned working for the University.

1969 – First Cafeteria Worker Strike Resolved

After over a month of the strike, the workers won a pay increase for over 5,000 state employees. In addition, many other demands were met and for the first time workers received their paychecks in envelopes, were given name tags and job classifications and were addressed by managers by their full names.

1969 – Second Cafeteria Worker Strike

After the first cafeteria strike, the University outsourced the dining services to the SAGA corporation. Although they promised that SAGA would uphold the terms agreed to after the strike, they soon went back on this promise and fired twelve union activists. To maintain the advances they had won, the workers went on strike for a second time in November.

1969 – Police Charge Picket Lines, Arrest 9 Students and Union Members

On December 4, 1969, the police attacked a group of demonstrators from the Black Student Movement who allegedly refused to disperse. Nine people were arrested, including two union organizers. Charges included failure to disperse and disorderly conduct.

1969 – Second Cafeteria Strike Resolved

After ten days of the second strike, students from Black Student Movement chapters across the state planned to convene in Chapel Hill for “Black Monday,” a rally in support of the strikers. When management learned of the students’ plans, they hurriedly resolved the strike and gave in to all of the demands of the workers, who were then represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

The Housekeepers’ Struggle (1980-1997)

1980 – Gene Alston Fired

In 1980, as housekeepers continued organizing, a well known organizer and housekeeper, Gene Alston, was fired.

1980 – Housekeepers Organize Walk-Out

On March 27, 1980, Housekeepers presented the Physical Plant Director, Claude Swecker with a list of nine demands. Their demands included: no more “warning letters” against employees who were late to work because of bad weather, that Gene Alston be given his job back, that managers take their word on sick days without asking embarrassing personal questions, that housekeeping workers have a written job description that supervisors must respect, that they be allowed to use their vacation at any time of the year, that Manzie Smith and John Thompson (who were widely known to sexually harass female employees) be removed from supervisor positions, and that regular meetings be established on work time for all housekeepers.

1983 – Housekeepers Petition for Higher Pay

November of 1983, housekeepers began to circulate a petition calling for higher wages. This organizing eventually led to the formation of the Housekeepers’ Association.

1991 – Housekeepers’ Association Forms

In January of 1991, the Housekeepers’ Association (HKA) was formed. That same year the HKA filed a lawsuit against the University demanding better pay and working conditions. The association led actions throughout the 90s in support of respect on the job and a living wage for housekeepers.

1996 – Housekeepers Win Historic Lawsuit Against University

In December of 1996, HKA won a historic legal victory against the University. According to the NAACP News, Chancellor Michael Hooker and housekeepers agreed on a settlement, “worth more than $1 million, which included pay raises, back pay, recognition of the HKA as the representative of the housekeepers… and substantial backing for career training, child and elder care, a public health study, and the establishment of a historical commission.”

1997 – Housekeepers Protest University’s Failure to Uphold Settlement

In 1997, housekeepers held a protest to denounce the Chancellor’s and the University’s failure to fulfill their agreements as per the settlement. Housekeepers held a sign giving Chancellor Hooker an ‘F’ on all counts of the settlement except the wage issue – monthly meetings, new careers training, a commission to honor African Americans, and a commission to improve housekeeper’s health.

The Struggle Continues (1999-Today)

1999 – United Students Against Sweatshops Sit-in

In April 1999, UNC students affiliated with the national organization United Students Against Sweatshops staged a 72 hour sit-in in South Building. They pressured the University into enacting a code of conduct governing conditions in factories of licensees producing UNC apparel. The codes ensured adequate health and safety conditions, the right to organize and freedom from discrimination. UNC became a member of both the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) to monitor factories to ensure compliance with the codes.

2000 – UE Local 150 Organized on Campus

In 2000, the Housekeepers’ Association reorganized as United Electrical Local 150 North Carolina Public Service Workers Union. Many housekeepers, groundskeepers, and hospital workers are currently members.

2003 – Bill Schuler Fired

Bill Schuler, a long time organizer and outspoken workers’ rights advocate, was fired from his job as a UNC housekeeper after speaking out about unsafe chemicals workers were forced to use. Housekeepers were not provided with proper safety equipment, and as a result many suffered nosebleeds and headaches from exposure to cleaning chemicals.

2004 – Lezlie Sumpter Fired

Lezlie Sumpter, an ARAMARK employee at Lenoir Dining Hall was fired after speaking out publicly about sexual harassment on the job perpetrated by male supervisors. No action was taken against the managers. In response Boiling Point magazine published a searing expose on the issue and Student Action with Workers organized mass rallies in support of Lezlie’s reinstatement.

2005 – Organizing Drive Begins in UNC Dining Halls

In January of 2005, ARAMARK employees in UNC’s dining halls began an organizing drive with the Service Employees International Union. Students supported the effort by leafleting in the cafeterias and interpreting for Spanish-speaking workers at union meetings. In response, ARAMARK kicked student activists out of the cafeterias and sent anti-union letters to all of their employees. The letters stated that unions only wanted to collect dues from workers and that any workers who went on strike would be replaced.

2005 – Vel Dowdy, Union Supporter, Arrested

In 2005, during the height of the SEIU organizing drive, Vel Dowdy, a vocal pro-union organizer was arrested and suspended by ARAMARK. Vel Dowdy had worked in Lenoir for six years, and was well known by students to whom she gave out free lunches. After she became active with the union, ARAMARK asked the police to investigate claims that she had let students into the cafeteria without paying. Over the allegation that a handful of students had been allowed to eat without paying, Vel was taken out of the cafeteria in handcuffs and charged with felony embezzlement. Student Action with Workers organized a protest of over 300 workers and students who marched from the pit, through Lenoir, and into South Building.

2005 – Workers Crash Chancellor Moeser’s Open House

After months of inaction from the University, over a dozen ARAMARK employees, including Vel Dowdy and Leslie Sumpter attended an open house held by Chancellor Moeser on April 26. They voiced their grievances, including charges of sexually harassment, anti-union intimidation, and the wrongful disciplining and firing of workers. In addition, they called for a card check neutrality process for unionization. Moeser was clearly caught off guard and attempted to shift attention off of himself and onto ARAMARK.

2005 – Student Action with Workers Publishes Worker Power

In October of 2005, Student Action with Workers began publishing a jointly written worker and student newsletter to address campus labor issues. The Newsletter was published every other week, in English and Spanish.

2005 – UE150 Holds State-Wide Hearing on Workers’ Rights

In November of 2005, the International Workers Justice Campaign (IWJC) of UE150 held a statewide hearing regarding working conditions for NC state employees and the legality of General Statute 95-98, which prohibits collective bargaining by state employees. Lawyers from around the world were in attendance as part of an investigation by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Workers came from across the state to testify about unjust treatment including racial and sexual discrimination, unfair grievance procedures, and forced overtime.

The struggle continues today (and in the past two years, we just haven’t updated this timeline)…

One response to “UNC Labor History

  1. matthew taylor

    what about organizing efforts of nursing professinals at unc hospitals?

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