One year, one month and one day from today will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the UNC Food Worker Strike.
While the strike lasted less than a year, it became a flashpoint of attention with the National Guard put on stand-by to re-open Lenoir in March. Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr.’s successor as the leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, declared support for the strikers and protestors.
In the end, after unionization, many of the worker’s demands were met by UNC and later by the corporation to which food service was out-sourced.
This powerful exercise of worker and student solidarity started with discontent among workers and was propelled by the leadership of food workers Mary Smith and Elizabeth Brooks. Their efforts focused on the low wages, racist white supervisors and unpaid labor that the Black food workers were subject to. This planning was brought to the attention of students through the newly formed Black Student Movement.
As part of a larger history of worker activism on UNC’s campus, from the Janitor’s Association of the 1930s to the the Housekeepers' Association of the 1990s, this strike is an important reminder of the power of worker and student coordination.