On Sunday, Feb. 23, 1969, food workers at Lenoir Dining Hall set up their dining stations as usual.
But when their supervisor, Ottis White, opened the cafeteria doors around 4 p.m. and students began shuffling in, the workers left their positions behind the food stations and sat down at the cafeteria tables. The employees refused to move, even as students surrounded them, banging their trays on the counter and demanding to be served.
The following morning, nearly 100 Lenoir employees refused to report to work, marking the beginning of UNC’s first major labor strike.
“The strike was a result of UNC cafeteria workers not receiving adequate responses from the University administration to grievances that they had submitted previously,” UNC archivist Nicholas Graham said.
Among these grievances were inadequate pay, innacurate job classifications and poor treatment by supervisors, all of which were highlighted by workers months before the strike began.
In October 1968, dining hall employees sent a list of 21 suggestions to improve their work conditions in a memorandum addressed to the “Employers of Lenoir Dining Hall.” Their suggestions were ignored, and later that month, food service director George Prillaman laid off 10 employees after a major drought halted dishwashing operations.
Following Prillaman’s actions, workers turned to students — specifically the newly formed Black Student Movement — for help.
“One of the things that the Black Student Movement did early in their tenure was issue a series of demands to the University administration for better treatment for Black students on campus, more resources on campus, a number of different things in the interest of Black student life on campus,” Graham said. “Their demands also included support for African-American workers on campus and also community members.”
In fall 1968, nearly 100 percent of UNC’s non-academic staff members were Black, while less than 1.5 percent of enrolled students were Black, according to UNC Libraries. Although desegregation was the official stance of the University, some believed that the treatment of Black students, staff and community members by UNC suggested otherwise.
“Early on, very early on in its tenure, the student leaders in the Black Student Movement were engaged in advocating for African-American workers on campus,” Graham said.
A core group of food workers, led by employees Mary Smith and Elizabeth Brooks, joined forces with BSM leader Preston Dobbins and planned the Feb. 23 demonstration. In the days following the demonstration, students stood outside Lenoir distributing pamphlets about the strike.
Because it was unoccupied at the time, Manning Hall was transformed into a temporary dining hall called the Soul Food Cafeteria where strikers served meals to students boycotting Lenoir.
In early March, after UNC Chancellor Carlyle Sitterson refused to meet with workers because of student involvement in the strike, protesters took a different approach.
Strike-supporting students entered Lenoir and took their places in the serving lines among their classmates. They proceeded to purposefully slow down the service provided by the few remaining workers and took up entire tables with nothing in hand but a glass of water.
On March 4, 1969, the strike gained the attention of North Carolina’s Gov. Robert Scott.
“A scuffle broke out (in Lenoir) and many of the student protesters overturned tables,” Graham said. “This was portrayed by some media as a kind of a riot, or a more violent outburst. The reaction around the state was pretty angry from a lot of people.”
In an attempt to keep Lenoir from closing, Scott sent five units of riot-trained Highway Patrol officers to the campus and announced that the National Guard was standing by in Durham.
But rather than quell the situation, the Governor’s intervention prompted more students and faculty members to become active in the protest.
Following Scott’s actions, the food workers formed the UNC Non-Academic Employees Union. The union’s requests included a $1.80 per hour minimum wage (approximately $12.47 in 2018), the appointment of a Black supervisor and adequate pay for overtime work.
Scott agreed to the demand of a wage increase and the strike ended on March 21, 1969.
“(The strike was) something that did not happen just out of the blue here at UNC,” North Carolina Collection gallery keeper Linda Jacobson said. “It was something that was going on across the South and it was part of a bigger movement by African-American workers across the South who were striking for better wages, and it was happening right in the midst of all that.”
Although Scott agreed to provide higher wages and better working conditions for UNC’s non-academic employees, the food workers struggle for fair treatment did not end there.
In May 1969, UNC ceased University-operated dining services and entered into a contract with a company called SAGA Food Services. On Nov. 7, after SAGA issued layoffs and some of the Governor’s promises for better working conditions were still unfulfilled, 250 of UNC’s 275 food workers declared a second strike.
The second strike showed similar patterns as the first. It was centered on justice for Black non-academic employees and included significant involvement from students and faculty. UNC’s BSM told SAGA they planned to hold a protest in the Pit on Dec. 8 if working conditions were not improved.
The second strike ended on Dec. 9, 1969 after an agreement was signed between SAGA and union representatives. In January 1970, SAGA announced they would not renew their dining contract with the University.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the strikes, University Libraries has curated a special exhibit titled “Service, Not Servitude: The 1969 Food Workers’ Strikes at UNC-Chapel Hill.” Located in Wilson Library, the exhibit is free and will be open to the public until May 31.
On March 20, the PlayMakers Repertory Company will perform “Voices from the Archives: The 1969 UNC Food Workers’ Strike.” The performance will take place in Wilson Library’s Pleasant Family Assembly Room and is free to the public.
Graham said he thinks this is an important moment in the history of the University and it laid the groundwork for future protests and advocacy by campus workers.
“We're especially excited to have this opportunity to talk about the work on campus that may often go unseen and unheralded,” he said.
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