The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday October 5th

Column: The 1969 Food Workers’ Strike brought labor battle to campus

Lenoir Hall pictured on Sep. 14 juxtaposed with a photograph by Fil Hunter from the Food Workers’ Strike of 1969. In the spring of 1969, dining hall workers went on strike with the support of the Black Student Movement.
Buy Photos Lenoir Hall pictured on Sep. 14 juxtaposed with a photograph by Fil Hunter from the Food Workers’ Strike of 1969. In the spring of 1969, dining hall workers went on strike with the support of the Black Student Movement.

The late 1960s were characterized by an upswell of civil strife across the world. 

Anti-war and racial justice protests filled the streets across the United States. Abroad, students occupied public buildings across Paris and anti-authoritarian demonstrations exploded in Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Pakistan and elsewhere. 

At UNC, this volatile decade culminated in the Foodworkers’ Strike of 1969. In an event that became an important part of the University’s racial and labor history, UNC food workers went on strike in search of racial and economic justice, something that even five decades later, students and employees are continuing to fight for.  

Despite its nominal integration a decade before, UNC remained a disproportionately white institution. Although the census taken in 1970 showed that Black North Carolinians made up around a quarter of the state’s population, just 113 of the 13,352 students at UNC in 1967 were Black. 

At the same time, nearly all of the school’s non-academic employees were Black. As the 1960s progressed, relations between the staff and their supervisors grew increasingly strained. 

In 1968, several Lenoir Dining Hall food workers sent a list of 21 demands to management, which was followed by a series of layoffs and continued subpar working conditions. Workers’ hours were spaced inconveniently throughout the day, their pay was lower than what was promised and management habitually ignored the workers’ complaints. 

In collaboration with the food workers, the then-new Black Student Movement compiled a list of 23 demands for University leadership. Among them was a demand to “begin working immediately to alleviate the intolerable working conditions” of the staff and to “immediately set up meetings with the employees and members of the BSM in order to outline and implement constructive action.” 

In early February, then-Chancellor J. Carlyle Sitterson replied to the students’ demands, claiming that UNC had made “vigorous efforts to improve the working conditions of all non-academic employees,” and that the school “expected to continue to make efforts for improvement of the well-being of all its employees.” 

According to strike leader Elizabeth Brooks' interview with the Southern Oral History Program, she had several group meetings with George Prillaman, director of food services. But, Brooks said, Prillaman “began to make promises and this went on for quite some time and he never kept any of the promises.”

On Feb. 23, the food workers reported to the dining hall, set up their workstations and then sat down and refused to work. On Feb. 25, the strike expanded to UNC’s other dining facilities, with over 140 staff refusing to work. 

According to a Daily Tar Heel article from the time, the Black Student Movement “set up fried chicken dinner service in Manning Hall” in order to dissuade students from going to Lenoir. Due to state regulations preventing “business competition on university campus,” meals were given out for free, with donations accepted. 

Picketing and walkouts continued, with student leadership encouraging a boycott of Carolina Food Services. 

On March 4, protestors engaged in a “stall-in” at Lenoir, with 40 students moving through serving lines as slowly as possible, and then re-entering other lines in order to prevent the hall from functioning. Eventually, protestors began to flip over dining hall tables to further disrupt its ability to function. 

Police quickly moved in to evict the protestors and close Lenoir. Three days later, Lenoir reopened under the close watch of over 40 state patrolmen under the orders of then-North Carolina Gov. Bob Scott. 

That same day, workers and the administration engaged in their first negotiations of the strike. On March 10, a group of graduate students vowed to begin a sympathy strike if the workers’ demands were not met.

On March 13, Scott shut down the Black Student Movement’s operations in Manning Hall using armed state police. Several students were arrested for “disorderly conduct,” including the organization's head Preston Dobbins. Finally, after nearly a month of striking, Scott ordered an increased minimum wage for not just the University food workers, but for all state employees. 

The next day, the strike came to a close. In addition to a wage increase, the administration boosted six of the Food Service workers to the rank of supervisor.

Several months after the strike, the state ceded control of dining services to the company SAGA Food Services. In time, relations between the now-unionized workers and SAGA deteriorated due to a series of layoffs. This poor relationship and the failure of the University to fulfill its promises led to a second strike in the fall of 1969. 

After another month of confrontation and Black activists statewide threatening to show up on campus, management and the workers reached an agreement. This forced the University to find jobs for the laid-off workers. 

Now, problems still exist for UNC employees and students. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, faculty and students have raised concerns over campus conditions and the risk of infection. It's sometimes said that history is a circle. Just as workers and students in the 1960s fought against the injustices of their time, workers and students today will do the same until administration response. 

One can only hope that the changes this generation brings about will be permanent.


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