Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Elizabeth Brooks, October 2, 1974. Interview E-0058. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Emergence of group solidarity in the food workers' strike

Brooks describes the events that triggered the first food workers' strike in February 1969. According to Brooks, building tensions broke when Dorothy Ann Stephens, a young female food worker, was fired because she refused to lift heavy trays off of the conveyor belt. This demonstrates how gender discrimination was one aspect of the poor working conditions that spurred the food workers to strike. At the same time, some of the other problems, such as workers being expected to conduct duties not usually assigned to them and shorted paychecks, continued to exacerbate the situation. At this point, the food workers began to work as a group, under the guidance of Preston Dobbins, to find solutions to these problems.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Elizabeth Brooks, October 2, 1974. Interview E-0058. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

BEVERLY JONES:
What particular event or events, to you, triggered the strike?
MS. ELIZABETH BROOKS:
Well, one of the events, I know, which brought on the strike was the firing of one of the employees. And this was done and we felt that for no reason at all. This was because she refused to lift heavy trays of dishes through the conveyor belt, which was real high. So they had fired her; this was a young lady. They had fired her, and so we kind of felt that if they were going to start firing the ladies because they refused to do this, then it could be anyone, not only one person, but eventually come around to just about all of us because not any of us had any intention of lifting those trays of dishes. Another thing that happened on a Friday before the strike took place on Sunday, was our supervisor had this way of when a person didn't come to work he would just tell another person to work their counter and the counter thats the was presently working on. So on a Friday afternoon, the girl that worked next counter to me didn't come to work, so he just came up and told me he wanted me to work that counter which I did. So later on in the afternoon when things got quiet I told him to ask one of the boys to clean the counter up that night, and so he just told me, "Go ahead and do it." I did not do it. I didn't say anything to him, didn't tell him that I wasn't going to do it, but I just didn't do it. So when we were getting ready to leave, he called me and he asked me, he says, "I told you to clean the counter up." No, he says, "I asked you to clean that counter up today," he says, "next time I'm not going to ask you, I'm going to tell you." So I told him that it made no difference to him, because it wasn't slavery time anymore and regardless of what he told me, I still had a choice. I could do it, or I didn't have to. So this was something that added to the strike because he was getting very well, I don't know just the right word to say for it, but what he would do, he would stand back to the back of the room and he would just watch over us like, he made us feel like that we were, you know, just being watched at all times. And we done, well we knew that we were really not. . . that we were really performing on our jobs because sometimes we would serve seventeen-hundred people in a matter of about two hours and I think there were seventeen of us. That included the cook, the cashier, the boys that cleaned out the trash, that included everyone on our shift. And we really done some work, and we knew that. But he would just stand there over us and watch us, and just, you know, made us feel like that we were just like a bunch of slaves. And so these are some of the things that we really, the feelings that we were getting from it. Plus the point that each week, our checks were being shortened. And nothing had been done about it. And this is some of the things that we went to Preston with. And he helped us really to. . . well, we knew what we wanted, but we just didn't know how to go about it. We didn't know that you have to do things as a group. We were just thinking about individuals, and that's no good, so Preston helped us to see this.