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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ashley Davis, April 12, 1974. Interview E-0062. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Outcome of the 1969 food workers' strike and supporting role of the Black Student Movement

Davis speaks at length about the outcome of the first food workers' strike in 1969 at University of North Carolina. Although wages were raised and the university promised to pay food workers the back pay they were owed, Davis expresses some reservations about the final compromise. Again asserting that the Black Student Movement served in a supporting capacity, he talks about how they had worked to set up the "soul food cafeteria" in Manning Hall during the strike in order to ensure that the workers could survive financially.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ashley Davis, April 12, 1974. Interview E-0062. 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

Preston and them, and Mrs. Smith and them and some guys from the union and all and people from the University had gotten together and they just settled on an increase, one of the things they settled on was that they would make $1.80 an hour. Which would become minimum wage for the people that worked in the cafeteria. And what I understand was that this meant that somebody in Raleigh had to change w-6 for a whole lot of other people up to $1.80 from $1.60. I think that's the way it worked. Minimum wage. They could unionize. So, this settled the strike. See, we weren't happy even then, because some things had happened. First of all, and I'm being real honest about it, all through it, as I say, we were supportive. Being supportive is very dangerous and very bad, because you can be supportive and you can support someone and then they just cut you loose and flounder and you have no say so about it because you've always just been supportive, you haven't directed anything. We were supportive all the way through and when the union people came in, we felt that the people here should have done like the people at Duke did. My understanding was that at Duke, they let two unions bid, AFSCME and another union. Offered them one better proposal and then I don't know what they finally resolved, whether they didn't go with a national union and just formed their own or what, but these people didn't do this. I think that AFSCME came in here.
But they didn't come in right after the first strike. They came in after the University had sold the concession.
No, no, but see, they were here before that. They came in at the end of the first strike, I might be wrong, I get confused in the years, but as I remember, they were there at the end of the first strike, because part of the agreement was that the University had planned to sell the cafeteria system, even then. This was one of the considerations.
This was before the first strike?
I don't know about before the strike, but I know that after the strike, one of the considerations was that the ladies were saying that they had heard that the University was going to sell the cafeteria system, because they were losing money. And they wanted to get from the University an agreement that the University would maintain whatever wage they got from this job to the next job. And also placement in jobs from this system to the next. This was one of the guarrantees. The University never really…I'm trying to think if they ever gave that guarrantee in writing. If they did, I'm sure that it was a very tied-up promise to do it. Because the University did not want to do it. They didn't want to do it at all. And what I wanted to say that bothered us…when these union people came in, like I say, we were only helping, in terms of advice, we could't tell them what to do. And so, they went with AFSCME, I think. But without really giving it the time that we wanted them to give to it, really thinking about it. And we knew too, I'll be honest, at the end of the first strike, we knew that things weren't going to last. Inherently, there were too many people working in the cafeteria system. It was overstaffed in this time of mechanization. And you notice that the first company that came in, which was SAGA, SAGA mechanized the hell out of it. In the cafeterias, you know. You get your own soda, you push,…it reduced the number of employees. So, when the University said that they would do that, we had real questions the first time. And that really worried us. We expressed, I think, on numerous occasions our fears about that to the workers. I think the workers were very happy to get back to work. By the way, running that cafeteria we ran, I think they said that they were able to pay about $35 a week to every striker that was out. And that was paid every week. See, we were able to pay. The reason that we ran a cafeteria was that people had to live during the strike. We started a cafeteria with the workers so that the workers could make a living and by running the cafeteria, they made enough money that we were able to pay every worker $35 a week. See, that was the whole idea behind the cafeteria. To pay them so that they could stay out on strike. That's why I say that we were supportive in terms of bank accounts and getting them, these funds, to the workers and to pay people off. And if special problems came up, Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Brooks and them would take, but they were the ones that were hitting it. They were the ones that made the decision. You see, we didn't. They made it. We could give them advice, but like I say, I tend to think that at the end when the settlement came, they were so glad to settle, I think, that they really did not look at it realistically. What really bothered me, was that it had only been, and there had been a strike within the ranks, I should tell you, about the Pine Room… there were people who said that the Pine Room gave them no warning that they were going to strike. And they wanted to strike too, and they were bitching about whether they were going to strike because the Pine Room crew, who led the original strike said that they weren't going to do it, it's funny that the most conservative part of the staffnd the most radical were right there in the same building. Upstairs was very conservative in Lenoir. Downstairs was very radical, in the Pine Room. What happened was that there were some real disagreements between factions. People at Chase said that, "we didn't know." But my understanding was that these people had talked to them. These people were just jiving, they didn't want to set a time and do it. So, that when the people from the Pine Room came, that meant some conversation and some soothing of feelings between them. To get workers to go on strike. And that kind of took a while, but we got a good number of workers to go on.
Do you think that if the BSM had had more control over it and had been less in the background, that the strike would have ended up differently then? Maybe they would have held out for more concrete, or longer lasting…?
That's a possibility. I don't know that, you see. I can only say what my thinking was, our strategy, what we saw. O.k., what I saw and the people that I talked to saw, and what we expressed to them was, number one, they should be wary of the union people and beware of the things the University offered. Because of people whom we knew who were conservative and had no like for the cafeteria people all of a sudden find themselves available to help and do things…this kind of thing. So, in terms of the outcome, BSM may have made more input, I don't know…because what happens is the question of when you make input, whether or not people like your input. Oh yeah, let me tell you what happened, too. At the end of the strike, Chambers found out…they got over $180,000 in back pay, you can find out the exact figures, they went through the records…now, those records, from my understanding were over there and a guy from the U.S. Department of Labor was going to come down. So, what we did, was that we wanted to stick around and watch. We started keeping our eye on buildings where we knew records was being kept. We wanted to see what was going on. After this was announced, we wanted to see if there was all of a sudden going to be a big moving program, or people going to do a little midnight work, we were very interested in this kind of thing, you know. So, we kept an eye out for that, and we watched where people were going and different things, and kept an ear open and tried to find out what people were doing and into. And to get an understanding on that. But, that was settled, you know, and some people really got some nice-sized checks, because they had really been cheated by the University. The agreement was supposed to stop that split-time stuff in the middle of the day, but what happened, you know, what I say, they went with this AFCME, or whichever one it was, I'm not sure, but when they went…some unions are really good, I think that some unions don't really deal properly with the people involved…