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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, March 21-22, 1991. Interview L-0064-6. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Setting the backdrop for the UNC food workers' strike of 1969

Pollitt establishes both the local and the national backdrop for the UNC food workers' strike of 1969. After noting a wave of similar cafeteria strikes at universities nationwide during the late 1960s, Pollitt stresses the importance of the civil rights movement, particularly that of the Black Student Movement at UNC. Then, Pollitt enumerates the working conditions for African American cafeteria workers at UNC, noting in particular the low wages and long hours, the racial hierarchies that inhibited promotion, and management's refusal to use courtesy titles for black workers.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Daniel H. Pollitt, March 21-22, 1991. Interview L-0064-6. 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

DANIEL POLLITT:
Let's talk about the cafeteria strike in February, I guess.
ANN MCCOLL:
This was 1969?
DANIEL POLLITT:
It was 1969. The background is that this was not in isolation. There was a cafeteria strike at Duke; there was a cafeteria strike at Ohio State, at Stanford, at California, at Wisconsin. It was a whole series of university strikes. As a matter of fact, the NLRB, the National Labor Relations Board, had earlier announced in the 1950's that universities were not covered by the act.
ANN MCCOLL:
By what act?
DANIEL POLLITT:
By the National Labor Relations Act, as a matter of policy. The statute didn't say that, but the Labor Board is authorized to decline jurisdiction and the Labor Board decided that it would decline to exercise jurisdiction over the test case which was the librarians at Columbia University because it was charitable educational enterprise and that the collective bargaining was not appropriate. The Labor Board changed its mind in 1972 when all hell had broken loose on campuses all across the country where the workers, including professors, tried to better their conditions by joining unions. The universities almost uniformly refused to recognize and bargain and that led to the strikes.
ANN MCCOLL:
So our strike of the cafeteria workers' strike was kind of in the middle of others? They continued after ours on other campuses?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes. And another thing that was happening was that the cafeteria workers were black and we were starting then to get a fairly sizeable number of black students. We started in, I forget when. In 1950 we had three or something. I came here in 1957 and we had three black law students. Ten years later, I don't know, a hundred maybe.
ANN MCCOLL:
On the whole campus?
DANIEL POLLITT:
On the whole campus. So they couldn't sit with the other students at the football games. They had to sit in the end zone. So they didn't like that. You know, they wanted to be treated as regular students, so they organized. The black student movement organized and some of the black students worked part time in the cafeteria.
ANN MCCOLL:
By 1969, was the black student movement very strong?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Well, it was militant. It was not large numerically, but it was militant. We'd had I think three black professors here.
ANN MCCOLL:
On the whole campus?
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes. And they were in sociology. One was Howard Lee who later became the mayor and one was a guy whose name I forget. We had three. Two were fired as incompetent or something. I forget why. One of them joined the Muslims. This was the period when there were black Muslims who were very influential. There's a big Muslim movement in Durham. The guy that we fired from sociology…. Another one, the third one, was part time here and part time at UNC-Charlotte. He was in the School of Social Work and he spent maybe two days a week here and then he would go and run a clinic at UNC-Charlotte. But the guy, as I recall, was in sociology and he was a very handsome; a six foot eight fellow who'd played basketball at Marquette and had gotten a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin or something and had come here. Then when he was fired he changed his name to a Muslim name and he started something known as the Malcolm X University in Durham. His thought was that the blacks were not going to make it at the white institutions. They need black institutions where they will be taught their heritage and so on. There were about a hundred or maybe a hundred and fifty students at the Malcolm X University. Part of their education was on site confrontations. So they were available to come over here and they did. So there was across the country a feeling by university employees that they were being exploited. There was a growing black movement; they had Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the sit-ins of 1961 and the Voting Rights Act of 1967 and the Selma march and the bulldogs and the fire hoses in Birmingham and all that. Then the Viet Nam War was going on. Then back to the locality. The University cafeteria was supposed to be self-supporting like the Carolina Inn and the football team and all these other things. The history was to have good meals for low prices. There was sort of a subsidy, like we have very low tuition here and then there was going to be a meal plan which was very low. When I came here in 1967, for a quarter in the evening you got two vegetables, a meat and a bread and a beverage.
ANN MCCOLL:
Good deal.
DANIEL POLLITT:
Yes. Then in the day time, or anytime, but in day time the first cup of coffee was a nickel and then there were unlimited free second coffees. The faculty was much smaller then, but everybody had their own mug with their name on it. After your nine o'clock class was over you'd go to Lenoir and get your mug and pay your nickel and spend the next hour drinking coffee because you could get all your cheap refills. Then it went up to thirty-five cents. But we used to all eat there on Wednesday nights. We had a maid for almost nothing who had Wednesday off, so we'd take the whole family to Lenoir and eat for thirty-five cents each. I remember talking to Bill Aycock who was the Chancellor who said that that kept a lot of graduate students here; the inexpensive food. Well, how do you make that happen? You put it on the back of the workers. They got paid very, very little. Many hours of attendance were required. They worked eight hours a day and overtime. But they worked, I forget how you call it; shifts, and then you're off and then back and you're off and you're back on. So they would be here at 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning to prepare for breakfast and then breakfast is over at 9:00 or 9:30. They'd keep a skeletal staff, but the rest were off and they would not be on duty again for two hours.
ANN MCCOLL:
So for two hours they aren't being paid. You can't really go anywhere.
DANIEL POLLITT:
Then they would come and prepare lunch and serve lunch and then they'd be off at 2:00 until 5:00. Then they would stay on until 8:00 at night and then they would go home. So they would be here at 6:00 in the am and leave at 8:00 pm and all they got paid for was eight hours. My offices then were in the law school. It was right across from Lenoir and I was on the corner and there was big vacant area which is now a great big office building. The young men used to go out and play touch football there during their break or they'd sit around, you know. But my window was ground level and they'd be out my window, so I was well aware of them. And there were the courtesy titles. The management was not very good. One of the resolutions I just found in my file was to have him move on. Terrible little annoyances. If you wanted to call home because your child was sick, he wouldn't let you use the phone in his office. The phone was in his office. You'd have to go to a pay phone somewhere which was at the student union which was then at Franklin Street. You know, why not let them use his phone? None of them had last names. They were Joe or Mary. They could be fifty years old and could have worked there for thirty years and they were still Mary and their job was to dish out the potatoes. None of them were cashiers. Cashiers were white; they handled money. The cooks were paid four dollars an hour which was the highest, but they were white and they wouldn't let the blacks advance to cooks. You could be an assistant cook or a dishwasher or peel potatoes, but you couldn't be a cook. The documents of the day at the Faculty Council referred to it as the plantation system and that was accepted. That was in the faculty committee reports. You know, they'd always point out the resemblance to the plantation system. And one of the grievances was the use of courtesy titles. They wanted to be called "Mrs. Jones" rather than Mary. So there was the pay and the long hours and the inability to progress above the most menial jobs and the lack of respect which were the demands that were made by the workers when they finally organized.