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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 >>

Tension escalates between striking food workers and the state

Pollitt offers an outline of escalating tension between the striking food workers, their supporters, and the state. During the strike, Pollitt was the chairman of the Faculty Advisory Committee. Because the university was not allowed to engage in collective bargaining, Pollitt explains how the Committee supported the strikers as best they could. In addition, he describes how he and other faculty were supportive of the food workers' alternative cafeteria, which sparked media tension and led to Governor Robert Scott's decision to put the national guard on alert.

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

So there were the food workers' strike going on, but other parts of the University were also getting pulled into this?
Oh, yes. They were getting pulled into it because they were, you know, sisters and brothers and cousins and neighbors and all that sort of thing. Now the interesting thing is that when Bill Aycock was the Chancellor, there had been an informal group called the Janitors' Union. The head of it was the head janitor at the law school and they used to meet every other week with Bill Aycock to discuss their problems, but when Bill Aycock stopped doing it, nobody picked it up. There was another major problem with our dispute; the state law of North Carolina, which is unique, it's the only one in fifty states that says that it is illegal for public employees to engage in collective bargaining. It's illegal. So the Chancellor, Carlysle Sitterson, sent over to the Attorney General some request for information. "Can I sit down and negotiate with these people?" And he got back the expected answer which was, "No, you can't." I don't know why he asked. He knew what he would get. The Attorney General is not friendly. Beverly Lake or somebody. So they shouldn't have said negotiating. What we urged was that he have an open door policy and talk to all members of the University community. That was our position. That's not collective bargaining. That's open door policy and if he'd asked that he would have gotten a different answer I think. So Sitterson was, I like him and we'd been allies on a lot of things and I'd been his chief opposition on a lot of things, but I was the chairman of the Faculty Advisory Committee, a group of nine faculty which meets once a month to advise the Chancellor. It's supposed to meet once a month, but the by-laws say it can meet on the call of the chairman. Well, I was the chairman then and I called it quite regularly without Sitterson's presence so we could discuss in his absence and then report to him advice that we thought was appropriate because there were a lot of things going on at that time. So in any event, that's what we did. And then the strike progressed and there wasn't much action. We had moved out of the law school and the workers at Lenoir picketed every day between mealtimes. It was closed most of the time, but they had a few strike breakers who would come and serve. The cafeteria workers met in the old law school building. It would get cold in February and March and snow. There's one of the pictures in the Tarheel where there's snow on the ground. So that's where they hung out. They hung out in the old law school building. Then they decided to serve meals there and it was to support the strikers really, for a dollar. You had to pay a dollar. You got a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and all the Kool-Aid you could drink. But they made sandwiches. They didn't wrap them; they just had them there and they'd have Spam sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly and whatever and then the great big jugs of Kool-Aid. I used to eat there every day. Then my group would meet there. We started to meet there. Then they put out a black liberation flag that was hanging from it and WRAL came around. I don't know. I think Jesse Helms was still the Vice President there and he had his five minute commentary every day at 6:25, so he broadcast, "Hey, the strikers have seized the University building. They have appropriated it for their own and it's public property and why doesn't Governor Scott free the University buildings from the strikers?" With that, what could Governor do? So he announced that he was going to evacuate the cafeteria strikers from the old law school building at 11:00 on a given day. So they sent a hundred highway patrolmen and they all had these plastic masks coming down over their face and everything in case anybody threw tear gas at them or something. And they had batons which were about five or six feet long. As great big a things as I had ever seen; they were big. They came over in buses and they parked behind the old baseball field.
Had there been any violence up to this point?
No there'd been no violence. Well, there'd been one episode of violence. They did have meals. Some few people ate there. Then there was picketing. I picketed. I picketed every supper at the entrance that faces the old law school. There'd be about fifty of us and we'd have a big elliptical thing. And I was there every night from 6:00 to 6:30 after I left the law school on my way home. But a group of black student movement people, maybe ten of them, at about 7:30…. They stop serving at 7:30 and they clear out at 8:00. At about 7:30 at closing time a group of ten black student movement people went through Lenoir and turned over the tables. So they were indicted; "Assault upon the tables," as Judge Bailey put it. The judge acquitted them. The DA didn't prosecute or something. But that was a big deal. "The black student movement trashes Lenoir Hall" or something. But that was the only violence, I think. Now there was some other possibly. There would be an early morning delivery of the food and that would be about 5:30 or something. They'd bring the milk and butter and the bread and whatever and they'd come in trucks and they came from Durham. Those guys were members of the Teamsters Union. So the decision was whether we ought to picket at 5:30 when the trucks come. Well, I wasn't going to picket at 5:30. So somehow the Malcolm X University agreed. This is the black Muslim crowd and Malcolm X is their leader. The truck drivers were whites. So after they picketed a week and the truck drivers had passed right through them and they'd shout at them, "Honkey", I think they formed a line and laid down on the street or something. Then the cops came to pull them away and they did it roughly; dragged them along, you know. Then that led to an exchange of words, "Okay, you're resisting arrest. I'm going to put the cuffs on you." "You ain't going to put no cuffs on me you white son of a bitch." And then they did get an injunction against the Malcolm X University; "Interfering in our labor dispute." They ignored it and nothing happened. So those were the episodes of violence. It was really that one episode when they overturned the tables and the other episode where they blocked the street. But in any event, Governor Scott came to the rescue of the law school building. The whole faculty from here went over to see it.
Were there camera crews? Did everyone know this was going to happen at a certain time?
Oh, yes. They had camera crews from NBC and CBS and everybody was there. There was a certain time they were going to evacuate. They wound up on the walkway between South Building and Wilson Library which is halfway. They had a big line; I think they had three ranks or something like that. Then the command was, "Step forward". So they all made one step forward. And you know we were there to give them daisies or flowers. [laughter] I got mad. I really did. I didn't think I could get mad about this, but I really felt angry that they were invading my campus and that they were liberating the law school which did not need liberating. If they'd just wait a few minutes they could go in there and get some Kool-Aid and a ham sandwich or something. But it was wrong. They were trying to put the strikers out in the snow. So they did. They advanced one step at a time. Richard Smith, who was a colleague of mine at the law school, had been neutral. He'd signed this petition against saying that any graduate students who strike ought to be fired. That's law and order, which everybody in the law school had signed except me. Richard had signed it and he had been real big. He played tackle at Arkansas and was an All Southwestern football player who had been offered Chicago Bears in the draft or something. He hurt a knee. So he was here and he was with me and he got mad. I said, "Richard, leave them alone". He said, "But they're coming on our campus." It was very aggravating. But they took their steps. They took their giant steps and we'd take little midget steps, three backwards. Then they go to the cafeteria in the law school building and a couple of black kids took down the flag hanging out of the window and they all scooted out the back entrance and the building was secured.