Robin Lee sat on the steps of South Building, cooling down from the heat with a cup of cold water. She looked on at the crowd, which now stretched from her vantage point to the front of the Campus Y on the north end of the main quad on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus. Students, graduate workers, union representatives, and housekeepers were in attendance. Many held signs: The University Works Because We Do! UE: Organize the South! Expand Collective Bargaining. I NEED A LIVING WAGE.
As people continued to gather, organizers from UNC’s chapter of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, UE 150—the union representing housekeepers at UNC’s campus—handed out materials, encouraging housekeepers to join the union. It was February 22, 2023; the rally was intentionally scheduled during the UNC Board of Governors (BOG) meeting. As student volunteers set up the microphone, Lee admired how many people had shown up to support her and her fellow housekeepers, and the chants started to pick up volume.
“What do we need?”
“Twenty dollars an hour.”
“When do we need it?”
Sixty-two-year-old Lee, lovingly called “Miss Robin,” has been working for the state for 17 years. She wears black glasses with rectangular frames, her work shirt—some days layered with a cropped denim jacket or a plaid overthrow—and a lanyard around her neck. Her red curls sit comfortably above her shoulders. Born in Harlem, Lee relocated with her family to Charlotte after she graduated high school. Growing up, her mother used to warn her, “One day, your mouth gonna get you in trouble.” Good trouble, Lee assured me. Her willingness to speak out led her to the forefront of the housekeeper movement at UNC.
Today, Lee had hurried to finish cleaning her building so she could make it to the rally at noon. The housekeepers who were active with the union, including Lee, had to use their lunch breaks to attend meetings and events. Despite Lee’s already exhausting workday, she found herself in these circumstances repeatedly. Regardless of her skepticism and fatigue, Lee continues to show up on behalf of other housekeepers.
The day’s event, “Occupy the Board of Governors,” had originally been scheduled to take place at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill. But less than a week before the BOG meeting, the board announced a new location for the meeting: a building in Raleigh called the Dillon. Organizers for UE 150 told me that the last-minute relocation was because the board members feared the rally. The BOG said its move to Raleigh was mandated by state law.
Only a month earlier, a similar group of union workers, student supporters, and housekeepers gathered at the same spot to reiterate their demands. The current campus-wide movement for housekeepers’ rights had its roots in the fall of last year, with a petition supporting the two major demands—a $20 hourly wage and free parking—receiving more than 2,000 signatures. As the issue gained attention, the university invited the housekeepers to a Board of Trustees meeting, during which Lee gave an emotional speech. In response, UNC leaders offered the housekeepers a 90¢ raise. Housekeepers and union workers alike say the change was a disproportionately bleak response to their demands.
Today, housekeeper Saw Moo had dressed up. His rally attire consisted of black loafers, gray work pants, and a suede sport coat. He took the microphone. “We really do deserve $20 an hour. Why? Because we work too hard. We keep the buildings safe. We keep the buildings clean. I just want to make our situations known. Nobody cares about us. We work too hard.” As the crowd cheered, Moo began the second portion of his speech in his native Karen.
When it was her turn, Lee walked toward the microphone. Her nerves kicked in as she stood up, but they quickly vanished as her eyes settled on familiar faces in the crowd. A light breeze had intensified, giving onlookers momentary relief from the unseasonable heat. Lee thanked supporters for showing up to the rally. She waved a piece of paper in the air—an information sheet her supervisor had given her—detailing the facts of a recently announced retention bonus for state employees. As Lee expressed her dissatisfaction with the policy, the audience engaged, each pause between sentences filled with verbal affection from the crowd.
Effective a week prior to the rally—on February 14—the State of North Carolina announced retention bonuses for state employees in the UNC System and the Department of Health and Human Services. The university said the bonuses aim to recruit and retain employees in positions with high vacancy and turnover rates. Housekeepers and union representatives argued that the policy has too many strings attached. The contract offers an initial employee bonus, but if the employee is fired or cannot complete a year of consecutive work, they must repay their bonus. This repayment is also owed if the employee transfers to another state agency. The amount owed will be deducted from the employee’s final paycheck; if this paycheck is not enough to cover their full debt, the employee has 60 days to repay the university in full.
“I hope, I pray today, nobody signed this paper,” Lee said.
Cheers rang from the crowd. She spoke into the microphone with added urgency. “Please don’t sign this paper,” she begged, waving it in the air again.
“What you gonna do with it, Robin?” a supporter called out from the crowd.
She tore the paper into pieces. The onlookers erupted into cheers, fist pumps, and excited hollers.
While the housekeepers’ movement saw considerable development during the last academic year, it is grounded in a history that dates back almost a century.
In 1930, four Black janitors formed the Janitors’ Association at UNC, making way for the first organized union on campus affiliated with the national Congress of Industrial Organizations. In 1969, the Black Student Movement led a strike at UNC’s Lenoir Dining Hall to protest the poor work conditions and discrimination that the majority-Black dining hall staff endured. With hundreds of supporters and the National Guard on standby, the event was a turning point in campus-wide labor efforts.
More than 20 years later, housekeepers Marsha Tinnen, Barbara Prear, and Annie Pettiford faced the same issues. In response, they founded the UNC Housekeepers Association (HKA) in 1991. The group held weekly meetings to pursue their three critical demands for housekeepers: higher wages, fairer treatment, and supplementary training programs.
Next to Sutton’s Drug Store—on campus-adjacent East Franklin Street—concrete stairs run down into Amber Alley. One floor above Chapel Hill staple Ram’s Head Rathskeller was the office of attorney Alan McSurely. A native of Dayton, Ohio, McSurely was well known among civil rights leaders for his community organizing. He made national headlines after his Kentucky home was raided on charges of sedition. Before meeting the HKA, McSurely established himself in Chapel Hill after winning an anti-discrimination case against the university on behalf of UNCcampus police officer Keith Edwards. Edwards, the first Black woman ever hired by the UNC police department, took seven UNC administrators to court for denying her equal opportunities and a discrimination-free workplace.
McSurely stopped in his tracks as he walked into the second floor of the Rathskeller building. He was greeted by 35 Black women and two Black men, all sitting on the rug at the end of the hallway. They asked if he would represent them. McSurely paused. If the housekeepers’ bosses knew that the group came to see him, they could fire them. McSurely explained that the group must file an official grievance to protect themselves from retaliation. “Well, have you got a piece of paper?” someone asked.
In February 1991, McSurely and the HKA filed a Step 1 Grievance against the university, citing racial discrimination from poverty wages and unjust treatment. The next few years involved a back-and-forth between the HKA and the university, which continued until the HKA filed a Step 4 Grievance in January 1993. The escalation meant that administrative law judge Brenda Becton would take the case. The HKA’s demands would be heard.
The housekeepers’ lawsuit was grounded in the protections offered in the 13th Amendment of the United States, which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. Their petition argued that the housekeeper supervisory system at UNC was reminiscent of a racialized plantation system. The memorandum of law for the case cites that “90% of the 400 or so UNC-CH employees in the lowest and most menial ranks are African American,” which the HKA argued was a direct product of UNC’s institutional history with enslavement. The case further argued that the petitioners were tasked with the same work that the university’s enslaved population was responsible for, drawing a clear parallel between the two systems.
In February 1996, a major victory arrived for the HKA. in the form of a settlement of more than $1 million in raises, back pay, and special programs for housekeepers. The settlement, entitled “A Modest Proposal,” came after more than two months of negotiations with Chancellor Michael Hooker. A press release following the case read, “Over 350 housekeepers won a historic victory this week in their 6-year legal battle with the nation’s oldest state university.” HKA leader Barbara Prear emphasized that the most important part of the victory was “the long run … programs the University has agreed to.” Included in these were accountability checks such as monthly meetings with the chancellor’s office—one of several commitments that organizers say went unfulfilled.
A stack of papers flew around the table. One read, “Retention Bonus is a Bribe—They Don’t Care About Us!” Another was a printout of an Excel spreadsheet with union members’ contact information. Dante Strobino, an organizer for UE 150, suggested that everybody take turns to read aloud the first piece of paper. In the center of the room, four skinny tables were arranged like a square, creating a visual fishbowl. Twelve of us total—housekeepers, union organizers, student leaders, and one reporter, myself—sat facing each other. It was Thursday, February 16—the union’s weekly meeting. The agenda for today was to prepare for next week’s “Occupy the Board of Governors” rally. We were gathered in the Campus Y, a building dedicated to UNC’s social justice initiatives.
“Last week, the state announced a retention bonus for state employees in the UNC System,” began the drafted statement. Housekeeper Aung Than, sitting to the left of Strobino, tried passing on his turn to read. Chuckling, he explained that he wasn’t good at English. The room lit up with encouragement, urging him to do his best. He finished his passage with the help of other Burmese-speaking housekeepers.
The readings continued, person by person.
“This retention bonus takes advantage of poor and struggling workers.”
“We deserve a significant pay increase.”
“Workers must continue to organize and build our union to challenge the state legislature.”
In Burmese, Karen, and Spanish accents, the drafted statement came to life through the distinct voices of each housekeeper at the meeting.
Every Thursday at noon, the Housekeepers Subcommittee of UE 150 gathers in this corner of the Campus Y. The building is the historic home for UNC’s social movements, student activism, and community service projects. The Campus Y’s entablature reads “YMCA” in gothic letters, paying homage to its foundations in 1859 as the Young Men’s Christian Association. At the time, the Campus Y sought to “promote Christian sympathy and brotherhood” and extend “religious advantages to the destitute.” Today, the 15,000-square-foot building remains situated across from the university’s symbolic Old Well and houses more than 30 student social justice organizations.
After her turn to read, Tracy Harter, a UNC housekeeper of 16 years, held up the paper detailing the retention bonus. She told us her colleagues had called it “a magician trick.” Nodding his head in agreement, Strobino suggested that Harter encourage her coworkers to join the union. He leafed through the folders in front of him and handed her a stack of blank union membership agreements to take to her assigned zone. As more housekeepers entered the conference room, Strobino continued to hand out union literature, some of which was translated into Burmese and Karen. As a leader of the movement, Lee’s presence is felt at every meeting. Today, she looked exhausted. She refused Strobino’s papers, informing the room that other workers in her zone were afraid of the union. There was no use asking them to join.
From across the table, Burmese housekeeper Khin Kyi jumped into the conversation. She said her coworkers confide in her, “We’re old now. We don’t speak English. How will we ever find a new job?”
Lee waited for her to finish, then announced, “I have people who do speak English but won’t join the union.” The room filled with soft murmurs of agreement.
Kyi added, “They want to complain but not join. They want a raise but don’t want to fight.” The energy constrained in the small meeting room became palpable.
In the back left corner of the Campus Y conference room is a framed black-and-white photo of historic UNCantiwar protests, reading, “Protest, Movement Building, and Justice.” Union president Trey Anthony sat across from it. It was nearing one o’clock, and Anthony needed to wrap up the conversation so the housekeepers could get back to work. He began rushing through logistics for the upcoming rally. Lee leaned in her seat as Anthony talked, her frustration growing until she couldn’t remain still. “I don’t know how long the $20 will take,” she confessed, referencing the housekeepers’ $20 per hour wage demand. She detailed her longtime part in the fight and announced her impending retirement. “I don’t want to waste my time,” she said. A heavy pause followed, as if the room were paying homage to her sacrifices for the movement. Several voices broke the silence to call out their goodbyes as Lee got up to leave the meeting early.
Lee stood in the Carolina Inn hallway, face-to-face with UNC chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz’s chief of staff, Christi Hurt. Beside her, housekeeper Saw Moo held a sign reading “Solidarity with UNC Housekeepers.” Hurt, tightly gripping a mug with both hands, nodded repeatedly. “We understand, the chancellor understands,” she remarked as Lee expressed her frustrations with the housekeepers’ work conditions.
Hurt waved over two men wearing suits and ties, who greeted Lee in the hallway. Shifting eye contact between the two, Lee reiterated her points to the men. She paused for breaths of exasperation between each sentence, trying to convey her disappointment with what she called the university’s dismissive behavior. The men stood in place, barely moving.
On November 9 last year, UE 150 led a rally of housekeepers to the Carolina Inn. Situated on the corner of Cameron Avenue and Columbia Street, the inn is an iconic location for the university, often playing host to its highest-caliber events. On this sunny November day, the inn’s Chancellors’ Ballroom was hosting the UNC Board of Trustees—a regular meeting that occurs about six times a year.
As the trustees’ lunch break ended at one o’clock, one of the two men, trustee R. Gene Davis Jr., invited the housekeepers into the meeting. As he led them toward the ballroom, another man—chairperson of the Board of Trustees, David Boliek—began speaking. Boliek assured the housekeepers that the current pay scale and working hours were “very much on the forefronts of the minds of the chancellor and this board.”
Lee stood in the front left corner of the room, in front of a projector screen. Rows of attendees sat facing her—about 20—clad in suits and ties, dress coats, and pencil skirts. Lee began speaking.
Lee has always fought the idea of scripted speeches. She told me that if someone tells her what to say, she will forget. Instead, she speaks from the heart.
“I bring home $829 every two weeks,” she told the room of high-ranking administrators. “I don’t have money to pay my bills.” As Lee spoke, her throat began tightening. It was unlike her to cry in front of others, but as she recounted the story, the sudden intensity of her emotions separated this moment from her other speeches.
Lee lives with her two dogs in Pittsboro, a town about 20 miles south of Chapel Hill, home to many of UNC’s housekeepers. On a typical day, she works first shift, meaning her work hours are seven a.m. to four p.m. Due to short staffing, however, she and two of her coworkers clock in at six a.m. to clean the basement of Cobb Residence Hall before they start cleaning their assigned buildings. After finishing the Cobb basement, Lee drops off her bag and lunch in the breakroom at Graham Memorial, then arrives to clean Kenan Residence Hall at 7:15 every morning. The walk to Kenan is over half a mile long. It’s a three-story residence hall with about 120 residents, study rooms, a laundry room, a TV room, lounges, and a parlor. Lee is responsible for cleaning the entire building alone. Neighboring McIver Residence Hall is assigned to a temporary worker, meaning that on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Lee and her coworker are also responsible for cleaning McIver. Later, she would be called to a third dorm—to clean up a room where a student had been found dead.
At the end of the day, Lee and her coworkers walk across two quads to clock out at Cobb Residence Hall, where they pay to park. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, Lee drives to the nearby hotel Aloft Chapel Hill right after her shift at UNC. She clocks in and works there until 10:00 p.m. before getting gas, preparing dinner, and taking care of her pets and home. Lee has lived in her house for more than 20 years now. “The foundation is cracking in, you know, I need repairs,” she explains. Retirement is unavoidably approaching, and Lee gets emotional discussing the home repairs she cannot afford. She is afraid of her age and of accumulating debt.
The room was completely still as Lee spoke. When she finished, everybody stood up in unison to give her an ovation. Moo, still holding his sign, grinned in pride as Trey Anthony, defiantly clapping above his head, looked back toward him. A man a bit shorter than Lee reached into his pocket and pulled out his handkerchief. He handed it to Lee as she wiped her tears away.
North Carolina is one of two states that prohibit public-sector employees from entering collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) without exception. A CBA is a legal document that binds employers and workers to a mutually approved set of terms and policies. With their accumulated power, a union engaging in collective bargaining can successfully attain improved workers’ pay, benefits, and safety.
The state of North Carolina’s harsh attitude toward labor can be traced alongside its political history. In the 1870s and ’90s, North Carolina suffered an agricultural depression that led to economic decline for many farmers. The Democratic Party—then the party of the Confederacy—grew increasingly in favor of big business, aligning its political interests with those of large manufacturers, banks, and railroads. In solidarity with farmers, however, a group of former Democratic Party affiliates created the People’s Party, also called the Populist Party.
In the 1890s, Fusion politics rose in North Carolina; the Populists and the Republicans, dubbed the Fusionists, created a political alliance with each other. The Fusionists supported labor rights, public education, democratized voting, and high government spending. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party preferred lower state expenditures and disapproved of public education. The Fusionists swept the state in 1894 and 1896, electing several congressional representatives and senators and a Fusionist-backed governor. For a moment, it seemed that the Fusionists could not lose. However, in 1898 and 1900, the Democratic Party claimed power through force and massive electoral fraud, led by white supremacy campaigns that peaked with the 1898 Wilmington massacre. Armed men guarded polls throughout the states, preventing Black people and known Fusionists from voting. The Democratic Party was successful; North Carolina had become a one-party state in their favor at the turn of the century.
In the early 20th century, the cotton mill industry boomed in the Southern Piedmont. Majority-white mill workers flocked to mill villages, where they worked long hours with low pay. Mill owners bolstered their anti-union narrative with racial violence; companies warned workers that unions favored race mixing. Mill companies adopted a paternalistic role, telling workers they didn’t need to unionize because the company would provide for them—“We’re all family here.” The oppressive conditions at the mills led to violent strikes in the late 1920s, with police and state highway patrol deployed as militias for mill owners. In 1929, the Gastonia strike led to the deaths of a police chief and local labor leaders. That same year, in Marion, North Carolina, vigilantes and deputized anti-union people fired on crowds of strikers, killing six people and wounding 15 others. While this was some of the worst violence, anti-labor sentiment existed throughout the region.
Southern manufacturing interests portrayed unions as communist groups that favored racial equality. This narrative often worked—white workers clung to their identities as white Southerners over their own labor conditions. “And that’s been the battle of Southern labor … the Gordian knot that’s been unable to be untied between white workers choosing their race over their economic interest,” historian Tim Tyson told me in an interview.
The North Carolina general statute that prevents workers from entering CBAs was signed into law in 1959 by an all-white legislature. On March 2 of this year, Democratic Representatives Carolyn G. Logan, Pricey Harrison, Zach Hawkins, and Nasif Majeed introduced House Bill 243 in an attempt to repeal the statute. It died in committee.
Lee meandered down the hallway, admiring the antique furniture and eccentric art on display. It was Friday, March 24. She had taken a half day off for an excursion to Raleigh, a 30-minute drive southeast of Chapel Hill. Lee followed Strobino’s lead, who had parked in front of the Department of Administration building around noon. Housekeepers Tracy Harter, Aung Than, and Htoo Paw and student Beatriz Triay joined them. Strobino told the group that they were looking for Andrea DeSantis—the policy adviser for the Office of Governor Roy Cooper. While meeting with the governor was his next objective, Strobino explained that they could not get straight to him.
Almost immediately, the group’s entry was stopped short. A large, unobstructed hallway with offices lay in front of them, but security would not let the group pass through. Lee watched as Strobino and the officer exchanged words of disagreement. After some back-and-forth, the officer agreed to check if DeSantis was in her office. Unbothered by the confusion, Lee continued to explore the hallway art.
In his hand, Strobino held a sheet outlining the housekeepers’ demands and a printed copy of their petition. Lee stood by as Strobino searched his bag for a legal envelope, which he handed to the security officer. The officer accepted the packet and disappeared down the hall. The group stayed in the waiting area, as instructed. Shortly after, DeSantis appeared in the hallway, holding the legal packet in her hand. She reiterated that she would be happy to share information about the union’s questions with the governor, offering to meet with the housekeepers in Chapel Hill the following week. The group settled on noon at the Campus Y. The conversation was only a few minutes long.
Next door, the General Assembly is marked with a sign reading “Legislative Building,” written in thick gold letters, right above an image of the state of North Carolina. The group walked down the street to the General Assembly at half past noon. As CBS 17 set their cameras up for the press conference that Strobino had scheduled, Lee assumed her position to the left of the signboard. The cameras began rolling, and Lee started speaking, reiterating her experiences and demands—a story that she has had to publicly deliver several times.
“We’re short-staffed. We’re overworked. It just seems like we’re bringing pennies home.
“If they got all this money and it’s sitting on the budget, put it on our paychecks, so we can see it,” Lee explained, again.
Inside the legislative building was a grand staircase lined with red carpet. Sunlight pooled across the foyer, reflecting off the gold-trimmed window frames. Unlike in the previous building, security let the group enter after passing through metal detectors.
Lee and the others followed Strobino to the office of Britt Bryson—the senior policy adviser for the House Office of the Speaker. Bryson was not there. Strobino dropped a packet of demands on his desk instead. “I just wanted to see somebody so I could say something to somebody,” Lee explained, recounting how almost every office they visited in the legislature was empty.
They continued down the hall, sliding packets of demands under lawmakers’ doors; Strobino haphazardly dropped the pages while housekeeper Paw followed, ensuring each corner of each stack of papers made it underneath each door. As the rest of the group was preoccupied with paper distribution, Lee looked at the pictures plastered on the walls. She noticed portraits of a few people that she had voted for. Her thoughts were interrupted as Strobino stopped the group at a small printer room. The wall behind the printers featured four flags plastered in a diamond: an American flag, a firefighter flag, the North Carolina state flag, and a blue lives matter flag.
The day continued, and the group made its way around the building. Lee was back in the main foyer, watching an elementary school group wait to go through the metal detectors. The children giggled with excitement as they threw off their backpacks. Last month, Lee’s public-school-teacher granddaughter had brought her fourth graders to the Legislative Building on a field trip. “Why don’t you tell those legislators to give your grandma some money?” Lee had joked to her granddaughter. Lee smiled, remembering the interaction fondly, as she watched the children make a game out of running through the metal detectors.
Under the Legislative Building, a small food court facilitated the group’s lunch break. Paw snuck each receipt to the counter and paid for everyone’s meal before the others could stop her. The afternoon was ending, and it was difficult to tell what next week’s meeting would bring.
Update: Since the reporting on this story wrapped, housekeepers continued to meet throughout the summer to demand $20 an hour in pay and free parking. Lee has since been appointed president of the campus worker co-chapter of the workers union at UNC, UE 150. Her team’s efforts to build a statewide coalition to pressure lawmakers to raise public workers’ pay saw some movement when, last month, North Carolina’s $30 billion state budget passed following an eight-month delay. The budget provides a 4 percent raise for state employees this year, followed by a 3 percent raise next year. Workers and union leaders say the pay raises are insufficient to meet rising costs and employee turnover.
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