On an October day in 1997, housekeepers employed at UNC-Chapel Hill gathered in front of the steps of Memorial Hall, protesting the university’s failure to follow through with their hard-fought demands for a bargaining voice on campus and sustained audits of housekeepers’ conditions and historical contributions to campus.

More than two decades later, on an October day in 2022, housekeepers, student organizers, leaders from the university’s workers union, and other protesters returned to the steps of neighboring South Building. This time, they raised their voices with a renewed set of immediate demands: higher pay for an increased work load, free parking, and meetings with the chancellor and administration to discuss these demands. These orders, delivered to the chancellor’s office that same day along with a petition, constitute “a needs, not wants” list, says UNC housekeeper Tracy Harter.

It’s yet another rendition in a long, visible struggle for workers,’ and specifically housekeepers,’ rights at the university.

“We had this same conversation; there were people marching here the same way that we are, and we’re still fighting for the same thing,” UNC Black Student Movement outreach coordinator Joann Obioma told the crowd at the protest.

Obioma emphasized that the story of labor organizing at UNC is inextricable from the larger Black liberation movement and the university’s history of racism towards those who built the school and continue to maintain it.

“People don’t understand and connect that workers’ rights are Black issues,” Obioma said.

The activism of UNC janitors, laundry, and cafeteria workers reaches back to the early 1940s and laid the foundation for the emergence of the mostly Black, women-led UNC Housekeepers Association (HKA) in 1991. The main result of their organizing—more than $1 million dollars in back pay distributed to more than 400 of the housekeepers and groundskeepers—is considered one of the greatest workers’ rights and reparations victories in the 20th century.

Getting to this point was the result of a lengthy process of grievances and appeals. In 1991, the HKA organized after UNC denied the first two rounds of grievances through the university’s internal dispute resolution and grievance process. The new organization moved forward with three main goals for its campaign: “higher wages, fairer treatment, and beneficial training programs,” according to one of their 1993 pamphlets. In 1993, after the university denied the association its final grievance, the group filed a class-action lawsuit charging racial discrimination.

Their argument cited academic work to argue that the housekeeper supervisory system was reminiscent of the plantation system used during the university’s construction by enslaved Black workers.

The complaint of residual systemic racism met nearly three more years of judicial appeals and denials when, finally, a judge asked HKA to reach a settlement. The HKA drafted “A Modest Proposal,” addressed to the university’s chancellor, demanding the development of a housekeeper endowment fund, a one-time reparatory payment, free health and dental care for housekeepers and their families, and free tuition to “the designated heir of all black employees at UNC between 1793 and 1960,” on top of back pay.

On paper, the ultimate settlement achieved most of the initial goals of the campaign, including winning pay raises, one-time Christmas bonus payments, monthly meetings with the chancellor to “meet, confer and consider” any changes proposed by the HKA, career advancement training programs, and the creation of two commissions. One commission was to look at the working conditions for housekeepers, and the other was to commemorate the historical contributions of Black workers at the university.

But then, like now, no mechanism existed to ensure that the terms of this settlement, or any future agreements, would be fulfilled. The university failed to arrange monthly meetings or initiate either of the commissions.

So, then, like now, the housekeepers returned to protest. The recurrence of this fight is mainly the result of a North Carolina law that prohibits employees and employers from signing a collective bargaining agreement, says Campus Y co-president Imani Rankins, who has been supporting the union. Enacted in 1959 by an all-white legislature, it is only one of two laws in the country that ban collective bargaining agreements for public employees and is considered the state’s last vestige of the Jim Crow era.

“It’s going to point to a larger issue if we want to stop having to continually have this fight every 25 to 30 years,” says Rankins. “We’ve got to get to the root issue, and that’s the lack of worker rights in this state for public workers. That starts with the laws that deny collective bargaining for public workers.”

Dante Strobino, a union organizer with UE 150, says that the statewide union was formed following the lead of the HKA and other groups in 1996 to push for accountability. The groups then merged to push for the university to meet the conditions of the settlement. More importantly, they set their sights on eliminating the ban on collective bargaining as well as the state’s “right-to-work” law, which effectively limits the organizing power of unions.

Today, compounding demands that are still unfulfilled from the 1996 settlement is a renewed need for higher pay and resolution over the cost of parking, which housekeepers pay for out of pocket.

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The October protest extended demands initiated during Housekeeping Appreciation Week in September, resulting in UNC housekeepers delivering 21 handwritten statements to their supervisors and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.

UE 150 began meeting with the housekeepers in late September to organize these demands, which were delivered on the day of the demonstration.

During the protest, leaders from the Black Student Movement, Latinx advocacy group Siembra NC, and the university’s social justice hub Campus Y prefaced speeches from the housekeepers, who condemned the university for increasing uncompensated work on the largely non-white workforce.

“A lot of nationality areas come to this area, OK. Very, very important,” says UNC housekeeper Htoo Paw. “But we are housekeepers feeling like they [do not] think about [us], like housekeepers are nothing.”

Of the university’s 294 permanently employed housekeepers, 95 percent identify as non-white, according to data from the university.

During the rally, Harter said there are five open positions for housekeepers. She questioned where the dollars earmarked for salaries are being distributed.

“They don’t wanna raise the pay for the raise in work,” Harter said. She described taking on the additional responsibilities of being a floor tech and crew leader in addition to her designated role as a housekeeper.

“I might not have the college degree that you do, but I have some sense,” Harter said. “I know where 150,000-something dollars is, and I know where it ain’t.”

Harter emphasized that the movement must ensure that legislators, the UNC Board of Governors, and anyone in the university’s administration who is responsible for the terms of their employment know that they mean business.

On November 3, university officials responded to some of the rising concerns in the university’s monthly Employee Forum.

But Strobino cautions that this forum does not hold the actual power of a union like UE 150.

“It’s a space where the chancellor fundamentally has all the power. The chancellor can choose which issues they want to take up and which issues they do not want to take up,” Strobino says.

So the housekeepers and the union showed up again, this time in front of the Carolina Inn for the UNC Board of Trustees’ November meeting.

Housekeeper Robin Lee, one of the leaders of the movement, was greeted by two members of the board and the chancellor, who accepted her and the other housekeepers’ demands, the Daily Tar Heel reported.

Lee was permitted to enter the meeting, where the board and the chancellor recognized the housekeepers’ cause and discussed opening up communication with the groups, primarily with the UNC Board of Governors, which determine the pay bands that set the wages for most university employees.

But, just as in the 1990s, the housekeepers are in for a long fight while trying to balance their immediate needs, Rankins says.

“The longer-term goal is getting those laws overturned, getting more rights for workers possibly codified into law permanently,” Rankins says. “But yeah, until then, we’re gonna continue to fight for the daily needs of our workers.”

Lee, who is known as Miss Robin, described her struggles to keep up with inflating prices.

“I’ve never been late on a house payment and now I’m feeling I’m about to lose my house,” Lee said during the protest.

To support some of the housekeepers’ families and checkbooks, UNC students rallied to fundraise during a basketball and volleyball tournament and food drive this month organized by the UNC Undergraduate Student Government Department of Civic Engagement and Outreach Services [CEOS].

“Our best next step is to make it public to university leadership that students do care about this initiative, students do care about their housekeepers, and students will pay and spend their Friday evenings to show their care,” CEOS staffer Lauryn Taylor says.

Looking ahead as they hope to fulfill their demands of meeting with the chancellor, and, eventually, reaching the UNC Board of Governors, the union holds close both a history of struggle but also historic successes.

Back at the protest, Strobino’s shout rings loud.

“If they get it then, we can do it now.”


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