Monday, September 9, 2013

Food Service Workers' Strike of 1969

Cafeteria food service on campus was first introduced in the 1950s, but dissatisfaction soon mounted as growing enrollments brought longer lines and complaints about the choices and quality of the food offered. In 1964, the Carolinian student newspaper ran a comparative analysis of the food services offered at UNCG, Chapel Hill, and N.C. State, finding the other two institutions’ services superior to those on the Greensboro campus. In response to this criticism, the university gave up its own food service that summer and, for the first time, contracted with a national campus food service, ARA-Slater (now Aramark).

This relationship between UNCG and ARA-Slater would last for forty-five years (until 2009), but not without controversy. The first strike against ARA-Slater occurred in December 1964, when black full-time employees objected to a proposed pay cut, even though they were already being paid only ten cents an hour more than primarily white part-time student employees.

Scene from the picket lines of the ARA Strike, 1969
By 1969, tensions had increased. Following strikes at UNC-Chapel Hill and at North Carolina A&T, ARA-Slater employees at UNCG - including some who were students at A&T - went out on strike on March 26. The issues included the hourly wage, lack of overtime pay, sick and holiday pay, performance reviews, and dismissal procedures. A flyer noted that the "demands must be met as soon as possible but no later than immediately." While not overtly related to race, the workers' grievances underscored the differences in opportunities and expectation afforded to the university's primarily white students and the primarily black staff that served them. As Chancellor Ferguson would later recall, "Initially, the strike was not a black and white issue, but in time an element of race conflict was involved because most of the workers were black."

Following the walkout, the SGA voted to support the striking workers and to call for a boycott of the cafeteria. In a controversial move, SGA also voted to use student funds to hire an attorney to represent the striking workers. On the night of March 31, a crowd of approximately 1200 students, including activists from A&T, demanded that Chancellor Ferguson answer their demands. Ferguson agreed to address the campus the next day, at which time he stated that he must remain neutral. Behind the scenes, however, Ferguson was involved in the negotiations between ARA-Slater and well-respected black attorney Henry Frye. In the end, ARA-Slater offered the striking workers even more than they had requested, and the strike ended April 2. Despite calls for competitive bidding, ARA-Slater's contract was renewed for the following year.

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