Digging up the Root: How UNC Housekeepers Connected Workers’ Rights with Reparations and Won

Caption: Photo of member leaders of the UNC Housekeepers Association at a press conference in 1995. Courtesy of John Kenyon Chapman Papers, 1969-2009

“…the actual labor movement in the United States started during the colonial period with the introduction of indentured servants – from Europe, Africa, and the First Nations – onto North American soil.” – Bill Fletcher, Jr. And Fernando Gapasin, Solidarity Divided, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008, page 10.

I became involved in labor organizing nearly 25 years ago, when I helped mobilize campus and community support for an organization of mostly Black women workers called the University of North Carolina Housekeepers Association (HKA).

When the workers formed the HKA in 1991 to fight against “poverty pay, dead-end training, and demeaning work conditions”[1], few people would have imagined that five years later, they were on their way to winning one of the most significant reparations and workers’ rights victories of the 20th Century.

The site of this Black worker resistance was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), the oldest public university in the United States. It was established in 1789, more than 100 years after the colony of North Carolina was established in 1665.[2]

Like many institutions and businesses, UNC, its faculty and students owned enslaved Black laborers. In 1860, the town of Chapel Hill where the University was built, had 464 enslaved Black laborers and 104 freed Black residents – 48% of the town’s population.[3]

The root of economic oppression in the United States is the enslavement of Black bodies and this root lives and thrives above-ground in North Carolina. UNC keeps the curtain pulled back when it comes to celebrating the legacy of slavery at that institution.

For example, the Confederate monument, Silent Sam, was strategically located at the center of the university’s campus in the early 20th Century when a wave of Confederate monuments were erected in public spaces across the South during the escalation of Jim Crow, the violent white supremacy campaign that disfranchised Black voters and continued legal segregation.

The history of Black workers’ struggles prior to the HKA is long and arduous. Just twenty years after Silent Sam was erected, Black workers formed the UNC Janitors’ Association and in the 1940s, UNC janitors, laundry workers, and cafeteria workers went on strike to protest poverty wages, racist treatment and dangerous working conditions. Their organizing resulted in minimal gains, and the systemic problems continued to erode the futures for Black workers at UNC.

State law forbade workers in North Carolina’s public sector to collectively bargain, so they formed the UNC Housekeepers Association in 1991 to fight against poverty wages, unsafe conditions, lack of promotions and training, and institutional racism.

They organized committees in every building, raised their voices, and reached out to student activists to mobilize campus and community support to help them in their fight. As public sector employees, UNC’s housekeepers were at the mercy of the university to advocate to the state legislature on their behalf, so the odds of the UNC-system placing its lowest-paid and mostly-Black, mostly women workforce near the top of their agenda were very low. It was going to take a lot to bring this small group of workers to the table with the University.

“We, at that time, were going through a lot,” explained HKA leader Marsha Tinnen to The Daily Tarheel.

We were being harassed on the job. It was a lot of work for the pay that we were getting. And, a couple of us got together and said, ‘Let’s do something about this,’” Tinnen said. “And a lot of people were afraid, but we still went on to do what we had to do.

For several years, the University met the HKA’s demands with shrugs or avoidance. Students protested with the housekeepers and held press conferences to bring the University to the table to hold conversations about their low pay dangerous working conditions and lack of professional advancement.

From the beginning, the HKA centered their struggle around three demands: raise wages so housekeepers only had to work one job, safer conditions, and a pathway for advancement.

They added reparations to their demands. They decided that the centuries of being held back by white supremacy would have to be part of their demands. In “The Case for Reparations”, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts.”

Demanding that the University take responsibility for its construction of a rigid caste system that prevented Black workers from a career ladder, meant airing the University’s family secrets.

In 1996, the Housekeepers’ Association drafted “A Modest Proposal” which included back pay for every housekeeper; the creation of a housekeeper endowment fund; career programs and development; free health and dental care for housekeepers and their families; and a $1000 “one-time payment to the designated heir of all black employees at UNC between 1793 and 1960,” along with free tuition for heirs’ children and grandchildren.[4]

It took many months of organizing and marching, but eventually the University agreed to a settlement on November 26, 1996. It was at the historic meeting on campus when hundreds of UNC workers accepted the University’s counter proposal.

“Every housekeeper and groundskeeper at the University received a pay raise of up to $1700 and a one-time $600 payment. The HKA was given a monthly meeting with the Chancellor to “meet, confer, and consider” any changes suggested by the HKA. Career training programs were to be initiated for housekeepers, and a commission was developed to analyze the effect of the work conditions of housekeepers. Significantly for the historical legal case the housekeepers had mounted, a commission was to be developed to honor African-American workers at the University, with attention given to the institution’s history with enslavement.”[5]

The groundbreaking settlement amounted to more than one million dollars in pay raises, reparations, and back pay. To be present for such a groundbreaking moment solidified my desire to dedicate my life to advance workers’ rights – particularly Black workers’ rights.

Like many Black labor victories, this one is not well-known and that is the purpose of this blog series. NELP launched Digging Up the Root with the aim of lifting up Black workers’ organizations and their victories.

This series is also about unearthing the workers’ root cause analyses that led to the development of strategies for systems change with Black workers at the forefront.

The UNC Housekeepers Association is one example of many Black organizations and worker centers across the nation who are organizing to defeat white supremacy and anti-Blackness which deprive Black workers of quality employment opportunities.

The quotes at the introduction of this post by Fletcher and Gapasin offer a doorway for entering into the conversation about labor organizing and resistance in the US.

This is not a discussion about the less-than 200-year lifespan of the US union movement. Fletcher and Gapasin offer the colonial period as a necessary starting point.

To begin the story of Black workers’ exclusions and struggles for full citizenship is to tell the complete story about US labor organizing. It is in this doorway that we walk into an intersectional context that helps us understand Black workers’ struggles for freedom beyond class mobility.

Black workers’ freedom is tied to our rights to full citizenship.


[1] Barbara Prear, “HKA Shifts Into High Gear with Grant,” We are All Housekeepers, August 1993

[2] University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2008. Colonial and state records of North Carolina. [Chapel Hill, N.C.]: University Library, UNC-Chapel Hill. https://docsouth.unc.edu/csr/.

[3] Ellie Heffernan, “What we know about the lives of slaves who built the University,” September 23, 2019 https://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2019/09/slavery-unc-0918

[4] Reclaiming the University of the People, “Housekeepers Association Proposed Settlement Draft,” https://uncofthepeople.com/2018/05/01/housekeepers-association-proposed-settlement-draft/, accessed February 11, 2020.

[5] Reclaiming the University of the People, “Final Housekeepers Settlement Agreement” https://uncofthepeople.com/2018/05/01/final-housekeepers-settlement-agreement/, accessed February 11, 2020.

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