The University of North Carolina has been in upheaval since the administration announced plans to return to campus a Confederate monument known as “Silent Sam,” torn down by activists in August. Graduate student teaching assistants have taken the boldest steps against Silent Sam’s return, opposing the proposal to build a $5.3 million history center to house the statue, as well as a mobile police force to guard it.
Beginning Monday, graduate students started withholding grades and will continue to do so until their demand that the administration withdraw its proposal is met. Graduate students also pointed out the hypocrisy of spending millions to re-erect a symbol of white supremacy in 2018, when their low stipends mean that many of them cannot afford basic necessities.
Maya Little, a graduate student and activist, explained, “If students and workers of color are not guaranteed safety, a university that values their lives and dignity, then we will not work to perpetuate its administration.” #StrikeDownSam, she continued, is “our labor movement against racism at UNC.”
This tactic of blending anti-racism and labor activism comes with a long and complicated history. In the South, activists who organized for civil rights have long understood that the struggle to dismantle racial inequality could not be divorced from workers’ rights. Political and economic exclusion were both cornerstones of Jim Crow, and an effective movement had to address both if racial equality was to be achieved. In a society that often reduces debates to the lowest common denominator, the #StrikeDownSam movement — now growing in momentum — reminds us of the power and necessity of linking the fight against various forms of oppression.
During the 1930s, fascism festered abroad and at home. While Nazis embraced anti-Semitism, in the U.S. South fascism thrived in the form of Jim Crow. From Texas to Florida to North Carolina, women and men who celebrated a Lost Cause version of the Civil War restricted the lives of people of color through laws and social customs that limited, among many other things, a person’s ability to earn a living wage. Segregationists understood that if people of color were to have access to jobs that paid a living wage, they’d be able to leave exploitative workplaces and have economic security, both of which would threaten the white supremacist order.
The labor movement often proved the most promising path to challenge Jim Crow, because left-led unions were among the only organizations that actively understood this link between workplace democracy and campaigns for civil rights.
In the 1940s, black and brown workers throughout the South linked class-consciousness and race-based solidarity in what historian Robert Korstad calls “civil rights unionism.” Black women and men who worked in tobacco manufacturing in Durham, N.C., black industrial workers in Memphis, Latino agricultural workers in Texas: all joined left-led unions to combat labor exploitation and racial discrimination, the twin pillars of white supremacist politics of the Jim Crow South.
By 1950, anti-union and anti-civil-rights politicians struck back under the guise of anticommunism, and the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1950s prioritized the desegregation of public accommodations over combating racism in the fields and on the shop floors. But with the Poor People’s Campaign in the late 1960s, black civil rights activists turned their attention once again to economic fairness. Calling for a multiracial movement of the poor, they argued that systemic oppression plagued American society and that desegregation and voting rights alone would not remake society.
The issues at the heart of the Poor People’s Campaign — entrenched poverty and racism — reverberated in movements at UNC in the same period. In 1968, black and brown food service workers joined with the Black Student Movement to protest discrimination. At that time, nearly 100 percent of nonacademic campus workers were African Americans, while black students made up a tiny fraction of the student body and the university had only one black professor, a recent hire.
The coalition of workers and student activists sent a list of demands to the chancellor, which included scholarships for black students, the creation of a black studies program and an end to intolerable working conditions for campus workers. When the chancellor ignored their demands, workers went on strike and students disrupted services, forcing the dining hall to close. Workers won the strike when they negotiated higher wages, but a year later, the university outsourced dining services and many lost their jobs. This sparked a new round of strikes in which student and faculty allies bolstered the workers’ cause.
When it comes to campus workers, however, UNC has often proved intransigent. In the 1990s, UNC housekeepers, almost all of whom were African American, formed an association to demand better working conditions. Students showed support by holding fundraisers for them. Instead of improving conditions, however, the administration threatened these students with Honor Court charges (the students won the right to organize with housekeepers). The housekeepers eventually filed a class-action discrimination lawsuit. In it, they linked their poor working conditions to the history of slavery at UNC.
Today’s activists likewise recognize how institutions built by enslaved labor and on the lands of exploited indigenous people continue to be sustained by the cheap labor of workers of color. Because universities like UNC rely upon the precarious labor of graduate students and campus workers to run their prestigious institution, the graduate students leading #StrikeDownSam have promised to continue their efforts into the next semester by working for increased wages and better benefits for campus and graduate workers.
The teaching assistants withholding their labor understand that Silent Sam is more than a Civil War commemoration. Rather, the statue symbolizes a history of white supremacist policies and exploitation that have hurt workers, students and the graduate students who straddle those two categories. What these student workers demand is that UNC recognize the humanity of those who sustain the university — and understand that a living wage is a civil right.