A coalition of independent local unions and militant workers’ committees founded UE in 1936. In UE’s early days, members mostly worked in electrical manufacturing and radio assembly plants. After trying unsuccessfully to join the AFL, which wanted craft unions rather than industrial unions, these original workers founded UE as an independent union led by a relatively young coalition of laborers. From its beginnings, UE was an extremely inclusive union; in fact, much of the inclusive language from the union’s constitution came from the original meeting of delegates in 1936!
UE scored several major victories in the 1930s and ‘40s that established its commitment to equality, fair wages, and fighting discrimination in the workplace. During the 1950s, however, UE was gutted by Cold War anti-communist efforts both from the US government and rival unions. While this was particularly harmful to the union, UE recovered and gained strength through the 1960s and ‘70s, expanding membership and developing alliances with unions in Mexico and Canada as the global economy became increasingly internationalized. An independent union of North Carolina Public Service Workers joined UE in the late 1990s, forming UE Local 150 dedicated to fighting for working rights and against discrimination in North Carolina.
Labor Organizing at UNC
UNC’s labor history is rich and varied, reaching back to the Janitor’s Association of the 1930s, and the UNC food workers strike of the 1960s. Focusing on housekeeper led-organizing on campus from the 1990s onward, UNC’s housekeepers, who were about 90% Black and 70% women, faced poverty wages, increasing workloads, lack of promotions and training, and institutional racism. They organized into the UNC Housekeepers’ Association with help from Black Workers For Justice, a grassroots group that fights racial discrimination in workplaces across the South. The housekeepers brought a class-action discrimination lawsuit against UNC, arguing that their poor working conditions were a vestige of slavery. In 1996, the Housekeepers Association and UNC settled the lawsuit, and the housekeepers received $1 million in back pay and benefits, the right to “meet and confer,” or meet to discuss workplace issues, with the Chancellor. In 1997, the UNC Housekeepers Association joined the independent NC Public Service Workers Union, which was organized in part by Black Workers For Justice. They soon joined United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, better known as UE and became UE Local 150.
UE was a good fit for the Public Service Workers Union because UE did grassroots, worker-driven–not top-down–organizing, just like the housekeepers had at UNC.
The housekeeper’s union faced a lot of resistance from UNC, but they had many victories, too. UNC recognized workers’ right to join a union without retaliation after initially declaring the union “illegal.” The University let union representatives represent workers in grievance proceedings, and racist housekeeping supervisors lost their jobs. Union members began winning grievances brought against UNC.
Where is the Housekeeper Union today?
Housekeepers continued to face and fight discrimination at UNC, and today a few housekeepers are members of UE, but there has not been an active chapter—meaning fifty or more members—at UNC in a number of years.
This is at least partly because union leaders retired or found other jobs, supervisors or administrators tried to make organizing more difficult, and North Carolina’s so-called “right-to-work” laws also make organizing more difficult.
UE Continued to Expand in North Carolina
First, UE 150 expanded to Department of Health and Human Services workers. Then, an independent union of Durham city workers voted to join UE 150. Today, UE 150 is in many North Carolina cities, including Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham, Rocky Mount, Greensboro, Butner, Goldsboro, Kinston, Wilson, and Greenville.