2019 August 2019

Racism is a Labor Issue: The UNC TA Strike and Black-led Movements Against White Supremacy

We write this essay as strike supporters to encourage others in nominally secure positions, and especially those in tenured and other protected positions, to utilize their positions in the fight against racism and fascism at the university.

By A. Danielle Dulken and Jennifer Standish

We write this essay as members of StrikeDownSam and as two white, able-bodied, cis-women who were not TAs but recognized the values of our institutional positioning and understood the risks we could afford to incur. We remain critical of whiteness, ours included, in organizing spaces like StrikeDownSam. And we write this essay as strike supporters to encourage others in nominally secure positions, and especially those in tenured and other protected positions, to utilize their positions in the fight against racism and fascism at the university.

In the blue-black evening light of December 3, 2018, doctoral student and anti-racist organizer Maya Little called for a Teaching Assistants’ strike at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Earlier that day, then-Chancellor Carol Folt and a small committee of trustees delivered a plan to the Board of Governors to return the toppled Confederate monument back to campus with a proposed multimillion-dollar price tag. Around 7 p.m., hundreds of student protestors poured down the footpaths of campus and swelled into a crowd at Peace and Justice Plaza to hear Little speak. Protestors cheered Little’s call and a sign, NO SHRINE FOR SAM, waved above the crowd. Across the street and to their backs, the stone plinth of the Confederate Monument receded into the shadows of dusk.

Over the next hours, in a right-to-work state that outlaws public sector worker strikes, graduate workers and their allies organized a non-union, grassroots labor action. Specifically, graduate workers designed a plan to withhold student grades from the registrar, refusing to complete the final transaction of their contract with the University until the demands of the antiracists were met.[1] The strike ended when the Board of Governors rejected the plan from UNC administers and Trustees to return the statue to campus. In the wake of the two-week long action, top University administrators resigned, graduate student fees were revoked, and UNC’s Confederate monument was fully removed.[2]

“Tar Heels Tore the Statue Down. Anti-racists Run this Town.”[3]

Since 1913, a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier, called Silent Sam, stood atop a stone plinth on the northernmost perimeter of campus, towering over students, staff, and faculty. Erected in the Jim Crow Era with University and United Daughters of the Confederacy funds, and dedicated by the avowed white supremacist Julian Carr, Silent Sam was a reminder that UNC-Chapel Hill was predicated on white supremacy and built in service to it. 

But as the University prepared for fall classes in August 2018, a crowd of students and community activists ripped the Confederate Monument in two, pulling the Confederate soldier from its stone base and crashing it face-first into the earth. University leadership has since held the statue at an undisclosed and secure location while Folt and the special committee planned its future. On the afternoon of December 3rd, Folt presented the highly anticipated proposal to the UNC Board of Governors, which recommended a $5.3 million “education” facility to ensconce the toppled statue with an annual security budget of $800,000. Hidden in the appendices of the proposal, a “Safety Panel” hired by the University also proposed the establishment of a $2 million mobile police force to quell civic dissent at UNC system school campuses across the state.

The multi-million-dollar proposal outraged the campus community. Since at least the 1960s, Black-led students, workers, and faculty protested Silent Sam. In the months leading up to the statue’s toppling and after its swift fall, academic departments released statements in support of its removal, calling the statue racist and a threat to student safety. So when Folt proposed to erect a multi-million-dollar center to protect and sanctify the Confederate Monument, it did not take long for hundreds of community members to mobilize, descend onto the main thoroughfares of campus, disrupt traffic, and demand justice: Silent Sam could never return to UNC.

In the hours following the protest, graduate students—as well as undergraduate and faculty allies— responded to Little’s call to strike against racism.[4] They networked across departments and colleges to form an ad hoc collective of striking TAs who called themselves StrikeDownSam. In these formative hours, the participating TAs designed their plan for the strike. As they laid the foundation to formally withhold grades, the TAs generated a Twitter account to publish the demands of the strike as well as the number of TA strikers which grew day by day. They also published their demands on an activist website that had been built and updated by students organizing against the Confederate monument in 2017.

Photograph from the StrikeDownSam Twitter account.

Although graduate students and campus workers at UNC-Chapel Hill recently re-established a labor union at the University of North Carolina, the UNC TA strike was not a union-led strike. TA’s followed the lead of a Black queer student organizer, Little, and the calls for justice from undergraduate organizations like Black Congress, Mi Pueblo, Campus Y, and others, who were and are the primary force against white supremacy at UNC.[5] Inspired by these groups and buttressed by the groundwork of the community-based Defend UNC collective, TAs went on strike thanks to decades of foundational labor undergone by Black and Brown activists and the risk Little took to make the call to action.

Why Strike Against Racism? 

Like racist hiring practices and on-the-job discrimination, we must concede that structural, institutional racism is a labor issue.

At UNC, people of color have been pushed to study and work under the cast of structural whiteness and settler colonialism. Historically white colleges and universities aim to naturalize whiteness, and in some cases protect and amplify avowed white supremacists.[6] These structures, like white-centered curriculums and the university’s extra-legal Honor Court, also attempt to invalidate Black life and Black movement building and the lives and movements of other people of color on campus.[7] Describing this system in the language of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Black faculty members at UNC publicly argued after the statue came down that Silent Sam had created a “racially hostile work environment.” #Strikedownsam recognized this workplace condition as something to protest with their labor. 

As is the case at many universities, white supremacy’s indelible imprint tracks back to UNC’s origins. Founded in 1789, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is the nation’s first public university. Many of the University founders benefited from the slave economy of the South, even those who relocated to Chapel Hill, North Carolina from the North.[8] In most cases, the capital these educational leaders stole from enslaved laborers, and the sale thereof, made possible their prominent institutional positions. Beyond simply adhering to the anti-Black philosophy of slavery, many of the university’s founders were architects of it, disseminating anti-Black legislation against enslaved peoples and precipitating violence against America’s new, stolen population.[9] UNC’s founding enslavers used enslaved labor to build the University, brick-by-brick, and attend to university students.[10] Later, founding enslavers were honored with memorializations across the built landscape. Today, over twenty structures on campus bare the name of white supremacist enslavers and those who continued to institute white supremacy after Congress passed the thirteenth amendment.The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s structural and ideological foundations cannot be untangled from the racism that bore them.

Silent Sam was a visible assertion of the University’s past and a proposition for its future. This is why Black campus leaders have labored against it —without compensation— for generations. This is why Little, a Black, queer doctoral student, demanded graduate workers use their labor to prevent its return. Little belongs to a long genealogy of Black-led protest at UNC.

Black students desegregated the University in 1955. 1968 is the first recorded protest against Silent Sam.[11] Over the next sixty years, Black-led movements rallied against the statue.

In 2015, The Real Silent Sam Coalition, an interracial, anti-racist Black-led student and community collective, demanded a campus hall named after a white supremacist because of his high ranking position in the Ku Klux Klan be renamed Hurston Hall in honor of the Black scholar, Zora Neale Hurston.[12] The group was also the first student organization to demand Silent Sam’s removal.

Campus protests against the statue reignited soon after, following the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville Virginia. After an 800 person demonstration held on what student organizers declared “the first day of Silent Sam’s last semester,” protests against the statue dominated the 2017-2018 school year. Activists staged a two-week, 24-hour sit-in at the statue, student organizations orchestrated a boycott of campus stores, dining halls, and restaurants, and Black alumni announced their refusal to participate in the school’s 4.25 billion dollar fundraising campaign.[13] In April of 2018, University police arrested Little for splashing a mixture of her blood and red paint across the statue, reigniting national attention on the University’s monument. Throughout the year, student filmmakers documented and contextualized the movement, premiering the creative documentary Silence Sam in May of 2018.

The University’s decision to let Silent Sam reign over the campus community for 105 years was a reminder of its efforts to ignore and actively silence Black-led protest.[14]

Instead, university administrators have increasingly shown their dedication to upholding white supremacy by prioritizing funding to protect Silent Sam and appease supporters of the statue over the physical and mental well-being of their students, workers, and faculty. The millions of dollars proposed by Folt and the Board of Trustees to build a new memorial and increase militarized police insulted the UNC and local community. Already, UNC had poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into round-the-clock security for the statue, while students were brutalized by University police for its protection. Furthermore, the statue has been a rallying point for neo-Confederate and white supremacist groups, serving as an invitation for racial terror and violence on campus. In 1971, students rallied at the statue after white supremacists murdered Black community member, James Cates, on UNC’s campus. For decades, Black and Brown workers at UNC were forced to labor under a persistent threat of racially motivated violence because their employers refused to prioritize worker safety and remove the statue. 

Frequently overlooked during and after the strike, though just as insidious for both worker safety and freedom, was the Safety Panel’s suggestion to “implement a systemwide [40-person] mobile force that can be deployed to any campus as needed … to address large protests that involve unlawful behavior.”[15] Anti-Black police violence is a national crisis, and university campuses are not immune from it. From COINTEL PRO surveillance of Black Student Movement in the late 1960s to the 2017 undercover police infiltration of the peaceful Silent Sam Sit-In, UNC has been at the forefront of campus police surveillance. The outcomes of this level of policing have deadly consequences, particularly for Black people. This is tragically exhibited by the recent shooting of a Black couple by Yale University police and murder of Black North Carolina Central University student DeAndre Ballard in his own home by a private security firm hired by the university. The Durham DA’s recent refusal to prosecute Ballard’s killer exemplifies how this racialized violence is endorsed across the country. 

Moreover, the Panel, which included two former FBI directors and a former U.S. Army Special Forces commander, explicitly reasoned to further militarize UNC campus police because they felt the Orange County District Court had not sufficiently punished antiracist activists like Little. “We must take into consideration,” the report read, “the fact that the recent decisions of some Orange County judges add to the security risk.” Not only are workers tried in the historically anti-labor, racist legal system and (if they are also students) through the school’s Honor Court system, they are also extralegally punished through the expansion of private campus police forces and surveillance systems. The ability to safely dissent against university employers is rapidly dwindling, leaving workers with little recourse outside their labor power. 

De-Romanticizing Unions

Graduate student unionization is critical for the collective protection of a vulnerable workforce. The TA action may not have reached the school-wide latitude it did without the small, interdepartmental network of graduate students established through the revived workers union.

However, we learned through the UNC graduate worker strike that unions are imperfect models of collective action saddled with procedural norms as well as internal forms of racism. Organizing a strike at a historically white university, with a predominantly white student body, meant many of the white organizers had to encounter and address their own investment in whiteness. Because the strike happened in real time, with no previous planning, graduate student organizers found that a union’s bureaucratic power-lines challenged the strike’s potential, while union affiliation could have endangered non-TA union members.

Below we examine these fault lines.

Unions–especially unions in the South–have historically been vehicles for Black-led civil rights and anti-racist organizing. The term “civil rights unionism,” for example, was coined from the title of historian Robert Korstad’s 2003 book on the Black-led, civil rights-oriented union organizing in 1940s North Carolina and Detroit. By using the infrastructure and resources of their unions, working-class African-Americans made significant headway against not only workplace discrimination but also around such issues as Black voter registration and housing rights.

However, as Korstad and other historians have shown, white union leadership in particular retreated from these ‘radical’ efforts when they threatened the preservation of the union as an institution. Other obstacles to antiracist activism through unions map onto the obstacles facing all union activity today. Right-to-work laws and bans on public sector collective bargaining and striking in North Carolina have made it incredibly difficult to organize unions in the state and across the South. With the exception of brief moments of radical worker organizing —such as the successful Food Workers Strike in 1969 and the Housekeeper Association campaign in the 1990s—there has yet to be a sustained, cross-campus worker movement at UNC.

Without a union infrastructure that 1) represented a large proportion of workers 2) could reasonably ensure the protection of each differentially at risk type of worker 3) could respond immediately to the Board of Trustee proposal and 4) was primarily dedicated to fighting white supremacy on campus, UNC TAs struck outside of the union context and on a volunteer basis. This yielded a number of benefits as well as obstacles for the group of workers committed to the grassroots strike.

The element of surprise and lack of any official affiliation offered TAs protection from immediate threats of university administrators, who proposed to revoke strikers’ tuition remission, demanded course instructor information from individual departments, and indicated they would hire temporary workers to complete planned future courses. The willingness of TAs to strike immediately in response to Little’s call to action, and in spite of the risk posed to them, also cultivated an overwhelmingly sympathetic public response. Across the nation thousands of people responded through petitions, statements, and editorials to support the TA action and demand the Board of Governors reject the Trustee’s proposal. This included faculty at state and private colleges, professional associations, former Tar Heels turned professional athletes, UNC undergraduates, and importantly, one of the highest paid state employees in North Carolina, UNC basketball coach Roy Williams. This outpouring of public attention combined with the strategic anonymity and surprise of the strike were perhaps the only buffers the graduate workers had from being summarily fired.

It quickly became clear, however, that the broader campus community lacked a culture in which striking was a reasonable response to workplace racism. Withholding labor is in effect the most powerful method by which employees can directly challenge the damaging labor practices of their employers. Yet, it proved difficult to convince many workers, including many dedicated to antiracism, that striking was an appropriate and effective strategy to sway UNC administrators. The tried and true anti-labor tactic of vilifying care workers, such as teachers and nurses, for “harming clients”—in this case, undergraduate students—by withholding their labor circulated among administrators and swayed many faculty against the action. At the same time that strikers were receiving letters of support from undergraduates, administrators were completely unresponsive to TA efforts to ensure student financial aid and graduation would not be disrupted, instead suggesting that graduate students actually had control over these kinds of administrative decisions.

Meanwhile, the lack of formal interdepartmental networks and unshakable trust among graduate workers made it difficult to ensure a sustained commitment to the full timeline of the strike across various departments. There is also no question that white graduate students’ attachment to structural whiteness challenged their (our) commitment to the strike. Social theorist Charles Mills describes the process of uncoupling from whiteness the work of becoming a “race traitor” or someone who “rejects the inherent privilege of being white, and who attempts to combat the inequalities of the racial contract.”[16] For many white people, rejecting whiteness is a complex, ingrained, and difficult risk to accept.

Cross-departmental unity, or lack thereof, around radical tactics proved critical again at the beginning of the Spring semester, as strikers boycotted departmental meetings organized by then-College of Arts and Sciences Dean, Kevin Guskiewicz, to talk about “the graduate student experience.” Strikers interpreted the unprecedented invitation as an effort to divide and conquer the unity graduate students had displayed in a cross-department College of Arts and Sciences town hall during the strike, and to pivot away from issues of white supremacy and police violence towards stipends and student fees. In retrospect, more cross-departmental trust and unity was needed among workers to make clear the violence and racism of the administration’s pivoting tactics and to convince non-involved graduate workers to reject the seduction of face-to-face meetings with administrators. Without all graduate workers committed to the boycott, Guskiewicz and other administrators were given a platform to 1) feign ignorance, in three separate meetings, of police deployment of pepper spray against student protestors 2) redirect graduate student frustrations of racism on campus towards issues of pay and research funding and 3) relitigate whether or not Silent Sam belonged at UNC after decades of Black students, workers, and faculty had made clear that it threatened their safety on campus.

Photograph from the StrikeDownSam Twitter account.


The strike achieved many of its goals. The collective power of graduate workers garnered national support which pressured the Board of Governors to reject the proposal eleven days after its announcement. Less than a month after proposing the statue be placed in a securitized center on campus, Chancellor Carol Folt resigned and authorized the removal of the statue’s base, conceding in an email to the campus community that “the presence of the remaining parts of the monument on campus” threatened the “personal safety and well-being of our community and to our ability to provide a stable, productive educational environment.” And after striking TAs forced the attention of University deans, the nearly $1000 per semester fees—which graduate workers had called to remove for years—suddenly disappeared. We cannot ignore that the two are related. The TA strike presented opportunities for graduate workers and the community to reflect on how to best leverage our labor and positionality in service of movements against white supremacy in the university.

White campus members must understand that it cannot be the sole responsibility of the oppressed to demand their humanity. It is the responsibility of the collective to listen and support Black and other POC demands. In the case of UNC, student organizers worked for years to establish internal and external networks as well as bail funds to support activists. Our role was merely to elevate their work, not control it. White people—including white, activist graduate students— must be critical and aware of racism and white supremacy within activist formations, even those dedicated to antiracism. And when the lowest paid, most worked, and precarious workers fight for your community, secure faculty and administrators need to follow them. By utilizing our positions, building community, and developing radical worker consciousness, we build power. The university works because we do.

Jennifer Standish is a history PhD student at UNC-Chapel Hill studying 20th labor and civil rights and has been involved in activism against Silent Sam and police violence at UNC.

A. Danielle Dulken is an educator, organizer, and oral historian and from the mountains of Western North Carolina. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Further Reading

[1] Graduate worker Katelyn Campbell offered this description of the action in a departmental meeting.

[2] The Board of Governors has been scheduled to release a new plan for the statue twice since rejecting the December 2018 Board of Trustee proposal, and have both times postponed the decision.

[3] UNC activist chant.

[4] It is worth noting that the faculty and undergraduate allies who supported and contributed labor to the strike were almost exclusively womxn of color.

[5] StrikeDownSam follows a path built by various Black-led UNC movements in the last decades, including the Food Workers Strike, the Real Silent Sam Coalition, and the movements to preserve Upendo Lounge and create the brick-and-mortar center for Black culture and history at UNC, the Sonya Hanyes Stone Center.

[6] At the 2019 Moore Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program conference, sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva asked the audience to consider a shift in language, away from the phrase “Predominantly White Institutions” or PWI and toward “Historically white colleges and universities” to make clear for whom these spaces were built and who, historically, they seek to admit and support.

[7] Although we specifically address the Black, white axis of white supremacy at UNC-Chapel Hill, the fight against white supremacy at UNC is not a Black and white issue. White supremacy extends harm to all communities of color–it also means they resist it and fight back. See Malinda Maynor Lowery’s article on Native resistance of Silent Sam in The News & Observer, “Silent Sam is not sacred. The blood on him is.”

[8] Joseph Caldwell, UNC’s first president, and Elisha Mitchell, a UNC geology professor and Trustee, are two examples of northerners who moved South and became enslavers at UNC.

[9] One example is UNC trustee and North Carolina Supreme Court judge Thomas Ruffin who ruled in the case State v. Mann (1829) that “the power of the master must be absolute to render the submission of the slave perfect” which banned the prosecution of enslavers for physically harming and murdering enslaved people. Ruffin was also an enslaver and partner of a brutal slave trading business which purposefully sought to separate families.

[10] The Twitter account, Sam’s Reckoning, lists UNC’s Confederate dead and publishes excerpts from historical records to demonstrate the extent of slavery and slave ownership affilated with the University. The account also examines the University’s relationship to escheats, a system which enabled the University to absorb unclaimed estates in North Carolina–in many instances, estates in the antebellum South included enslaved people. In summary, escheats reveal the University was funded in the 18th and 19th century through the sales of enslaved people.

[11] The 1968 protest followed the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. In two prior instances, 1964 and 1967, students questioned the statue’s racism but did not directly engage the statue. Soon thereafter, in 1969, the Southern Student Organizing Committee (SSOC) posted the demands of the Black Student Movement on Silent Sam.. https://exhibits.lib.unc.edu/exhibits/show/silent-sam/timeline

[12] In 2015, the Board of Trustees announced Saunders Hall would be renamed “Carolina Hall,” rejecting the demand that it be named after Black scholar Zora Neale Hurston. They also instituted a 16 year moratorium on renaming buildings with the endorsement of prominent faculty: https://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2016/12/op-ed-the-fight-for-hurston-hall-is-not-over.

[13] Students later discovered the sit-in had been infiltrated by an undercover UNC police officer following orders from University administrators to surveil the student-activists.

[14] Although UNC administrators cited legal consequences for removing the statue, Gov. Roy Cooper publicly permitted then-Chancellor Folt to take it down.

[15] https://bot.unc.edu/files/2018/12/12_03_18-Report-Appendices.pdf

[16] Charles Mills, The Racial Contract.

1 comment on “Racism is a Labor Issue: The UNC TA Strike and Black-led Movements Against White Supremacy

  1. Perri Zepeda

    What an intelligent, educational, comprehensive article for all people to understand the dynamics of this integral piece of US history. I think of anyone who wants to speak to this “at the table,” first read this article with an open mind and heart. Everyone at the table must do their homework. Add in emotional intelligence. EMPATHY.

    Liked by 1 person

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