This Week in the Archive: Unionization and Unification

by Nathan Burns

Nathan Burns is a junior from Newtown, Pennsylvania double-majoring in French and Leadership Studies and minoring in English. This summer of 2019 marks Nathan’s first time working with the Race & Racism Project. On campus, Nathan is also a writing consultant and a member of the dining services student advisory committee.

In my research this summer documenting racism and segregation in dining services on campus, I wish I had the opportunity to focus more on racial dynamics between Food Service employees, administrators, and students. I find this subtopic of my larger research project and exhibit “Dining Discrimination at the University of Richmond” especially important since a majority of Food Service employees are Black and because the University of Richmond has been known to hire employees of color for these jobs as long as there have been dining halls on campus. Unfortunately, I was unable to include many items relating to Food Service employees in my final project exhibit because the exhibit focused instead on narratives of student experiences with segregation and their relationships with dining services. That said, I would like to dedicate this blog post to a few of the articles and correspondences I found in my research that indicate Food Service employees’ fight to be considered as professionals in their line of work. The dining hall workers deserve a place in this narrative of racism in dining services, and their voices should not go unheard in this discussion of dining hall discrimination.

One well documented moment in the University of Richmond’s history occurred when Food Service employees voiced their struggles in the early 1980s by filing a petition to unionize. While searching for information related to the centralization of the Richmond College and Westhampton College dining halls, I came across a 1982 Collegian article titled “Food Service employees file petition to unionize,” written by student Chris Reid. I did not then realize that this article would lead to many, many more articles and opinion pieces about unionization efforts. What I read in that initial document undoubtedly shocked me, since the new Heilman Dining Hall employees cited unfair wage schedules, unfair workloads, unfair scheduling and insensitive employers as their impetus for their petition to unionize. It was clear from what the workers stated in the article that they were mistreated and devalued; however, Food Service management seemingly did everything it could to quiet these sentiments and end the unionization effort.

Upon further research, I realized that this push for unionization appeared to be the culmination of two other events documented in the Collegian: the central dining hall’s opening and large-scale food fights among students. In Chris Reid’s article, Director of Food Services Rob Inlow cites problems with opening the new dining hall that could have caused the employees to seek unionization, since the workers were overworked and had to familiarize themselves with new equipment in the hall’s opening weeks. This unfavorable situation, potentially aggravated by a heavily-documented November 19th dining hall food fight among students, led to employees feeling underappreciated and insulted in their profession. Various anonymous employees expressed this frustration clearly in the article: “’We are treated worse than dogs,’ a worker said. ‘They believe no one knows what they’re doing. It’s embarrassing to have your hand held all the time.’”

This 1982 article by Chris Reid is not the first time dining hall workers had their professionalism questioned, or even mocked. Two much older documents add to a narrative that reflects the sentiments of the workers in 1982. The first article was published in the Collegian in 1917 titled “Y.W.C.A. Cabinet Presents Minstrel Show: Young Ladies Act as End-Men and Have Jolly Evening.” This article summarizes a minstrel show held in the Westhampton dining hall, hosted by the Young Women’s Christian Association. Minstrel shows such as this one often took place in dining halls, with participants portraying Black servers waiting on white students, reinforcing racial stereotypes. I can only imagine the strength it took to endure such an event as a Food Service worker of color to serve students who blatantly mocked your profession and your life—for their own entertainment. A separate item I encountered on one of my trips to the archive in the Virginia Baptist Historical Society was a 1948 letter from University of Richmond Secretary-Treasurer Charles H. Wheeler III to University President George M. Modlin. This letter addressed unnecessary actions taken by Marian H. Hamilton, the Westhampton College Dean of Students. According to the letter, Hamilton overstepped her bounds by calling a meeting with the Westhampton dining hall’s waitresses and distributing lengthy, tedious instruction sheets (a copy of which is attached to this letter). This meeting caused “considerable resentment” among the Food Service employees, and for good reason: they were not being treated as professionals.

But one might still ask, what does the history of Food Service employees have to do with race and racism at the University of Richmond? Articles such as 1982’s “Food Service employees file petition to unionize” are glimpses into a longtime narrative of racial dynamics that do not always receive attention because they may not appear to explicitly address race, yet racial dynamics are often at play. The lack of respect for and undervaluing of workers by students and administrators is relevant to my overall research because Food Service workers of color were most likely the first Black people on campus. During this summer fellowship, I wish I had more time to uncover more of their experiences.

One thought on “This Week in the Archive: Unionization and Unification

  • September 5, 2019 at 3:24 pm

    As a student from 1945 – 1949, I have some comments to make on your research. I’d be delighted to meet with you at your convenience and perhaps give you some context into which your comments might be slightly different, or possibly not. In any case, I get concerned when research gives only a partial understanding of what’s happening in any time in the past!

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