The 1972 strike/boycott at Church’s Chicken
The following historical article is the first in a two-part series focusing on labor unrest at Church’s Fried Chicken stores in Atlanta during the 1970s. This initial installment tells the story of a 24-day strike and boycott that shut down the majority of Atlanta-area Church’s locations in 1972. As I explain, this struggle took place within the context of a broader strike wave that swept Atlanta that same year. The second installment in this series will recount two additional bouts of labor unrest at Atlanta Church’s stores that took place in 1977 and 1979.
– Ben S, Atlanta
Across the country, fast food workers and other low-wage service sector workers are beginning to fight back. Many are joining ranks with an industry-wide organizing campaign – known in some cities as Fight for 15 – which is being backed by the Service Employees union. This movement is raising two central demands: a $15 minimum wage and the right for workers to organize and join unions. After beginning in New York City in November 2012 and moving to several other cities the following spring, the movement spread across the country on August 29, 2013 with a nationwide day of fast food walkouts called for by the campaign. In total, groups of fast food workers walked off the job in some 60 cities throughout the country, including numerous cities in the traditionally non-union South.
In Atlanta, around twenty local fast food workers took part in the August 29 strike, according to Atlanta Jobs with Justice (JwJ). Some of the most inspiring events in Atlanta’s protests occurred at a local Church’s Fried Chicken store where three workers – the largest number from any single store in Atlanta – walked off the job. During a protest held mid-morning at that location, a delegation of striking workers and community supporters marched into the store and presented a list of demands to the store manager.
As unprecedented as this action appears, the August 29 strike is not the first time that fast food workers in Atlanta have engaged in collective struggle in order to further their shared interests. Nor is it the first time that workers at Church’s Fried Chicken have fought back. Most notably, in 1972, workers at Church’s stores throughout the city took part in a 24-day strike and boycott movement that successfully shut down the majority of the company’s Atlanta-area stores. This struggle began as a boycott protest triggered by the company’s racist treatment of a Black assistant manager. When community protesters responded to this by setting up a picket line in front of a Church’s store in one Black neighborhood, the store’s workers staged a spontaneous walkout. In the weeks ahead, this strike and boycott movement spread to most of the city’s 17 Church’s stores.
A key figure in the expansion of the struggle was veteran Civil Rights leader Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Williams provided crucial assistance to strikers through mobilizing support for a mass boycott campaign that drew the active participation of Black students and community residents throughout the city. Ultimately, the strike came to a successful conclusion with Williams negotiating an agreement with the company that brought a series of major gains for Church’s workers, including increased pay, expanded benefits, and a promise to address systemic racism in hiring and promotional practices.
In the following text, I’ll tell the story of the 1972 strike/boycott. In addition, I’ll also detail two subsequent bouts of labor unrest that took place at Atlanta Church’s stores in 1977 and 1979. In so doing, my goal is not only to recount a significant, yet largely unknown, piece of history; I also aim to draw some practical lessons of relevance to the current movement to organize fast food workers. In other words, I hope to assist the contemporary fast food workers’ movement by drawing insight from the past.
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The 1972 strike at Church’s Fried Chicken came as part of a much broader upsurge in workers’ struggle that swept Atlanta that year. As Monica Waugh-Benton recounts in her superb master’s thesis, “Strike Fever,” throughout 1972, Black workers took part in what amounted to a strike wave aimed at routing out one of the most persistent vestiges of Jim Crow – workplace discrimination and on-the-job racism. In this way, the strikers were motivated by a desire to realize the yet-unattained aims of the Civil Rights movement. In addition to calls for an end to on-the-job racism, the strikers also raised other grievances, demanding pay raises, improved working conditions, and better treatment by management.
What caused this strike wave? Waugh-Benton rightly asserts that this movement “was not spontaneous.” Rather, the strike wave was made possible by the development of a vibrant network of New Left and Civil Rights groups and activists during the course of the mass struggles of the 1960s. These groups helped to sustain and provide an organized base for an anti-racist movement that, overtime, began to spread to the workplace. For Atlanta’s Black workers, this development was the result of their experience in witnessing and – in many cases – participating in the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. As Waugh-Benton notes, by 1972, this experience had produced a number of “holdover tensions and lessons” within the city’s Black working class. These two dynamics – the existence of an organized base of support for popular struggle and an ideological radicalization set in motion by the movements of the 1960s – laid the basis for an outbreak of labor unrest in 1972. Thus, when a small portion of Atlanta workers began to fight back early in the year, the network of organizations and activists connected to Atlanta’s Civil Rights and New Left movements quickly moved to support them. These groups provided striking workers with essential organizational assistance, community backing, and – in turn – confidence. After a modest start, the nascent strike wave began to rapidly expand following the success of several initial strikes, including the strike/boycott at Church’s Fried Chicken. These early victories helped to imbue other groups of workers with the confidence to enter into struggle themselves – thereby pushing the movement forward at an increasingly rapid pace.
As with other workplaces in Atlanta and elsewhere, the Civil Rights-inspired unrest at Church’s did not end in 1972. In both 1977 and 1979, Church’s workers waged further struggles to resist on-the-job racism and fight for other gains. In 1977, Church’s workers threatened to strike again, thereby forcing management to negotiate an agreement that included significant company concessions. When management subsequently reneged on their promises, a number of workers – assisted, once again, by Hosea Williams – kicked off a second strike and boycott movement. Unfortunately, the 1979 strike/boycott failed to become as widespread as had been the case in 1972. Ultimately, the movement went down in defeat.
Why did the 1979 strike/boycott fail while the 1972 movement triumphed? Most importantly, in 1972, the broader political, social, and economic environment throughout the United States was far more conducive toward winning strikes than was the case in 1979. In other words, by 1979, the balance of class forces had shifted against the interests of workers. This was especially true in Atlanta. By the latter date, the growth of the strike/boycott at Chuch’s was drastically hampered by a number of factors: a drift rightward on the part of various Civil Rights organizations; the demise of the city’s New Left movement; and a crackdown on organized labor precipitated by the city’s breaking of a 1977 sanitation workers’ strike. Because of this, striking Chuch’s workers had far less organized support to rely upon in 1979 than they did in 1972. What’s more, in 1979, the leaders of the strike/boycott campaign – most prominently, Hosea Williams – adopted an approach to organizing that hindered the active involvement and participation of rank-and-file Church’s workers. Rather than seeking to build the leadership and influence of Church’s workers themselves within the movement, Williams instead focused most of his efforts on building the boycott aspect of the campaign. Finally, Williams consciously chose to tailor the campaign around the grievances of Black store managers – a decision that undoubtedly undermined the movement’s ability to mobilize rank-and-file wage workers.
The rank-and-file rebellion and the Atlanta Civil Rights movement
Viewed from a wider lens, the 1972 strike wave in Atlanta can be seen as part of a period of sustained resistance by workers across the country. A recent labor history collection, Rebel Rank and File, terms this period “the rank-and-file rebellion of the long 1970s.” As co-editor Aaron Brenner aptly summarizes in the book’s preface,
Between the early 1960s and 1981, American workers engaged in an extraordinarily high level of workplace militancy, exhibiting a sustained rebelliousness not seen since the 1930s. The most obvious manifestation of their combativeness was one of the largest strike waves in U.S. history, during which workers twice set records for the number of strikes in a single year. Rank-and-file contract rejections, collective insubordination, sabotage, organized slowdowns, and wildcat strikes provided further evidence of workers’ militant mood.
Thus, the 1972 strike wave in Atlanta can be seen as a part of this broader upsurge in class struggle. From a narrower perspective, however, Atlanta’s strike wave was also made possible by the existence of a series of local organizations and networks connected to the Civil Rights and New Left movements. While organized labor was involved in this movement, its role was less significant in Atlanta than was the case elsewhere throughout the country during this period. The reason for this relates, quite simply, to the comparatively diminutive nature of the labor movement in Atlanta and the South in general. In this way, the existence of a number of Civil Rights organizations and New Left groups filled a void created by a weak local labor movement.
In “Strike Fever,” Waugh-Benton provides a useful summary of some of the key players in this movement. This included the SCLC, which helped to broker several settlement agreements on behalf of striking workers. In addition, the head of the Atlanta Community Relations Commission, Rev. Andrew Young, also functioned as an intermediary – albeit one with heavily conflicted political allegiances – between strikers and their employers.
By far the most important Civil Rights figure during the 1972 strike wave, however, was Hosea Williams. As a prominent member of SCLC and a close confidant of the late Martin Luther King, Jr., Williams had, throughout the 1960s, consistently emphasized the importance of supporting the struggles of Black workers as part of the broader Civil Rights movement. In the years following King’s assassination, Williams maintained this orientation. In 1970, for instance, he actively supported striking sanitation workers during a militant 36-day strike waged against the city. Two years later, Williams was quick to endorse and provide material and logistical support to striking workers as the 1972 strike wave began to take hold. In a number of cases throughout 1972 – including the strike at Church’s Fried Chicken – Williams served as a de facto union negotiator for groups of otherwise non-union strikers. In addition, as the movement began to grow, Williams supplied momentum to the strike wave by hosting a weekly “People’s Rally” each Saturday. These rallies provided a venue for Black workers and neighborhood residents from across the city to air grievances, make connections, and build solidarity.
Another key source of support for the movement came from young New Left activists in Atlanta. In her account of the 1972 strike wave, Waugh-Benton contextualizes Atlanta’s New Left movement within the city’s broader counterculture scene. As she notes, by 1970, the city was home to an expansive hippie community, with some five-thousand people living in a hippie neighborhood north of downtown. The New Left movement was loosely connected to this broader social milieu. Significantly, the counterculture movement provided a base of support for the establishment of a local independent radical newspaper, The Great Speckled Bird. First founded in 1968, The Bird provided a crucial source of Left-wing news and analysis about local workers’ struggles and other activist happenings throughout 1972. This proved to be especially important since the movement was largely ignored by the mainstream press, including the city’s Black-owned newspapers.
Finally, within the Atlanta Left, an influential role was played by a group of young revolutionaries that belonged to a Marxist-Leninist organization – the Georgia Communist League (GCL), which later changed its name to the October League (OL) after it merged with another New Left group from California. Founded in 1970, the GCL originally comprised some 50 cadre members – most of them current and former students that had been radicalized through their participation in the Civil Rights and student movements. The GCL had a specifically working-class political orientation; they saw their mission as building a New Communist Party rooted in the U.S. working class. As part of this, the group encouraged its members to find blue-collar jobs in Atlanta’s factories, mills, and other production centers. As the 1972 strike wave began to take shape, this put a number of revolutionaries in key positions to push the struggle forward from within. In particular, members of the GCL played a key role in helping to organize and lead one of the largest and most militant struggles of that year – a seven-week strike at Atlanta’s Mead Packaging Company.
Prelude to the chicken STRIKE!
Like the organizations that provided backing to the 1972 strike wave, the demands raised by workers throughout the course of the year were, in large part, the product of the Civil Rights movement. Indeed, the key grievances of the strike movement related to racial discrimination and shop-floor racism. Thus, by staging these strikes, Black workers hoped to force their employers to implement the legal protections already mandated under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which had specifically outlawed workplace discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” In addition to this central demand, workers also brought to light scores of other economic and political injustices, including “unsafe working conditions, and an allegedly corrupt power structure in the city and at the companies.”
The history of brutal racism and interracial division in Atlanta and the South in general, made the anti-discrimination focus of the 1972 strike wave both a source of unity and, sadly, a source of division within Atlanta’s working class at that time. Indeed, while this focus served as a rallying cry for Black workers, most white workers were inclined to view the movement, at least initially, with skepticism. As one white Leftist that supported the strikes would later recount, most white workers saw the struggle “as a black thing.” Despite these formidable social divisions, the majority of striking workers nonetheless expressed political support for the idea of interracial working-class unity. Black strikers called on whites to join the movement, insisting that their demands – including the demand for an end to racial discrimination – were in the interests of all workers, white and Black alike. Without a doubt, the close involvement of New Leftists and revolutionaries played a role in imbuing the movement with this strain of interracial working-class radicalism.
In her account of the 1972 strike wave, Waugh-Benton loosely pinpoints the start of the movement to a partial strike at the Fulton Cotton Mills in early January 1972. This struggle began when a group of 20 machine operators walked off the job in order to protest the company’s arbitrary dismissal of two of their co-workers. The height of this struggle came during a one-day plant-wide walkout, which brought out about one-fourth of the plant’s workers.
The next development in the movement came in mid-February, when Black workers at the Holy Family Hospital in downtown Atlanta began a campaign to organize a union at their workplace. The key grievances of workers related to the appalling racial segregation at the hospital. Indeed, despite the fact that an estimated 90 percent of the hospital’s patients, doctors, and other workers were Black, Holy Family maintained an almost all-white managerial and clerical staff and board of trustees. In March, the organizing drive turned into a strike when management fired a number of pro-union workers. Workers responded by setting up picket lines outside the hospital. In the days ahead, growing numbers of workers began to walk off the job. As the strike began to take hold, Atlanta police moved to suppress the burgeoning movement with force. First on March 23 and again on April 20, police confronted and arrested scores of picketing workers and supporters outside the hospital. Such repression did little to slow the growing strength of the strike. Crucially, throughout the course of the movement, striking workers received widespread support and backing from Black community activists, New Leftists, Civil Rights groups, and members of the clergy. Most dramatically, in April, a group of four Black leaders – most of them reverends from churches in the Black community – announced the start of a hunger strike aimed at “driving the devil out of Holy Family.” The strike culminated on April 27, when two picketers – both community supporters – were gunned down on the picket line by an unknown assailant. While neither of the victims received life-threatening wounds, this outbreak of violence drew attention to the strike and galvanized public opinion behind the strikers. Ultimately, by the end of April, management was compelled to enter into negotiations with Rev. Andrew Young representing the workers. In the settlement, announced early the following month, management agreed to reinstate a portion (though not all) of the fired workers. In addition, management vowed to provide back pay to returning strikers, terminate several hospital administrators, and allow for a union election vote.
The struggle comes to Church’s
It was as the strike at Holy Family was reaching its crescendo that workplace unrest spread to Church’s Fried Chicken. Significantly, the initial spark that set off the Church’s strike was provided by a group of Black housing justice activists that lived in East Lake Meadows, one of Atlanta’s public housing projects. On April 23, a group of women and children from this complex set up a picket line outside of the Church’s store in their neighborhood. In response, the store’s workers walked off the job. As later reported in The Great Speckled Bird, this initial outbreak of struggle was motivated by outrage over the company’s unjust treatment of a Black assistant manager at the East Lake store. Apparently, in the weeks before the strike, the company had informed the manager that he was being relocated to a store in Columbus, Georgia. There, they told him, he’d be assuming the position of store manager. When the man got to Columbus, however, he found the job to be already occupied by someone else. Outrageously, Church’s then refused to allow him to return to his old position at the East Lake store. To add insult to injury, the store’s new assistant manager was a white man. For both the neighborhood residents and the workers, this action conformed with an extensive history of racism by the company.
By all accounts, the group of East Lake Meadows residents that helped kick off the struggle at Church’s were in a militant, fighting mood in the spring of 1972. Throughout the preceding winter, East Lake Meadows had been the site of a mounting anti-racist struggle aimed at forcing the city to address horrendous conditions at the complex. First opened in 1970, East Lake Meadows was conceived of as part of the city’s ongoing urban renewal plan. To this ends, the city designed the complex to be extremely high density – housing some 85 people per square acre. By 1972, an estimated 5,000 people were cramped into the complex’s 800 apartment units. From the outset, much of the problems at the complex stemmed from the city’s failure to ensure the site’s adequate construction. Apparently, the construction company contracted out to build East Lake Meadows had gone bankrupt prior to completing the project. Despite this, the city began moving people into the project anyway – a decision prompted, in large part, by a growing housing crisis set in motion by city-sponsored gentrification. Tenants were thus subjected to an array of dangerous and deplorable conditions. At the complex, “an inadequate drainage system and leaky roofs flooded apartments, defective heaters caused fires, gas pipes were dangerously exposed, electric meters were broken, and street lights did not work. Additionally, rampant crime and dangerous conditions earned the neighborhood the nickname, ‘Little Vietnam.’”
By the end of 1971, residents had begun to organize a tenants union and a series of other groups in order to address these issues. Months of organizing culminated in March 1972, when residents announced the start of a rent strike aimed at forcing the Atlanta Housing Authority to address inadequate conditions at the complex. As part of the struggle, activists staged a mass picket at the complex’s rental office. Later, this turned into an around-the-clock occupation of the office. Also that month, residents set about forcing the city to address a dangerous traffic problem at a busy intersection adjacent to East Lake Meadows. Calling for a traffic light to be installed, East Lake residents confronted officials en mass at the office of the Atlanta Traffic Coordinator and, later that same day, the State Highway Commission. As one contemporary observer noted, following this, “The light and other needed traffic signs went up immediately.”
By the start of the Church’s strike, the leaders of the housing struggle at East Lake Meadows were becoming increasingly aware of the systemic injustices at play in the city’s racist housing system. Prominent among the leaders of this movement was East Lake resident Eva Davis. In addition to heading up a number of the resident groups at East Lake, Davis also served as the president of the DeKalb County National Welfare Rights Organization. In this capacity, Davis provided assistance to scores of her neighbors by helping them to navigate the bureaucratic red tape of various government agencies and programs, including Medicare and Medicaid. Not surprisingly, as a result of this, Davis quickly became the target of co-optation attempts by government agencies. Davis invariably rejected these appeals out of a principled dedication to the movement. As a story in The Great Speckled Bird noted, “she knows exactly what they are trying to do, and turns down all offers. ‘If I’m working for them, how can I fight them?’ she asks.”
The struggle at East Lake Meadows was still raging when Eva Davis and a group of other residents from the complex, mostly women and children, set up their picket line in front of the East Lake Church’s store in late April. For them, this action was a natural extension of their struggle to combat racism and white supremacy in the heart of the Black community. If they could take on the State Highway Commission and win – why not bring the fight to Church’s Fried Chicken?
The fact that this particular restaurant chain would be the target of an anti-racist struggle by Black community activists is not a coincidence. Founded by a white Southerner in 1952, Church’s Fried Chicken developed into an empire through tailoring its business, almost exclusively, to poor communities of color. Indeed, founder George Church built the company’s first ever store right next to “a poor Spanish section of San Antonio.” Over the next few years, Church built five additional stores in Texas. After the founder’s son took over the business in 1963, the company began a process of rapid expansion throughout the South. By the spring of 1971, Church’s owned and operated 221 stores. Another 70 store locations were owned by franchisees. In Atlanta, there were 17 stores by 1972 – the majority of them in Black neighborhoods.
As a fast food restaurant, Church’s designed its business to cater to a mostly Black clientele. To this ends, Church’s menu came to mimic that of a soul food restaurant; possible orders included “okra, corn on the cob, catfish dinners, rolls, and southern fried chicken.” This aligned with Church’s policy of building stores mostly within poor, inner-city communities of color. In addition to matching the company’s niche market orientation, this model of expansion also enabled Church’s to save money since property tended to be cheap in segregated Black areas. On this basis, the company developed a growth model based on cost reduction, rapid expansion, and high profit rates. As a further business tactic, Church’s emphasized low prices to appeal to a poor clientele. To this ends, the company strove to consistently undersell KFC and other competitors in per meal cost. In 1972, this point was emphasized on the company’s store billboards, which loudly proclaimed, “Church’s Fried Chicken 59¢.”
Not surprisingly, the company’s fixation on maintaining low prices tended to place heavy pressure to cut costs by any means necessary. In this regard, the company sought to reduce fixed capital costs through manufacturing its own kitchen equipment. What’s more, Church’s maintained an almost negligible advertising budget. Rather than urging new customers to its stores through TV and newspaper ads, the company staked its lot on a captive market of nearby Black neighborhood residents.
The company’s central means of cost-reduction, however, was old-fashioned hyper-exploitation. While such an approach to labor was (and is) the fast-food industry standard, Church’s came to adopt a somewhat unique method of squeezing workers. By the early 1970s, the vast majority of Church’s stores were owned and operated by the company itself. This contrasted with most other large-scale companies, which relied heavily upon franchise owners to oversee operations in individual stores. Within this model, Church’s established a series of “incentive programs” specifically designed to push store managers to squeeze workers and maximize profits. The company’s bonus plans, for example, allowed store managers to increase their salaries by as much as three times depending on sales volume and profit margins. As one of the company’s co-founders would later explain, “The way you get the job done is not by advertising but by motivating your individual workers to put on a big smile and sell.”
For Church’s wage workers who bore the brunt of this system, the company’s efforts to “motivate” them all too often took the form of slave driving. Workers complained about being paid grossly inadequate wages, being denied full-time status and paid benefits, and – most perniciously – being subjected to racist treatment by management. This final point wasn’t a coincidence: racism and Jim Crow formed the basis of Church’s labor model. Up until the 1972 strike, the company maintained a rigidly segregated division of labor. The vast majority of the company’s store managers and all of its regional representatives were white, while the company’s wage workers were almost exclusively Black. Likewise, upper management and administrative employees were – with few exceptions – lily white. Prior to the 1972 strike, Church’s had made some token efforts to integrate management, but – by and large – the company still retained its Jim Crow ethos. In this regard, Church’s was far from atypical. Indeed, even by 1972 – a full eight years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act – the type of on-the-job racism that Black workers experienced at Church’s remained entrenched, albeit in varying degrees, in workplaces across the country.
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In Atlanta, Church’s overtly racialized business model and history made the chain particularly vulnerable to labor unrest within the context of the 1972 strike wave. Of course, for Black workers, the company’s racism was inextricably linked to scores of other injustices. Thus, when Black workers walked off the job, they inevitably brought these other grievances with them as well. As reported in The Great Speckled Bird, the striking workers at the East Lake store demanded a boost in pay above the paltry wage of $1.60 per hour that the company provided to most wage workers. What’s more, workers called for access to “sick leave, fringe benefits, and overtime pay.” Community activists from East Lake Meadows added further demands to this growing list, calling on Church’s to provide support and funding for the Black community. The protesters pointed out that the store had recently rebuffed a request to donate money to the East Lake Meadows little league team.
The following day, protesters moved their picket line to another store, located nearby on Moreland Avenue. To the protesters’ dismay, however, the workers at the Moreland location refused to walk off the job – apparently, due to fear of retaliation. As recounted in The Bird, one of the store’s workers – the mother of a young child – “explained that with a child to clothe and feed and rent to pay, she couldn’t afford to leave her job and have no income at all.” Tellingly, the woman insisted that, “Unless she could be assured of winning, she couldn’t afford to walk out.”
After this initial setback, Church’s strikers received a boost when Hosea Williams and the SCLC moved to support the movement alongside the East Lake Meadows protesters and workers from the East Lake store. The support of Williams and the SCLC helped broaden the movement by spreading the word throughout the Black community, attracting scores of supporters to picket lines set up outside individual stores. Most significantly, the group’s intervention gave confidence to Church’s workers to join the strike. In the following days, walkouts at other stores bolstered the growing boycott movement and began to cripple company sales across the city.
As is all too often the case with wildcat strikes at non-union workplaces, there is little historical evidence documenting the voice and lived experience of the individual Church’s workers that took part in the 1972 Atlanta strike. Fortunately, some details can be gleaned from a small collection of photographs contained within Hosea Williams’ papers. The most revealing of these photographs – taken sometime during the 24-day strike/boycott – depicts a group of ten striking workers, all of them Black, standing in the parking lot of a Church’s store. The strikers hold a number of hand-lettered picket signs espousing militant anti-racist slogans:
- Why must we suffer any longer?
- Black Brothers and Sisters Won’t you Wake Up!
- Why must we wait to be FREE?
- Our Leaders Have been SHOT! Must we all die…
Another photograph taken on a different day depicts two male strikers picketing in front of a Church’s store. One holds a sign that proclaims, “HELP, SISTERS, AGAINST WHITE POWER.” The other man’s sign insists, “FAIR UNION ELECTIONS.” This latter message is particularly significant: outside of this single source, none of the news stories or other documents about the Church’s strike make any mention of an effort to petition for union elections or otherwise form a permanent union.
By Thursday, May 4, the struggle at Church’s had reached a new level of militancy. A key force in this development was the intervention of a large number of students from Morris Brown College, a historically Black institution located in the Vine City neighborhood of southwest Atlanta. In all likelihood, they were also joined by other students from the Atlanta University Center Consortium, also located in Vine City. That week, scores of students from these campuses had begun to rally at the picket line of a neighborhood Church’s location. By Thursday evening, picketing and walkouts had slowed that store’s business to a crawl, prompting management to respond by phoning the police. Two cops arrived on the scene and promptly told the protesters to disperse. When the picketers refused, around 20 other officers were brought in for reinforcement. The protesters were then ambushed by a gang of six or seven policemen – all of them white. In the ensuing melee, the cops beat up two of the protesters – Donald Densen, a Morris Brown graduate, and Andrew Mackey, a current student. Mackey received an eye injury, while Densen – himself a former police officer – sustained “three broken bones, an obvious eye injury, and possible head injuries.” The two beaten picketers were then hauled off to the Fulton County Jail. Soon afterwards, Mackey was released out on bail. But police refused to release Densen, who had been booked on a set of especially severe charges, including simple battery on a police officer. This comparatively harsh treatment appears to have had much to do with the fact that Densen was a former policeman. According to The Great Speckled Bird, white police resented the fact that a Black ex-cop “had the consciousness to join a picket line in support of black brothers and sisters.” Ultimately, the police were forced to capitulate when a group of around 200 Morris Brown students, led by Hosea Williams, marched to the Fulton County Jail late that night. Densen was released on bond at 11:30 p.m. and subsequently admitted to the hospital.
After enduring brutal police repression, students at Morris Brown were in a militant mood the following day. At a mass rally held on campus at noon, Hosea Williams spoke to the anger of the students, declaring, “I am not non-violent, and the late Dr. King knew I was not non-violent.” Nonetheless, Williams urged the students to remain peaceful. As Williams put it, “We must fight to win victories and remain on this earth. I do not intend to get killed by the enemy.” Scores of students then returned to the picket line in front of several nearby Church’s stores. Unlike the previous day, they were not confronted by police.
This massive show of force by Morris Brown students and community supporters, as well as the spreading strike by Church’s workers themselves, startled the company. In response to this escalation, the company’s division representative, Roger Harris, moved to enter into negotiations with the SCLC on Friday – the same day as the mass rally at Morris Brown. In the days ahead, Hosea Williams headed up the bargaining sessions on behalf of the striking workers. At the outset of the negotiations, Williams presented the company with a list of 30 demands. In addition to calls for increased pay and benefits, the demands also insisted that the company end its policy of classifying the vast majority of its hourly-wage workers as part-time employees. According to company policy, workers had to be employed for 44 hours a week in order to receive full-time status, “yet the company seldom hired workers for more than 40 hours a week.” In other cases, the company violated its own policy by classifying many wage employees that worked upward of 60 hours a week as being part-time. This practice rendered the vast majority of the company’s workers ineligible for receiving sick leave, vacation days, or other fringe benefits – all of which were enjoyed by the company’s overwhelmingly white store managers. In addition, the demands called for the rehiring of the terminated Black assistant manager from the East Lake store and the promotion of Blacks to the company’s Board of Directors and other high-level administrative positions.
Since these demands required a change in company policy, Church’s sent in its vice-president from corporate headquarters in San Antonio in order to oversee negotiations. In preparation for his arrival, the company agreed to shutter 10 of its 17 stores in the Atlanta area – a policy that went into effect on Saturday night. Apparently, in exchange for this arrangement, Hosea Williams made a pledge to cease picketing altogether, thus allowing Church’s seven other Atlanta-area stores to remain open. What’s more, on Sunday, Church’s also sought to appease community activists by giving away “from 30,000 to 40,000 pieces of fried chicken” at locations in two neighborhoods.
In stepping in to negotiate a settlement with Church’s, Hosea Williams clearly played an indispensable role in resolving this struggle in favor of both the striking workers and the community boycott supporters. This said, it is also evident that Williams approached his dealings with the company in a far from ideal manner. Indeed, Williams adopted a distinctly top-down approach to negotiations – a method that alienated workers from this process and prevented them from having oversight of the agreement that was being negotiated on their behalf. This is evident, for one thing, in Williams’ summary decision – likely made without any input from striking workers – to agree to a moratorium on picketing in exchange for the closure of 10 of 17 Atlanta-area Church’s stores. In addition, Williams’ problematic handling of negotiations appears to have created tension between Williams and Eva Davis and the East Lake community activists. This rift began to show a week after the start of closed-doors negotiations between Williams and Church’s officials. In an article published in the Black-owned Atlanta Voice, Davis spoke out against Williams’ failure to consult with East Lake activists regarding the ongoing negotiations. As the story summarized, Davis criticized “Rev. Williams for coming into the dispute after picket lines were set up by the community and ‘taking over’ all negotiations with Church’s officials.” Speaking in frustration, Davis declared that, “Church’s can do what they want with SCLC but they haven’t settled with us.” What’s more, if the company failed to meet the East Lake activists’ demands, Davis announced that “picketing will begin again” regardless of the agreement between Church’s and SCLC.
Fortunately, the rift between Davis and Williams does not appear to have adversely affected the outcome of the strike/boycott. If anything, Davis’s threat to restart picketing actually helped to pressure Church’s to hastily settle the remaining terms of the agreement in favor of both Church’s workers and community boycott supporters. With this said, this incident does reveal some of the tensions inherent in the 1972 strike/boycott movement. It’s worth noting that seven years later, during the unrest at Church’s in 1979, the company would attempt to exploit similar conflicts in an effort to divide and conquer that movement. But in 1972, the strike was entirely too strong – and the forces aligned with Church’s workers too formidable – for Church’s to openly pursue such a strategy.
The negotiations between Williams and Church’s ultimately came to an end on May 16 – just days after Davis’s threat to restart picketing – when Williams announced the completion of a settlement with the company. In the finalized agreement, Church’s conceded to almost all of the demands raised by the striking workers. In contrast to the company’s former policy of classifying nearly all wage employees as part-time, the settlement stipulated that all workers employed for 30 or more hours per week be provided with full-time status. What’s more, the agreement mandated that no more than two part-timers be employed per store. Beyond this, the agreement provided scores of other concessions. As reported in The Great Speckled Bird,
- All employees who were dismissed will be reinstated with back pay.
- Comprehensive health insurance, hospitalization and retirement program will be provided all full-time employees.
- Full time employees will get 1 week paid vacation after 6 months and 2 weeks for each year worked. …
- Employees will be paid time-and-a-half for working on five annual holidays (including Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, January 15).
- Employees will get 8 sick days per year. …
- Employees will be allowed a discount on food purchased from Church’s at all stores whether during working hours or not.
- All hourly employees will receive a 10¢ per hour increase in pay.
- Two white assistant southern regional division managers will be replaced. First black will be hired to a similar position within 30 days.
While the majority of the agreement addressed the demands of the company’s workers, a few provisions negotiated by Williams spoke to the interests of Black business leaders. To this ends, the agreement mandated that all Church’s stores located in Black neighborhoods “enter transactions with banking institutions in the area.” In addition, the company also agreed to “use minority public relations firms and advertise in black newspapers and over their radio stations.”
For his part, Hosea Williams described the settlement as “one of the greatest victories for poor people of the city.” The Great Speckled Bird, meanwhile, approached the win from a more didactic perspective. For them, the success of the Church’s strike/boycott revealed the vital importance of community support:
Without bread and butter community support the workers would have been unable to go out on strike. And the boycott of the stores by customers made it impossible for Church’s to carry on business. Cooperation of this kind will help workers win other strikes in the future.
Despite winning substantial gains, the strike settlement had one major shortcoming: the agreement failed to create any sort of union or stable workers’ organization. Sadly, without this, the gains of the strike were destined to be subject to rollback by the company. As already noted, outside of the photograph of a Church’s worker holding a “FAIR UNION ELECTIONS” sign, there is no additional evidence of this issue being raised. The reason for this likely relates to the disinterest of established unions in sponsoring a union-organizing drive in the monolithically non-union fast food industry.
The culmination of the 1972 strike wave and its aftermath
The overwhelming success of the Church’s strike led to a dramatic escalation in the nascent strike movement in Atlanta. This development had much to do with the geographic location of Church’s stores in the heart of Atlanta’s Black communities. On this basis, scores of Black workers had become aware of this struggle through encountering picket lines at stores in their neighborhoods. Furthermore, many workers played an active role in helping to bring about this victory through refusing to patronize Church’s – and, in some cases, through joining the picket lines themselves. As a result of this, the eventual success of the strike proved to be especially galvanizing for Black workers. Many undoubtedly concluded that, if Church’s workers could strike and win, then maybe they could too.
It’s not surprising, then, that a rash of new workplace struggles broke out after the announcement of the Church’s settlement. Just days later, workplace unrest spread to the Black-owned Citizens Trust Bank. On May 19, bank workers walked off the job in order to protest the termination of a group of female employees that had previously petitioned management for a pay raise. During the course of the 16-week strike, workers and supporters took part in a series of increasingly militant protests, which included staging mass pickets outside of the homes and businesses of members of the bank’s board of trustees. In the end, the strike succeeded in forcing the company to reinstate the wrongfully terminated workers and grant a series of other concessions.
A month after the start of the strike at Citizens Trust Bank, hotel workers at the Regency Hyatt House walked off the job in order to protest discrimination against Black and Latino workers and women. Since the hotel was already unionized and operating under a ratified contract, however, the strike was not supported by the workers’ official union. Thus, the company was eventually able to isolate and defeat the movement by terminating four of the most prominent strike leaders.
Nonetheless, the movement continued to grow. In mid-July, a strike broke out at Sears locations throughout the Atlanta area, including both department stores and distribution centers. Like the struggles that preceded it, the Sears strike was prompted by opposition to racial discrimination. The opening spark in this struggle came when workers at a warehouse in the suburban city of Chamblee, located just north of Atlanta, walked off the job and presented management with a list of demands. The strikers quickly spread picket lines throughout the city. As Waugh-Benton notes, “within a week, the majority of black Sears workers in Atlanta walked off in support of their grievances.” In this context, the strike quickly took on a mass character with Sears workers from throughout the area regularly meeting at a Black Baptist church in Atlanta in order to coordinate picketing and plan a series of mass marches and demonstrations. As the movement crippled sales throughout Atlanta, workers vowed to escalate the struggle further by spreading picket lines to Sears locations across the country if the company refused to bow to their will. Not surprisingly, after just 11 days, Sears agreed to enter negotiations with strike leaders and representatives of the SCLC. During the following bargaining sessions, the company agreed to a series of major concessions.
In August, workers at a Nabisco plant located in Atlanta’s West End staged a wildcat strike in response to the company’s racist termination of a well-respected, longstanding Black worker. Like the walkout at the Hyatt hotel, the Nabisco strike was opposed by the workers’ officially-sanctioned union. In this case, however, the Nabisco workers were able to bring about a partial victory – an outcome made possible by strong shop-floor organization among rank-and-file union workers.
Also that month, workers began a protracted wildcat strike at n Atlanta cardboard manufacturing plant owned by the Mead Packaging Corporation. Lasting a total of seven weeks, the Mead strike drew the active support of some 700 workers out of a total workforce of around 1,200. This included the vast majority of the plant’s Black workers and some whites. As with the other strikes at already-unionized workplaces, the wildcat at Mead pitted workers against not only the company, but also the workers’ official union. Despite this obstacle, the strike was able to bring out a majority of the plant’s workers for the duration of the strike, thereby dramatically hindering production levels. This success related, in no small part, to the active involvement of members of the Georgia Communist League/October League as rank-and-file strike participants. Since early January, several OL cadres had been working and organizing at the plant. This put OL members in a strategic position, prior to the outbreak of the strike, to assist in the organization of a democratic rank-and-file workers’ caucus group that helped to mobilize workers throughout the plant. In addition to OL members, once the walkout began, Mead workers also received crucial support from Hosea Williams, as well as untold numbers of Black community activists. Thus, through strong internal organization and widespread community backing, Mead workers were able to maintain the strike in the face of unrelenting opposition, including brutal police repression and violence and a coordinated effort by law enforcement, government officials, and the company to delegitimize the strike through red-baiting. Ultimately, the Mead strike ended in a negotiated settlement, approved by the workers in early October. By all accounts, the agreement was a partial victory. As Hosea Williams put it at the time, “We did not gain everything we sought, but we gained a whole lot more than we had when we began.”
In retrospect, the Mead strike can be seen as the highpoint of the 1972 strike wave. As summer turned to fall, many Civil Rights leaders and much of the Black community began to shift their focus, at least temporarily, to the November elections. For his part, however, Hosea Williams remained fixated on the tremendous potential displayed by the strike wave. By the late fall, Williams had begun to finalize plans to found a formal labor union to provide support and representation to Atlanta’s overwhelmingly unorganized working class.
This process culminated in early December, when Williams and the SCLC announced the foundation of the Poor People’s Union (PPU). As a labor union, the PPU was to be modeled after (and affiliated with) the Distributive Workers of America (DWA), a burgeoning independent union based in New York. By 1972, the DWA represented some 30,000 low-wage workers. During a press conference held to announce the new union, Williams laid out a distinctly syndicalist vision of unionism. The goal of the PPU, he declared, was nothing less than the formation of a nationwide labor organization for “poor working people” of all backgrounds. To this ends, the PPU would begin by organizing all of Atlanta’s non-union workers – a group that comprised around 90 percent of workers in the metro area. Furthermore, Williams proclaimed, “as soon as the staff and resources permit, organizing will be expanded first throughout the State of Georgia, then southwide, and finally nation-wide.” In order to achieve this ambitious goal, the PPU would adopt a militant approach to organizing – a program that Williams contrasted with the conservatism of the mainstream labor movement. Unlike them, Williams declared, the PPU would seek to “develop more militant and newer tactics for organizing the working poor” and incorporate strategies derived from both “the civil rights movement and organized labor.” In addition, Williams implied, the PPU was also to be far more democratic and representative than other unions. As summarized in the SCLC’s official press release, the PPU would seek to place “the decision-making power back into the hands of the membership.” Williams’ syndicalist vision for the PPU was further laid out early the following spring in the organization’s founding bylaws. The first objective of the union, the document stated, was “to unite the poor people of America into a trade union, regardless of race; creed; color; religion; or nationality.”
Sadly, the PPU never became fully established as an organization. Despite recruiting several groups of workers to sign union cards throughout 1973, the PPU does not appear to have negotiated any collective bargaining contracts or even petitioned for a union election for the first several years of its existence. Part of this failure related to the outbreak of a major economic crisis at the end of 1973, which effectively stifled much of the momentum created by the 1972 strike wave. In addition, the failure of the PPU also stemmed from Hosea Williams’ limited capacities as a trade union organizer and his pension for top-down, autocratic leadership. Indeed, from the outset, Williams designed the union to be a supremely top-down organization that vested nearly total control in his own hands. Finally, it’s likely that the failure of the PPU also resulted from general unwillingness on the part of the SCLC to provide adequate backing to what they perceived as a potentially radical, contentious project.
In the years following the formation of the PPU, Williams appears to have lost his earlier ambition to become a trade union organizer. Instead, he took the opposite rout and became a capitalist. In 1976, Williams co-founded the Southeast Chemical Manufacturing and Distribution Company. Additionally, in 1974, Williams was elected as a Democrat to a seat in the Georgia General Assembly – a position he would hold until the mid-1980s. In addition to his business and political careers, Williams continued to serve as the president of the Metro Atlanta Chapter of the SCLC, which he had formed in 1972 as an affiliate of the national SCLC. In this capacity, Williams still provided support to various groups of Black workers that petitioned for his assistance. As a business owner and a Democratic politician, however, Williams’ capacity to assist workers’ struggles was inherently limited. But despite all his shortcomings, Williams did provide an outlet of organizational support for groups of low-wage workers that had been neglected by mainstream organized labor. This was certainly true for workers at Church’s Fried Chicken, who remained in touch with Williams following the success of the 1972 strike/boycott.
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1. Arun Gupta, “Fight For 15 Confidential,” In These Times, November 11, 2013.
2. Roger Sikes, “Atlanta Fast Food Strikes Play-by-Play,” press release for Atlanta Jobs with Justice, September 1, 2013.
3. Monica Waugh-Benton, “Strike Fever: Labor Unrest, Civil Rights and the Left in Atlanta, 1972” (master’s thesis, Georgia State University, 2006).
8. Not all established Black political leaders were as enthusiastic about the strike wave as Williams. During the course of the strike at Church’s Fried Chicken, the conservative leadership of the SCLC effectively expelled Williams from the organization. This decision was prompted, in part, by apprehension over Williams’ unabashed support for the growing strike wave. In addition, SCLC leaders decried Williams’ public call for the formation of a “Black United Front” – an organization that, as Williams described it, could serve as a political vehicle for militant, young Black activists. Following his exclusion, Williams formed an independent group, the Metro Atlanta SCLC. Later in 1972, this group was readmitted into the SCLC as a local affiliate of the national organization. Waugh-Benton, 27-28.
18. Candy, “Chickenshit,” The Great Speckled Bird, May 8, 1972, Digital Collections, Georgia State University, University Library.
26. In a 1984 news story about Church’s Fried Chicken, company co-founder J. David Bamberger described the company’s market niche as “the discount business.” “Church’s Fried Chicken: Cutting Loose from Its Penny-Pinching Past,” Business Week, February 27, 1984.
31. “Church’s Fried Chicken (Atlanta) 1972,” Hosea Williams photographs, Box 7, Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History, Archives and Manuscripts Collection, Atlanta, Georgia.
35. “2 Picketers Arrested At Westside Food Firm.” Williams finished this statement by declaring that “I don’t think that the Police is [sic] the enemy for they are simply carrying out the orders of the power structure.”
36. A story in the conservative Atlanta Daily World provides a different time table for these events than the one presented here, which I’ve drawn mostly from The Great Speckled Bird. According to the Daily World, the mass march that Williams led to the Fulton County Jail actually took place Friday night – a full day after the initial arrests of the two picketers. This means that this protest would have occurred after both of the arrested protesters had been released from jail. This claim seems illogical. It’s also contradicted by additional factual information provided by The Great Speckled Bird. “2 Picketers Arrested At Westside Food Firm.”
52. Ibid., 81, 58-83. Kieran Walsh Taylor, “Turn to the World Class: The New Left, Black Liberation, and the U.S. Labor Movement (1967-1981)” (PhD diss., University of North Carolina, 2007), 59-108.
54. Metro Atlanta/DeKalb SCLC, “Poor People’s Union Organized,” press release, December 7, 1972, Hosea L. Williams papers, Series 5, Subseries D, Box 4, Folder 1, Auburn Avenue Research Library, Atlanta, Georgia.
55. The Poor People’s Union, “Constitution and By-Laws of The Poor People’s Union of America,” March 15, 1973, Hosea L. Williams papers, Series 5, Subseries D, Box 4, Folder 1, Auburn Avenue Research Library, Atlanta, Georgia.
56. For instance, the PPU’s founding bylaws endowed the union’s president (a role undoubtedly reserved for Williams) with the power to “appoint, direct, or suspend any National, Regional, State, District, Union Shop, Staff Member, agent, or employee as he or she may deem necessary.” In addition, the document endowed the president with the authority – subject to partial review – “to direct the affairs of the National Union.” Ibid.
57. After being formally expelled from the SCLC in 1979, Hosea Williams made an effort to revive the moribund PPU. In 1980, the union won an NLRB election held at the Kathy Crawford nursing center in Atlanta. In the vote, the PPU beat out not only the company, but also another union – the AFL-CIO-affiliated Laborers (LIU) Local 438. Following this, the PPU signed its first ever collective bargaining agreement with the company.
Sadly, the victory of the PPU at Kathy Crawford appears – in actuality – to have been a defeat for the company’s low-wage, mostly Black workers. At the time of the 1980 election, LIU Local 438 was already the officially-certified bargaining agent at the nursing home – a status it had held since 1978, when the union won an earlier NLRB election. For the two years following this, however, Local 438 appears to have been unable to negotiate a contract with the company. Apparently, the reason for this related to a brutal anti-union campaign waged by management. As a LIU official recounted in a September 1978 letter, management was “doing everything possible to harass and intimidate the membership.” In hopes of forcing the company to bargain in good faith, Local 438 sponsored a strike that same month. This struggle appears to have ended in defeat.
The fact that Local 438 was, at the time of the 1980 election, already engaged in a bitter two-year struggle to win a contract suggests that the PPU may have been used by Kathy Crawford management as a means of displacing a better-funded, more militant union. While no evidence exists to suggest that the PPU or Hosea Williams actively colluded with management prior to the election, their intervention seems to have been welcomed by the company.
Fittingly, in the years following 1980, the PPU and Hosea Williams adopted a top-down, business unionist approach to representing workers at Kathy Crawford. This is confirmed by a series of ongoing internal struggles waged by rank-and-file union members in opposition to Williams. During a PPU union meeting held on February 23, 1983, for example, Williams was collectively challenged by a group of workers angry over the union’s negligence and Williams’ patronizing approach to leadership. In a hysterical letter sent out to union members two days later, Williams fumed that, during the meeting, “There were a few who found the need to act ugly and challenge my leadership.” At that time, it appears that some of the company’s workers may have been attempting to petition to decertify the PPU in favor, once again, of LIU Local 438. In a passage that implicitly hinted at this initiative, Williams threatened to retaliate against any worker that attempted “to use any other person or method” to address grievances outside of the channels provided by the official PPU union contract. To anyone that might seek to circumvent his corrupt leadership, Williams offered the following scenario:
THE UNION WILL NOT SUPPORT THEM IN ANY MANNER WHATSOEVER; and, MANAGEMENT WILL BE LEGALLY NOTIFIED NOT TO RESPOND IN ANY MANNER.
Thus, by 1983, the PPU appears to have degenerated to the point of being a company union. For his part, Hosea Williams had come to approach the union as a business venture. Indeed, by 1983, Williams was in the final stages of franchising out the PPU into an array of business endeavors, including a “Poor People’s Grocery Store” and a “Poor People’s Credit Union.”
58. Finding aid for the Hosea L. Williams papers, “Biographical/Historical Note,” Auburn Avenue Research Library.