After 50 years of service, longtime Local 77 union leader Charles Gooch considers stepping down due to poor management

<p>Charles Gooch, former leader of the Local 77 union, holds a copy of the collective bargaining agreement.</p>

Charles Gooch, former leader of the Local 77 union, holds a copy of the collective bargaining agreement.

In honor of Duke’s Centennial, The Chronicle is highlighting pivotal figures and events throughout the University’s history. To start off, we take a look at Charles Gooch, Local 77 union leader and Marketplace employee:

A gold-colored ring etched with a vine design sits on Charles Gooch’s ring finger. The only other piece of jewelry that the 67-year-old wears is a silver signet ring stamped with Duke’s crest — a gift for 45 years of service.

Though after 50 years of working at Duke, he is finally considering leaving — and not on good terms.

One morning in 1977, Gooch was called into his supervisor’s office. By then he was working full-time in housekeeping at Duke South, the University’s original hospital building. The call was so sudden that he started to question if he had done something wrong without realizing it. 

A 20-year-old Gooch entered the room feeling afraid, mentally preparing himself to be reprimanded. Instead, he was welcomed. Two years prior, the hospital had received a glowing letter of recommendation from a white manager on behalf of 18-year-old Gooch. The letter was from his previous manager at Trent Hall, and it was unlike anything the hospital supervisors had ever received.

Gooch’s humble beginnings

Charles Gooch has always gone by “Gooch” even though his parents, Macie Lee Short and Matthew Williams Gooch, Sr., had five older children. They were all raised in the North Carolina countryside in a small town called Stem. 

Short and Gooch, Sr. were sharecroppers. Gooch remembers how his parents and other sharecroppers would congregate at his house to talk about their work in the fields. Through these conversations, Short and Gooch, Sr. realized they weren’t being paid as much as white sharecroppers in town. They moved their family out of Stem in search of pay that could support their family of eight. 

After leaving Stem, Short and Gooch, Sr. separated, and Short moved her children to Oxford, N.C. Soon, three of her children married and moved away, leaving Short, Gooch and two of his sisters. 

In the summer, Gooch watched his mother come home covered in tobacco dust and decided he needed to get a job too. 

So, at 14-and-a-half, Gooch got a working permit. Oxford, N.C. had a “colored” orphanage and a separate white orphanage. The year he got his working permit, Gooch went to work at the “colored” orphanage. He worked six hours a day after school and made $25 a week. 

“I know my mama needed help, so when I cashed my check, I gave my mama $20 and kept $5 every pay period,” Gooch recalled. 

Gooch’s father stayed in Creedmoor, N.C. after the separation, but he would visit Short and the children on occasion in Oxford. One day, he got sick, and the visits stopped.

When Gooch, Sr.’s health improved, he reconciled with Short. Together again, the Gooch family moved to Durham to be closer to Gooch Sr.’s family. Gooch was 16, and he enrolled in the newly integrated Hillside High School. By then it was 1974. That year Gooch started his first job at Duke University. 

Becoming a union member

When Gooch arrived at Trent Hall for his first day of work at Duke, he was handed a bucket, a sponge and a rag and sent to the basement. He spent his whole shift scrubbing walls. 

“They wanted to see what I was made of [as a] Young Black boy [with] all white supervisors,” he said.

On the job, Gooch tried to remind himself why he was there.

“This is how you’re gonna make your own money … your own school clothes, everything,” he would tell himself.

The work was hard and Gooch mostly worked alone, so when he got home at the end of every night, he cried. 

Over time, Gooch moved up — literally. The next week, his manager moved him from Trent’s basement to the kitchens upstairs. The week after that, Gooch moved up again, bussing students’ dishes in the dining hall. Then he began working at the dining hall cash registers. 

Gooch was starting to make a name for himself at Duke. Even though many of his days working at Trent ended in tears, Gooch is reluctant to say that his time there was bad.

It was “one of the great experiences of my life,” he said. 

By 1977, Gooch was working the second shift at the University hospital. One afternoon, he and a co-worker were assigned to strip and re-wax the floor of a laboratory from 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. 

“In laboratories, when iodine hit the floor, it [would] get into the tiles — you can’t get it up. You had to replace the tile,” he said. But Gooch noted he and his co-worker “had the floor shining except for the iodine” by the time their manager walked in. 

Still, the manager demanded they re-strip the floor. It had taken eight-and-a-half hours, and there were only 30 minutes before the end of their shifts. They said there wasn’t enough time. 

“Next thing I know, we got called to the office,” he said. And this time, Gooch wasn’t greeted so kindly. He was suspended indefinitely.  

Two weeks later, Gooch was still suspended and at home when he received a phone call from a woman named Shirley Daniels. “Come back to work,” she said, “and you gon’ still get paid for it.”  

Daniels worked at the hospital as a full-time worker just like Gooch. But she was also a steward of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 77 labor union. 

Local 77 was established in 1965 to protect employee rights at Duke. As a steward of the union, Daniels was like a lawyer for employees. She challenged dismissals of hospital staff that were not fair. To this day, Gooch refers to Daniels as a “she-ro” for helping him get his job back.  

“People see her, they part ways,” he said. “White folks, Black folks, supervisors, managers, other workers. She was not a joke.” 

Many knew Daniels as a union steward, but to Gooch, “she was like Moses.” He decided to join the union in 1977 after his suspension.

Local 77 leader and East Campus icon

Not long afterward, Gooch left his job at the hospital to work on the University’s East Campus, where the hours were better. 

“Most of the people who worked there didn’t have nothing but a 10th grade education,” Gooch said, but “they knew I had graduated from high school.” So when Gooch spoke, people listened. 

In the ‘90s, he was approached by his coworkers. “Gooch, we want you to be our union rep,” they told him. He agreed and began training for the job.

“I used to go on my own when I had spare time and read the union contract,” Gooch said. The contract detailed the wages, benefits and treatment that Duke agreed their employees were entitled to. 

He still carries a copy of the most recent contract with him in a booklet the size of a pocket square. The pages are heavily annotated, highlighted and painted by a large water stain that was tinted bluish-green by running ink. 

And just like at Trent Hall, it didn’t take long for Gooch to rise in the ranks on East Campus. By 1996, he had been elected vice president of Local 77. 

However, Gooch assumed his new leadership role during a period of instability for Duke Dining. Employees often arrived late since there were no penalties for tardiness or absenteeism, and poor business meant the program was losing $2.5 million every year. The situation got so bad, students began calling the West Campus dining hall “The Pits.”

To salvage the situation, Duke hired businessman Jim Wulforst as the director of dining operations.

Wulforst had a plan. He figured out a way to generate more revenue by contracting local restaurants to serve food on campus while still making sure that union workers did not lose their jobs. Rather than firing them, Wulforst proposed re-training some of the employees to work in other departments at Duke. 

Gooch understood that if the dining program continued to bleed money, the University would be less inclined to search for solutions that didn’t involve firing union workers. If things got much worse, they would be the first to go. So, Gooch advocated for Wulforst and his plan. 

Within five years, Duke Dining was transformed and instead of losing $2.5 million each year, they were turning a $5 million profit annually. Wulforst said that the dining plan’s success wouldn’t have been achieved without Gooch.

“Between me and Charles Gooch … we walked down a path together that was not painless. It was painful for us both, but it allowed us to make changes at Duke Dining that transformed the dining program,” Wulforst said.

Things were good for a while, until 2014. That year, Wulforst was fired with unclear reasoning. He said he was told, “We're just going [in] a different direction. We don't need you anymore.” Following his firing, the University’s relationship with Local 77 took a turn for the worse.  

Administrative changes affect union membership

Page 142 of the contract that Gooch keeps in his pocket is the “Signature Page.” Along the left side of the page is a list of 12 names and signatures from union representatives. They were all present for the signing of the contract on July 1, 2017. Gooch’s name is, of course, one of the 12 present. 

As of May 21, he is the only one on the list who is still a union representative on East Campus. The other 11 have been fired or transferred out of the dining department. 

Due to the administrative changes that occurred once Wulforst was gone, union workers began to feel targeted and started acting out. 

“People is not playing no more. They getting tired of this crap. So, some of us is doing what we want to do,” said Michael Scott, a member of Local 77 and former employee of Duke Dining who has now transferred to work in the hospital. 

However, according to Lionel Thorpe, a current member of the union’s executive board, this behavior is only making it more difficult for the union to protect its members from layoffs. He said that “on a day-to-day basis, you deal with a lot of crazy stuff. You deal with employees [physically] fighting.”  

Gooch blamed mismanagement. When Wulforst was fired, the higher-ups stopped being so straightforward. “I don’t like to deal with a whole lot of people who [are] cold today, hot tomorrow and lukewarm the day after,” Gooch said. 

Many union members, past and present, describe Gooch as “the most powerful Black man on campus,” but even he could only do so much. 

Gooch’s ultimatum

Over the past 10 years, Gooch claims he has been suspended five times. Eventually, he decided he had enough. 

In 2018, Gooch stepped down from the executive board of Local 77. And in 2024, Gooch took a medical leave of absence. 

Since then, Gooch has mostly taken things slow. He wakes up every morning and watches the news. 

Then, from 9 a.m. to noon, he’s watching Little House on the Prairie. Then it’s his Western shows: Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Rifleman on MeTV. After these, on Tuesdays and Fridays, Gooch drives his candy red 2008 convertible Corvette to Walltown Park Recreation Center where he plays cards until dark.

Meanwhile, the union has taken a turn for the worse. Scott claims that “We payin’ our dues [to the union], but we don’t know where the money’s going.” 

Allegedly, some due-paying members of the union still haven’t even received their union IDs. And in terms of people who show up to union meetings, Thorpe says “you get none. Sometimes you get between five and 10.” Total union membership, however, exceeds 200 people. 

Gooch still gets phone calls from union members and even some managers virtually every day. They ask how he’s doing. They also ask when he’s coming back. 

Occasionally Gooch stops by East Campus, and whenever he does, he is almost immediately tracked down by an employee who wants to voice their grievances, ask for his advice or plead with him to come back.  

Gooch still loves Duke, and he still wears his Duke ring. He has always been dedicated to advocating for his coworkers, but he feels disrespected.

“Shame on y’all self [saying] y’all miss me,” Gooch said.

His leave of absence officially ended on April 29. Gooch will be returning to work on East Campus, but he’s not sure if he’ll still be involved with the union. 

“He is the union,” Scott said of Gooch. “If he leaves [permanently], they wouldn’t know what to do.”

But other union members can understand why he might not want to come back — things seem broken at the Local 77. Now, union workers all around Duke are starting to realize what they may have lost.

Editor’s note: This article was initially submitted for a course in the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy. The Chronicle provided further edits prior to publication.


Share and discuss “After 50 years of service, longtime Local 77 union leader Charles Gooch considers stepping down due to poor management” on social media.