Good work and good trouble

Massey Award recipient James Holman has spent his career at Carolina advocating for his fellow employees.

James Holman
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

This story is part of The Well’s coverage of the C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Awards, which recognize “unusual, meritorious or superior contributions” by University employees.

“Speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”

— U.S. Rep. and civil rights activist John Lewis

Those who know James Holman won’t be surprised to hear that he took part of his C. Knox Massey Award money and spent it on a dinner of chicken, fish, shrimp and rice for his South Campus housekeeping co-workers.

“I feel like God blessed me with this money, and it’s not right for me to keep it all without sharing some of it with the staff that supports me,” Holman said.

In his 16 years working at Carolina, first as a housekeeper and now as a third-shift housekeeping crew leader, Holman has advocated for his fellow employees as an Employee Forum delegate, a member of the UNC System Staff Assembly and chair of District 25 of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. During the pandemic, Holman has served on both the Campus and Community Advisory Committee and the Staff Advisory Committee to the Chancellor to help inform the decision-making process impacting University employees.

When the housekeeping department experienced widespread incidents of harassment and intimidation in 2011, “James raised important issues regarding the working climate in the housekeeping department and was instrumental in making permanent changes in the department that created a lasting impact on the department and University,” recalled Karol Kain Gray, former vice chancellor for finance and administration, in her nomination letter.

More recently, Holman was instrumental in securing State Treasurer Dale Folwell’s participation in a health care town hall when changes were being made to the State Employees Health Plan. He has also pushed the University to provide English as a second language courses and other language training for the many housekeepers whose first language is Burmese or Karen. During the pandemic, he advocated for paid overtime instead of comp time for housekeepers who worked more than 40 hours a week to keep buildings clean and safe.

“Some people don’t want me to say anything. They say I am a troublemaker. But I am here to try to make people’s lives better. I am making trouble, but as the late John Lewis said, it’s ‘good trouble,’” Holman said.

For making “good trouble,” Holman became an Employee Forum lifetime delegate in 2019, the first winner of the Rebecca Clark Staff Award for Moral Courage in 2020 and a Massey Award recipient in 2021.

“James has advocated for employees in housekeeping, Facilities Services, the University and the UNC System for a number of years. He has been relentless in his pursuit to better working conditions and salaries,” wrote former Employee Forum Chair Charles Streeter in a letter supporting Holman’s nomination. “If there is an issue or questions from staff around a policy, then you can be sure that James will bring it to light.”

To Connecticut and back

Holman grew up in Orange County and graduated from Orange County High School in Hillsborough. Like many teens, he first worked at McDonald’s, where he became a manager. He later was a Pizza Inn manager and an industrial maintenance supervisor. When an uncle who owned three businesses in Stamford, Connecticut, offered him the opportunity to work for him, he jumped at the chance to try something new. He lived and worked in Connecticut for the next 20 years.

But when his sister and father passed away, leaving his mother on her own, Holman decided to return to North Carolina. His politically active mother influenced the way he looked at the world, especially the world of work. “I listened to her as I grew up and it kind of stuck with me from that point on,” he said.

When Holman got a job as a housekeeper at Carolina, he “noticed how the housekeeping department was being treated totally different from the rest of Facilities Services,” he said. He brought up housekeeping issues at public Employee Forum meetings but decided he could advocate more effectively if he became a delegate himself. In that role, he took on the concerns of employees all across campus.

An ‘honest broker’

Those nominating him for the Massey Award praised Holman for his persistence and diplomacy in pursuing justice for his fellow employees.

“I think of James as an ‘honest broker’ between management and employees,” wrote retired statistical programmer/analyst Steve Hutton. “As an honest broker, he has communicated the concerns and needs of employees to management, and likewise, he has communicated the positions and needs of management to employees.”

At the same time, Holman has a demanding job leading a third-shift housekeeping crew for Carrington Hall, Fordham Hall and Occupational Health and the football housekeeping crew for Kenan Stadium.

“James is a third-shift employee, but you would never know it. While most people are asleep, he is working in his primary position on campus making sure that campus is environmentally healthy and safe for UNC’s faculty, staff and students,” wrote immediate past Employee Forum Chair Shayna Hill. “James never reveals when he is tired or running out of steam. He just keeps working literally night and day making sure issues are in the forefront of conversations as long as is necessary to achieve resolutions.”

Even as he was being interviewed for this profile and expressing his thanks to his nominators — “I can’t believe that many people thought that much of me to nominate me for that award,” he said — Holman was prepping for Zoom calls about concerns about housekeeping staffing levels. He said he worries that the University doesn’t have enough people making “good trouble.”

“I just hope when I stop doing this,” he said, “that somebody else will follow in my footsteps to be able to advocate for the staff.”