“Students will return in Fall 2018 to find a range of improvements to campus dining” — the words that inspired a thousand Oberlin-specific memes. The irony of this promise was not lost on us when we returned, in Fall 2018, to the closing of a centrally located dining hall. In exchange, we got more Grab & Go food items in DeCafe and the shiny new GoYeo commissary. For the underclassmen in the audience: Dascomb wasn’t always home to the campus cops and ibuprofen distributors. It actually used to house an all-you-can-eat dining hall for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and fourth meal.
The closing of the Dascomb dining hall meant that students had to trek all the way (through the snow, uphill both ways) to Stevenson or DeCafe for lunch after our midday classes in King. But for Geoff Zimmer, CDS cook and member of the United Auto Workers, it meant potentially losing the job he had finally secured just a few months prior. Geoff was hired as a full-time chef by Wayne Wood, general manager of Bon Appetit, in February 2018 after working as a Part Time Temporary Pool (PTTP) since October 2017. Two weeks after landing his full-time job, Geoff learned that Dascomb was closing, and his position would go with it.
The decision to close Dascomb came amid the announcement of the Academic and Administrative Program Review (AAPR) in February, 2018. An administrator told the Dascomb staff that “there will be pain” as a result of AAPR’s recommendations for budget cuts — pain disproportionately felt by Oberlin’s staff. Geoff, and a number of other CDS employees and UAW members, felt that pain immediately. While the College cut positions, created some more in their place, and restructured CDS to serve the expanded Grab & Go, Geoff lost the job security he had spent months working to attain.
Geoff’s experience was part of a pattern. Oberlin has been aggressively reducing the share of union jobs in CDS: in the past four years, campus dining has lost 40% of UAW jobs. AAPR’s “restructuring” process has effectively dispersed union jobs and decentralized UAW’s power under the superficial guise of “improving” dining for students.
We continue to see this justification for the constant superficial adjustments made to CDS. Bon Appetit shelled out $35,000 on an automated salad vending machine because the students wanted it — certainly, it wasn’t to save Oberlin the cost of staffing the sandwich and salad bar. Do you remember when you could pay for your food with cash at DeCafe? Cash-handling was designated as a union job, and therefore required union members to staff the checkout. Having lost 40% of UAW labor in the past four years, those positions became hard to fill. Rather than allowing unionized labor to exist in the limited capacity of cash handling in DeCafe, CDS instead switched to an electronic payment system. Is this really one of those much heralded “improvements”? Who can think that this is what the students are demanding?
The “student-demand” excuse falls flat when you consider that AAPR receives virtually no oversight by the students whose demands are supposedly being catered toward. Student involvement in the AAPR process is limited to the token inclusion of Student Senators in decisions that are only tangential to AAPR’s most concerning “recommendations.” Big, structural changes, like the closing of Dascomb, and smaller changes, like the birth of Sally the Salad Machine or weekend food trucks, take place while both students and dining staff are completely in the dark.
The AAPR recommendations took place without a single union representative at the table — which, funnily enough, didn’t stop Bon Appetit from requesting a spot at the union negotiating table. Instead, union members and staff workers alike are at the whim of both the Oberlin College administration and third-party management like Bon Appetit, and must comply with whatever decisions are made by either party behind closed door. With the increase in “demand” for Grab & Go options, CDS and UAW workers were told what to make, where to deliver it, and when to get it done before ever even hearing that the DeCafe sandwich/salad bar was closing.
The College has been steadily relying on these third-party management companies more and more throughout the years. Most recently, the South commissary (where a majority of Grab & Go options are prepared) will soon be staffed through Piazza Produce, a subsidiary of IF&P Foods Inc. The staff members currently employed in these positions will then be moved to fill positions around Wilder and Stevenson which have been left unmanned for months. The ever-increasing use of third-party management companies spell a troubling picture for the state of labor practices at Oberlin College.
Union positions have been systematically decentralized and continue to decrease as the effects of “One Oberlin” continue to change the structure of CDS. This poses a risk to both life and food safety practices as union members are the only workforce required to have both background checks and food safety training, unlike part-time or temporary workers. The College is able to skirt accountability in the case of a food safety violation, shifting the blame to Bon Appetit or other third-party temp agencies. However, should a worker or student bring concerns to Bon Appetit, it is the College administration who is to blame.
The blame game between Bon Appetit and the college administration allows for each agency to avoid responsibility for both food quality and labor practices: if you go to mom, it's dad’s problem; but if you go to dad, mom has all the answers. Union workers and full-time staff have been left in the dark for nearly all of the decisions regarding the restructuring of labor in the face of “One Oberlin,” which calls into question: who is included in the “One Oberlin” mission? So far, it has been various AAPR committees alongside members from the Board of Trustees. But if you’re not with “One Oberlin,” you're not with Oberlin at all — even if you didn't have any say in the outcome of these “recommendations.”
“One Oberlin” may evoke a sense of unity in troubling times of financial uncertainty for the institution but in reality, it has effectively fractured the labor force within CDS and completely decimated union positions. Subtle, but effective, union-busting measures have been implemented under the guise of “improvements” for students: independently contracted food trucks take CDS jobs from unionized staff members; Sally eliminates the need for full-time sandwich/salad line workers; an increase in “demand” for Grab & Go sandwiches apparently requires a third-party company to take the jobs of full-time workers. In response to the complete upheaval of labor practices within CDS, Geoff — alongside other UAW workers — fears that “the college has compromised its integrity and is doing so at the potential cost of student health and the exploitation of workers.” We must remember that “One Oberlin” is a transparent rhetorical strategy which posits the existence of a unified front against economic struggle, and is in actuality the result of harmful austerity politics and threatens the most vulnerable members of the Oberlin community.