On October 2nd, the Oberlin College Office and Professional Employees Union (OCOPE) voted to accept a new collective bargaining agreement with the College. Some of the important changes were an increase in healthcare costs for OCOPE employees and the elimination of retirement matching contributions, in which employers match their employees’ payments to their retirement saving plans. In addition to these changes, OCOPE successfully pushed for the preservation of job security language in the contract.
The new agreement is another step in a longer struggle for the union, which the College has programmatically undermined. According to the OCOPE board, several OCOPE positions have already been eliminated, the work of OCOPE employees has been transferred to other employee groups on campus, and OCOPE workers have been tasked with heavier workloads, causing considerable stress in their personal and professional lives. Additionally, last spring, an arbitrator with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service ruled that the College violated the contract when they posted an administrative assistant vacancy as an administrative & professional staff position, which are non-unionized positions.
This fall’s negotiations took place against the background of the Academic and Administrative Program Review (AAPR) and its “One Oberlin” Report, released on May 24th. The report argued that Oberlin’s hourly workers are overpaid in comparison to workers at the other Five Colleges of Ohio (Denison, Kenyon, Oberlin, Ohio Wesleyan, and Wooster) and that healthcare benefits to hourly workers are a fiscal burden. They recommended cuts to personnel costs, including lay-offs, benefit reductions, and pay cuts.
According to OCOPE, the AAPR committee’s recommendations influenced the College’s proposals in the bargaining process. The College pushed to strengthen their administrative power through the removal of worker protections that have been in the contract for many years. These protections included job security language and the job classification plan, which codifies the duties and appropriate pay grade for all OCOPE positions. The removal of these protections would have made it easier for the administration to eliminate OCOPE positions or transfer them to non-unionized, “at-will” employees, like part-time temporary workers. Because these workers aren’t protected by a union contract, the College pays them less, and is not on the hook to cover their health insurance.
The OCOPE board argues that AAPR’s data, used to justify the elimination of worker protections, is inaccurate and imprecise. The OCOPE board states that facts in the report were “created by comparing dissimilar data and ignoring reporting errors” and do not center the “wasteful, unnecessary spending” that continues despite the report’s call for austerity. Many OCOPE members are also frustrated with the administration due to the lack of transparency in the AAPR process. The AAPR report recommended the consolidation of OCOPE positions to save $750,000 per year, but did not tell OCOPE members which positions were included in that figure. OCOPE has said that this has led many members to have a “distrust of the College administration they have never had before.” The proposals from the College to eliminate worker protection language only added to the already strained atmosphere.
OCOPE went into the negotiations expecting a concessionary contract. Despite the cuts in healthcare and retirement benefits, OCOPE was able to preserve worker protection language in the contract. Moving forward, OCOPE states that they aim to “continue to provide excellent service to the students and faculty of Oberlin while maintaining our rights under a mutually negotiated collective bargaining agreement.”
What can students do to support OCOPE moving forward? Students should talk with and listen to workers on campus and question the facts and figures provided by the College, according to the OCOPE board. According to the OCOPE board, students should “speak up when [they] see funds spent on extravagances” and ask the administration to “reduce spending on perks and expenses, not on faculty and staff.”
Oberlin’s Student Labor Action Coalition (SLAC) practices solidarity with OCOPE workers, and all unionized workers at Oberlin. The organization led the campaign to drop Bon Appétit, the company that manages Campus Dining Services; gathered hundreds of Oberlin worker testimonies; and regularly organizes events to build community and mutual understanding between students and employees. Why should students support workers on campus? “Labor conditions are living and learning conditions,” says SLAC member Elsa Schlensker. Schlensker argues that Oberlin’s unionized employees do vital and often invisible work that is necessary for a positive educational experience. Schlensker claims that the administration has dominated the narrative surrounding the College’s financial situation, making it seem that cuts to faculty and staff are the only possible option. Schlensker also argues that the austerity process has “pit sections of the college against each other — for example, low-income students against dining hall employees, and professors against unionized workers.”
Considering President Ambar’s calls for institutional unity, and the AAPR report’s title “One Oberlin,” the College must be held accountable for its divisive actions. The “One Oberlin” Report argues that austerity is necessary so that Oberlin can continue to be a “beacon for access and opportunity” and continue to live out its commitment to a “more just society.” These self-congratulatory platitudes obscure who is included in “One Oberlin” and who isn’t. After all, Oberlin’s unions were the only major College stakeholders without representation on the AAPR committee.
If the future of Oberlin involves the continued erosion of workers’ rights, it’s not apparent that the “world needs Oberlin” as the report so stridently argues. While the administration is prepared to sacrifice workers on the altar of “academic excellence,” employees and students, the real engine of this College, can unify in the face of the austerity process. We should applaud OCOPE’s continued struggle against the administration’s new designs. Additionally, we must extend our support toward the United Auto Workers (UAW), another union with a broad base of membership among College employees, set to begin negotiations with the College in 2020.