Geoff Zimmer’s dog, Sasha Barkman, sniffs my hand as her owner tells me about Alexander “Sasha” Berkman, the 20th-century anarchist writer she’s named after. The dog is, of course, a very good girl. But unfortunately, she’s not the reason Geoff and I are speaking. A less pleasant matter is at hand: the Oberlin administration has threatened to lay off 108 custodial and dining workers.
Geoff has worked at Oberlin full-time for a little over two years. Before that, he wandered the Ohio restaurant scene, working long weeks with low pay, regularly dealing with failed businesses and bounced paychecks. Eventually, he ended up with a fairly stable job at a state restaurant, but Oberlin was too good an offer to pass up. Forebodingly, he was brought on as a full-time chef at Dascomb two weeks before it was announced the dining hall would close (see: “Divide and Conquer”).
Geoff is only in his mid-30s, but he’s already aged out of restaurant jobs; he can’t compete with 20 year-olds working the entire day in a hot kitchen. He considers himself lucky, too, as he’s on the younger side of the employees whose jobs are being threatened. If worse comes to worst, he doesn’t have a family keeping him here, unlike many of the other workers; it’s just him and Sasha.
Buffy Lukachko has been at Oberlin for ten years; she worked as a custodian for seven, then was promoted to head truck driver. Now, she’s responsible for helping to save over one hundred jobs.
Before Oberlin, Buffy worked as a bus driver in Lorain, moonlighting as a custodian on the side to make ends meet. However, public education funding was going down, and she worried that she’d get caught in layoffs; so, for security’s sake, she applied for another job, one she had seen in the paper: the Oberlin custodial department.
The pay was the same as her last job, so for Buffy, security was the main incentive for the switch. “I knew there had never been layoffs here,” she says. I snort. After seven years working in the custodial department, during which management was so off the ball she would at times have to buy her own cleaning supplies to ensure the dorms were ready for students, she became the head campus truck driver, a position that builds on her previous bus driver experience and has hours that are better for her family. “That kind of upward mobility was possible entirely because of UAW.” She explains that part of the union’s contract is that open positions go out to Oberlin workers before being listed publicly; the union doesn’t just help with benefits, it helps workers build a career here.
Now, she’s the UAW bargaining representative for the custodial staff, on the front lines of the layoff battle. “I think that the #TheyAreOberlinToo campaign is probably the most important thing,” she says. “Throughout AAPR we have been left out and felt othered. We have lost dignity in this whole situation because we’ve been made to feel alienated. We feel that the students here are our family, our responsibility, and we are devastated that the college would treat us as expendable and not important to the process of learning.”
Jake Reed is sitting at a table when I arrive at Stevenson, taking his dinner break with six other CDS workers. “Would you like to talk with all of us?” he asks. Of course I did.
Dave and David are older: Dave is 54, and was planning to stay here until retirement. David is angry that their layoffs are happening just one day before their paid vacation reups; he’s been saving up those vacation days excitedly, while the management accumulates “huge bonuses that I’ll never see in my lifetime.” Dave expresses shock — which the group echoes — that the college administration would go against the school’s stated values so blatantly.
These values, it seems, were a massive draw for everyone at the table when applying here. This is especially true for Kelsey, who says “This college matches my beliefs to a T.” Kelsey and Angel are the two younger guys here. Both were hired this past August, leaving behind managerial restaurant jobs and taking a 15% pay cut in exchange for more free time and a secure future for their family. Angel worked at Outback Steakhouse for nine years, but once his daughter turned 1, he knew he needed a different job. He heard about Oberlin from a friend, and when he looked into the job, he almost couldn’t believe how good it sounded. He had planned on spending the rest of his work life here. “I’ve always heard nothing but great things about the college,” he says. “Hopefully what we’re seeing now, what we’re going through now, hopefully this isn’t the direction the college wants to go.”
Kelsey, too, has a 15-month old daughter, and came here to secure healthcare and funding for a college education for her, benefits he wouldn’t get in the restaurant industry if these layoffs do go through. What gives him hope, however, is the student reaction to the news. “It’s been amazing. That’s the one thing that just kinda blew my mind.”
Lastly, I meet with a campus worker who wishes to remain anonymous, talking to them about the potential impact of the layoffs. “I’m a Democratic Socialist, too,” they tell me. They talk about the impact of layoffs on now-gutted Ohio towns, and the potentially fatal mental health side-effects. They praise Sanders’ Medicare for All, while slamming Buttigieg’s ignorant comments on union healthcare plans. The most interesting thing they tell me about, though, is a conversation they had with Rebecca Vazquez-Skillings amid the flurry of new hires last year. Why, they asked Vazquez-Skillings, was the college doing this among hints from the administration about coming layoffs and cutbacks? Why were they bringing on people like the ones I had talked to at dinner, who had left higher-paying jobs in favor of the stability and benefits of a job at Oberlin, for the sake of their families?
Vazquez-Skillings, they recall, simply responded, “Well, we have to keep the operation running.”