On Tuesday, February 18th, Oberlin College notified staff, students, and alumni of its intent to lay off 108 full-time unionized employees in custodial and dining services. In the College’s email sent to students, it intimated plans to bring in third-party management contractors to staff these positions, allowing the College to free up money in its budget. This announcement threatens 70% of Oberlin’s UAW (United Auto Workers) staff with unexpected job insecurity and financial uncertainty. While suggesting that Oberlin will encourage new management to privilege hiring current employees, this outcome means that workers staying in Oberlin would take a dramatic pay cut and lose their hard-fought benefits.
Following this announcement, students organized multiple demonstrations of solidarity with workers facing layoffs for the next day, culminating in an 850 student protest outside of the General Faculty Council’s scheduled 12:00 meeting. Chanting “union-busting is disgusting” and “workers are our families,” about one third of the Oberlin student body lined the halls of the third floor of King. Once at capacity, students also filled the first floor, spilling over into parts of the second. The demonstration made clear that Oberlin’s student community stands opposed to the College’s announcement and in support of UAW.
Additionally, organizers demanded that worker and student voices be given access to the GenFac meeting ongoing in King 306. During the meeting, Student Senator Renzo Mayhall requested that GenFac grant time to union representatives and students — with zero votes against this request, GenFac approved allowed elected UAW Local 2192 representatives Erik Villar and Buffy Lukachko and student organizer Elsa Schlensker to speak in forceful opposition of the College’s announcement. According to Student Senator Caitlin Kelley, most of GenFac affirmed the motion to let Villar, Lukachko, and Schlensker speak, though several voting parties, including Pres. Ambar, were reported to abstain.
Erik Villar, the Oberlin chairperson for UAW Local 2192, was the first Oberlin worker to hear about the layoff threat. On Tuesday, Villar was asked to meet with management at 11:30 AM, only fifteen minutes prior to this time. Three hours later, rank and file members were invited to a meeting hastily scheduled for 2:30 PM. Minutes after this meeting began, students received an email in their inboxes with the subject line “Dining and Custodial Negotiations.”
Students planned an immediate response, initially meeting to formulate a plan of action at 4:30 PM on Tuesday. Students affiliated with SLAC (Student Labor Action Coalition), Oberlin Beyond Austerity, and OYDSA were joined by dozens of other concerned students, who had gotten wind of the meeting by word of mouth. Student activists learned that administrators would be officially informing UAW night shift workers the following day at a 7:30 AM meeting, and the College’s General Faculty Council at 12:00 PM, and SLAC, OBA, and OYDSA put out calls to students to attend these meetings in support of labor. General Faculty meetings are attended by GenFac Council, Student Senate, and College senior administrators.
Later that night, over 100 students crammed into Wilder 115, joined by several workers affected by the College’s decision and UAW’s representatives. Angry, hurt, and scared, UAW workers expressed concerns about their families, their livelihoods, and their community, as well as shock at the callous attitude the College displayed toward members of its community, some of whom have committed decades of service to the College.
Workers warned students that non-union positions would pay sub-living wages, provide staff with scant benefits, and be afflicted by high turnover. This move would compromise the working conditions and livelihoods of Oberlin’s labor force, and this sudden announcement has rendered the job stability of dozens of families suddenly precarious. They also warned that a mass exodus of these jobs would have far reaching consequences for the greater Oberlin community, asserting that their work, charity, and general participation in the community would be sorely missed.
Students then began making signs and banners, writing press releases, posting to social media, and contacting the press in advance of the demonstration outside of GenFac. Everyone was encouraged to wear red the next day.
The next morning, Rebecca Vazquez-Skillings and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo addressed a full room on the second floor of Knowlton gym at 7:30 AM, packed with UAW members and over 60 students attending in support, largely clad in red. This meeting was originally intended to inform the staff who had not been able to attend the meeting the day before about the layoffs. But there was no surprise when the announcement was made; everyone already knew.
UAW members and representatives took this opportunity to voice their dismay. “We don’t feel, as a body of, workers that we’re respected for every day we come in. We are losing our jobs — there’s so much disrespect,” said one individual. On the verge of tears, another said “if I lose my job, I’m on the street — I’ve been here 22 years, and now I wake up today and find out I’m out of a job?”
Workers also raised concerns about third-party management contractors’ lack of vetting applied to temporary workers. One worker alluded to multiple concerns over sexual misconduct, including an incident of sexual assault over the summer involving a temporary employee (The Spectre has not been able to verify this claim at this time).
Then, beginning around 11:35 AM, student demonstrators largely wearing red began pouring into the King building. They were directed to crowd marshals in the first-floor lobby, who gave demonstrators signs and directed them where to go. Sporting a banner reading “It’s not One Oberlin minus 108,” the student demonstrators showed meeting attendees, and members of the local press, that students stand together against union-busting, and reject the divisive implications of the “One Oberlin” report.
Despite their numbers, students refrained from blocking the meeting room or passage through the hallway and adhered to building fire codes. Students remained in the building until around 12:20. When organizers announced that their immediate demand — speaking time during the GenFac meeting — had been met, demonstrators dispersed for lunch. The majority then returned to King’s halls by 1:00 PM in order to be seen by meeting attendees on their way out. Most of the attendees, including President Ambar and College deans, left using an alternative exit in the building’s south stairwell, avoiding demonstrators.
Since Oberlin’s Academic & Administrative Program Review (AAPR) began issuing reports, culminating in May’s “One Oberlin” report, student labor activists have warned that Oberlin’s hourly workers would bear the brunt of upcoming budget cuts. Tuesday’s announcement represents a change in tactics, from the College’s “death by a thousand tiny cuts” incremental strategy (see: “Divide and Conquer”), to openly acknowledging that union labor is on the chopping block.
This threat has, so far, galvanized wide support for hourly staff on the part of the entire Oberlin community. An online letter titled “Oberlin Alumni Say No to Union Busting,” received over 1,000 signatures by Thursday evening, hardly 24 hours after it began circulating. In addition, SLAC, OBA, and OYDSA are organizing coordinated campaigns in solidarity with UAW. The Spectre will continue to report on UAW negotiations, student solidarity, and the future of the “One Oberlin” austerity program.