College, OCOPE to Negotiate April 12


Photo by Pipo Nguyen-duy

Members of Oberlin College and Professional Employees paint a rock in Tappan Square to read, “OCOPE is Rock Solid.” They will enter contract negotiations with the College on April 12.

Jacob Berstein

Oberlin College Office and Professional Employees, a union of campus workers, faces an uphill battle with the College as contract renegotiations loom.

For the approximately 192 employees of the College who work in positions across the spectrum, such as academic department secretaries, CIT staff, library staff, equipment technicians, piano tuners, Biology department animal caretakers and lab technicians, OCOPE is the only union that tries to negotiate better working conditions with the College. It does not include teaching staff.

The negotiations, which happen every three years, will begin April 12. While OCOPE acknowledged that they cannot discuss beforehand any large changes they will be negotiating with the College this year, they did say that health care, job security and tuition remission are always contentious issues.

Since 1969, OCOPE has been working to increase and extend benefits to all employees, enforce contracts and guarantee the College’s compliance with labor laws.

“We started in 1969, when people started getting upset because it all depended on who you worked for in terms of the benefits you were entitled to,” said Diane Lee, second vice president of OCOPE.

For example, under the old system, administrative assistants who worked for the provost would get more vacation time than library or technical employees.

OCOPE was formed to solve several workplace issues — including closing the benefits gap — and it drafted its first contract in 1971. After a series of legal battles drained the small treasury OCOPE had at the time, they joined the Office and Professional Employees International Union, which represents more than 100,000 workers, and became known as the Local 502 chapter.

The international union provides a large support network to employees throughout the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada, and Oberlin employees benefit from the organization’s legal services.

OCOPE is responsible for many of the changes that have improved working conditions and benefits for Oberlin College’s employees.

When Sandy Kanuch, president of OCOPE and a CIT employee, began working at the College in 1986, she said she immediately saw issues that needed to be addressed.

“If you worked as a temp on campus [back then], you had to ask within a month of you making probation if that time could be added to your seniority date,” Kanuch said. “If you didn’t know that that was part of your contract, you missed out on seniority, which is important when you get your anniversary raises or if there are layoffs.”

In the early 2000s, OCOPE included language in its contract negotiations that required the College to count employees’ time spent working as temps toward their seniority.

“When I started working here when I was 20, I wasn’t allowed to participate in the retirement plan,” Lee said. “You had to be at least 30 before you could sign up for it. So you missed 10 years of contribution.”

As a result of OCOPE’s efforts, under the most recent contract, people who work for the College are now immediately allowed to participate in the retirement plan. They have also gained increased tuition remission, which covers a percentage of the cost of college tuition for employees’ children.

“We used to get less than 20 percent of Oberlin’s tuition,” Lee said. “Now we match other employee groups on campus and get 50 percent of the tuition.”

Lee said that job security is one of the issues that she is personally concerned with.

“For example, we have a department where someone retired, and [the administration] took our job and made it an [Administrative and Professional Staff] job,” she said.

Hiring someone as an A&PS worker allows the College to pay that employee less than it pays union workers. The College can also require an A&PS employee to work more hours.

“The College gets to save money, and we lose that work,” Lee said.

According to OCOPE leadership, the College does not always seem sincere in their desire to negotiate and bargain in good faith.

“They put on a wonderful front,” said Tracy Tucker, second vice president of OCOPE. “When it comes down to talking about health care, wages, benefits and anything that is going to cost them out of their pocket, that’s when things get kind of ugly.”

OCOPE is calling for student support in the coming weeks when they enter negotiations.

“It helps our membership see that the people that we actually are working for are with us, and it also helps us show the College that the people that we are working for are with us and they value us,” Lee said. “That’s a big thing.” Lee argued that there is a lack of respect when negotiating with the College.

“They have to recognize that we’re the ones that keep this school going; we’re the ones that do the majority of the work,” she said.