Campus Must Support OCOPE Negotiations

Editorial Board

The remainder of this month is all about countdowns. Six hours until reading period begins. Six days until the first day of finals. Eleven days until the majority of our student body makes a break for it, and eighteen days until those graduating pack their things and hit the road that, for many, will not lead back to Oberlin. Once students leave, campus inevitably quiets. Not only do dorms and classrooms shut down, but dozens of faculty and staff head elsewhere for the summer, reducing Oberlin’s employee pool to a fraction of its calendar year size. For the employees who remain on campus, running the school is a year-round job. For one faction of those employees, the countdown continues.

Thirty-eight days after Commencement, the union that bargains for improved wages and benefits for nearly 190 of Oberlin’s administrative assistants will conclude their contract negotiations with the College, a process that began April 5 and repeats every three years. Although we are rightly focused on our own, that is one countdown Oberlin students — including graduating seniors — must pay attention to.

Student support for OCOPE, the Oberlin College Office of Professional Employees, has been inconsistent at best. This is not to say that any particular organization or organizing body is at fault, but simply a reality of institutions whose largest demographic cycles out every four years. This is further compounded by the issue of institutional memory among activist communities. It is either due to the fact that many alumni choose not to weigh in on the issues they were involved with while students, or because of the sheer difficulty of aggregating a database — one that would need to contain past obstacles, successful strategies for victories and other organizing tactics — comprehensive enough to use as a resource for actual change.

When it comes to modes of action, a “right” way does not necessarily exist. Attending actions organized by student labor activists is perhaps the most common and straightforward way for us to show our support. However, the legacy of student organizing in higher education shows us that we can do more. In 2014, Northwestern University students who were monitoring the layoffs their administration were making mobilized to ensure that a worker suspended for protesting a colleague’s mistreatment could retain his job. The next year, the same student body came together to collect 1,000 signatures on a petition demanding that their food service employees receive a 40-hour work week, benefits for part-time employees and increased wages. Last year, Fordham University students circulated a petition in support of their food service employees. Earlier this year, students at Stanford University formed a coalition to support janitorial workers on campus. These two contract negotiations are still ongoing and the students showing support are not backing down.

Now it’s our turn. As OCOPE resumes contract negotiations with the College, which is greatly concerned with cutting costs, we must stand in solidarity with OCOPE’s demands. When union members table across campus collecting email addresses of students so that they can ask for our virtual support after we leave campus, we should do them one better. We should mobilize our faculty to take part in our demonstrations or to put internal pressure on the administration. We should use Oberlin’s alumni network as a phone-banking pool to recruit the support of past Obies, many of whom were labor advocates themselves. As we hit the grindstone that is finals, those of us who are able to should join together to form a network of solidarity.

Current students should always be communicating with all communities of workers so as to better understand their grievances. Many of us know what it feels like for our demands to be ignored by the administration, who have silenced, delegitimized and often dehumanized student voices. We have no excuse not to know how we — as those who benefit every single day from workers’ time and energy — can help ensure that they receive the types of compensation they deserve. That extends to graduates. As soon-to-be alumni, we are these communities’ resource, at least in some respects. We will soon have the power to show our support with our words — writing letters of solidarity or circulating virtual petitions of support — as well as our funds, refusing to donate until stipulations are met or declining to pay our way to reunions unless those staffing the events are being not only heard but empowered.

As tempting as it may be, we cannot afford to let our solidarity slip as soon as we leave the boundaries of campus. Because while we’re counting down the days until we get to leave, our extended Oberlin community counts down the days until they must fight for the right to stay.