College Must Include Staff Input During Restructuring Process

As co-chair and former treasurer of Oberlin’s Student Labor Action Coalition, I have met regularly with representatives from Oberlin’s United Auto Workers and Oberlin College Office and Professional Employees unions to learn about issues facing workers and college-union relations. Over the course of this school year, I have engaged in hours of conversations with many employees — from administrative assistants to Campus Dining Services workers to custodians. Every single discussion I have had with a staff member has greatly expanded my understanding of this institution and its faults.

Ever since President Carmen Ambar announced to students that Dascomb Dining Hall was to close, I’ve been confronted with the question of what Student Labor Action Coalition can do. I believe students should share their own concerns about dining changes while also advocating for the interests of CDS employees. At the moment, workers in CDS and Dascomb have expressed their acceptance of the fact that the dining hall will close. Although the announcement came as a shock to students, this measure is part of Oberlin’s long-term strategy of reducing the amount spent on compensation and benefits. The Voluntary Separation Incentive Program — introduced in 2016 — along with hiring freezes in September 2017 were two higher-profile attempts to cut these financial costs. These programs increased employee workloads and responsibilities significantly, which — coupled with position eliminations and loss of institutional knowledge — directly interfered with the delivery of needed services for students, especially in fall 2017. The closing of Dascomb will not only inconvenience students, but will also add to work overload across all sectors of CDS next fall.

While everyone in the Oberlin community is impacted by the College’s issues with financial solvency, I firmly believe that the people who work here will continue to be impacted the most by the upcoming structural and financial changes. The unionized folks I’ve had the most experience working with are largely middle to lower-middle class. With the closing of Dascomb, 13 union positions will be cut. People will lose their jobs, some of whom have families to support. Many former Dascomb employees who aren’t laid off will take positions in custodial or other sectors of CDS that do not align with their skills. Students are correct in recognizing that Dascomb’s closing poses multiple logistical problems, from fire-code safety to issues of accessibility, as well as difficulties in delivering needed services. However, I believe that it is also crucial to center the conversations of financial decision-making around those who are affected most by those decisions: College workers.

Leaving workers out of the process is not only detrimental to employees, but also ignores the wealth of experience staff have in running this school. By removing Dascomb Dining Hall, the administration faces numerous logistical challenges of how to deliver dining services with fewer resources. Those who have worked in CDS possess valuable knowledge of Stevenson, DeCafé, and Lord-Saunders Dining Hall. Though these workers have many unanswered questions, they can provide insight into possibilities for change that people unfamiliar with dining services wouldn’t necessarily consider. Workers across campus feel that their ideas and their concerns are not being included in decision-making — especially surrounding dining changes. I believe that employee-employer power dynamics, the expansiveness of the Division of Student Life, and the inaccessibility of administrators outside working hours contribute to this lack of communication. Oberlin administrators should not only act in accordance with contract negotiations or grievances, also engage in serious dialogue and cooperation with employees.

Perhaps most important is the fact that over the course of my involvement with SLAC, every single employee I have spoken to has stressed the overall importance of Oberlin students in the work they do. Union workers recognize that contract negotiations may not yield many gains; employees recognize that their jobs are insecure, and no one expects their job at Oberlin to be any easier in the future. Yet workers want the administration to be successful in making Oberlin financially solvent. They are willing to make sacrifices for Oberlin students, but those who work at Oberlin are essential members of the Oberlin community and recognize themselves as such. This institution cannot run without the labor and knowledge of so many hard-working people. Students, faculty, administrators, community members, and other employees are all dependent on one another.

Student voices are also integral to this institution, and I hope I can use my position as a student and soon-to-be alumnus to advocate for the consideration of employee knowledge in this critical period of financial change. I ask those that will be on the Academic Administrative Program Review Steering Committee to actively seek the input of employees not represented on the Committee. I urge administrators and those on the Board of Trustees to consult with Oberlin staff on how to improve working conditions and services in campus dining. Fellow students, I challenge you to reflect on who comprises the Oberlin community and to talk to dining staff, your dorm’s custodians, and other folks who you may see but not interact with day-to-day. I believe and hope that by tackling the institution’s financial solvency with a community-centered approach, we can make Oberlin a better place to live, learn, and work.