Union Victory Provides Dignity to All Workers

To the Editors:

One of the dispiriting things about Oberlin College is the disjunction between the analytical tools and burning social justice values that we teach and discuss in class, and the application of those same tools and values when it comes to the largely invisible labor performed by workers at the College. This is an institution that would collapse without its custodians, administrative assistants, dining hall workers, librarians, and the myriad other workers who allow the school to function.

We are attuned to manifestations of power in its most fine, capillary forms, to privilege and microaggression in language and glance, as we should be. But when it comes to these workers, we are all suddenly neoliberals — especially at moments like this, when budget deficits legitimize vicious class politics of layoffs, salary freezes, benefit cuts, and speedup, as fewer workers do the work of those “let go” — viewing them as necessary casualties in order to be financially “responsible” and “resilient,” to be good “stewards” of Oberlin, to bend the lines on the slick PowerPoints toward surplus.

It is in this context that we should congratulate the members of OCOPE, Oberlin’s white-collar union, for not only being willing to stand up and defend their jobs and working conditions, but also for actually winning. If you have been paying attention to the notice boards around campus, you will have seen statements, which the National Labor Relations Board (which oversees U.S. labor law) requires employers to post when it rules against them, and in favor of a union. The issues may seem arcane and legalistic (take my labor class next semester if you want to learn more!), but they go to the heart of whether labor contracts can limit the power of employers to do as they wish, regardless of the consequences for workers. This comes at a cost — the flexibility of employers, the ability of faculty in a department to choose “their” administrative assistant.

But what it provides is dignity, voice, security, and above all, power. The United States — almost unique among advanced capitalist democracies — has “at will” employment for all but those with tenure or a union contract, or members of a protected class. That means an employee can be fired for any reason, or for no reason at all. It makes the defense of union contracts especially precious. We should celebrate OCOPE’s victory.