CDS Self-Management Would Improve Accountability, Sustainability

From a student perspective, it appears that Oberlin College’s Campus Dining Services model has been failing. The closure of the Rathskeller as a meal option in spring of 2017, the limitation of meal options for the class of 2021, the upcoming closure of Dascomb Dining Hall, and the planned closure of DeCafé’s popular sandwich deli line all support this conclusion. I believe that students have legitimate reasons to be upset by dining changes, but they are not the ones most impacted by these decisions. As a result of the planned changes, employees will be losing their jobs, and many others are considering quitting rather than working at Stevenson Dining Hall. Both Bon Appétit Management Company and the College hold decision-making power in the day-to-day operations of and major changes in CDS. As the primary decision makers, both parties must be held accountable for long-standing issues in CDS.

Petitioning for self-management is not a personal attack against any current Bon Appétit staff, but rather a vision for a stronger model of institutional accountability and action addressing workers’ ideas and concerns. While some of the petition’s claims may come as a shock to students, my work for Oberlin’s Student Labor Action Coalition has taught me that these critical staff perspectives are long-held. There was an overwhelming consensus that Bon Appétit management was disrespectful toward employees and dismissive of employee ideas, critique, or input. Employees who have previously worked in the food industry as well as those who have worked in CDS for decades feel that their talent is wasted. They see the scale of the College’s food waste and can’t help but equate it to the waste of money. A major component of their vision for self-management is the desire to contribute their knowledge, expertise, and insight to a decision-making process that they are excluded from. Their exclusion from conversations regarding dining restructuring is especially hurtful, as these decisions have led to the closure of Dascomb, the elimination of CDS positions, a wave of employees transitioning to custodial jobs, and dining options that staff don’t want to serve.

Whether Bon Appétit is considered the primary source of the major financial problems of CDS, feelings of disrespect and distrust are very real. Bon Appétit has an extensive local and national team of lawyers, consultants, and other personnel that have access to a huge range of resources to convince the College to keep them. The College depends upon Bon Appétit for management decisions. The option of self-management brings forth the opportunity to reflect on this relationship and its effectiveness. There are valid critiques of inaction on the part of management and administrators — the unsafe working conditions in Stevenson Dining Hall are a widely–known problem, yet this issue has remained unresolved for many years. If there are problems with CDS, there must also be renewed efforts to resolve them. The student-led work of the testimonial project and petition is bringing these concerns front and center.

While my recent meetings with administrators have laid out plans to address some of the issues raised by the petition and testimonial findings, I think it is still crucial to include CDS staff in the decision-making process. More than just a position of “good faith,” I believe that this group of employees is a crucial asset to the College and that our institution would benefit from the exercise of their full talent and experience. If the College is not going to consider the option of self-management, then administrators and Bon Appétit cannot expect workers’ distrust and frustration to disappear without a change in approach. It is fitting that Student Senate recently sent out a dining survey to detail student concerns with the future of campus dining. I appreciate their efforts and hope that similar, comprehensive efforts will be made by the administration to incorporate staff vision and concerns in dining restructuring.

I deeply appreciate the outreach from many people across campus concerned about the issues raised in the petition and from those wanting to add more depth to the perspective portrayed. However, I hope that decision-makers know that student outreach and inclusion is not the goal of our actions. Over decades, Student Labor Action Coalition, student workers, and other concerned community members have advocated self-management because staff do not trust the management of Bon Appétit. In my opinion, Bon Appétit must prove their fitness to CDS staff: not through statistics, not promises, but through action.