Outsourcing Proposal Creates Unfair Burden; Cuts Must Come From Elsewhere

 After reading Tuesday afternoon’s announcement from President Carmen Twillie Ambar and engaging in conversation with many campus stakeholders, we firmly oppose the College’s proposal to contract with outside vendors to provide campus dining and custodial services. We support the 108 unionized United Automobile Workers employees who could lose their jobs as a result of this proposal and strongly advocate for Oberlin’s administration to identify another area in which to find the approximate $2 million in annual savings that this decision is expected to bring in. 

It is important to remember that the financial imperative driving the administration’s proposal to outsource more than 100 jobs is indisputable and imminent, not manufactured. It is a fact that Oberlin must find a way to eliminate $17.3 million from its annual budget by 2025, and that both the scale and timeline of such budget cuts will put enormous pressure on all parts of campus. It is also a fact that 63 percent of Oberlin’s operating budget is spent on employee compensation, and so, understandably, a significant portion of those cuts will directly impact employee groups across campus.

We are also aware that using outside vendors for dining and custodial services would put the College approximately $2 million closer to achieving its five-year goal. We do not question the truth of that statement nor do we question the need to save that money in order to address Oberlin’s structural budget deficit and make investments in its future.

Where we disagree with President Ambar and her senior staff, however, is in their belief that cutting 108 UAW jobs is worth the money the institution would save. We believe that Oberlin should exercise a stronger commitment to the people who have given so much to this community, and we have serious concerns that outsourcing dining and custodial services would not actually improve the student experience.

We also know that Oberlin has other options. Our financial circumstances are urgent, but not yet dire. There are five years to find $17.3 million, and while it’s better to find as much of that amount as early as possible, it’s also true the College doesn’t need every cent tomorrow, or even by this summer. We are aware that there are other financial “levers,” to borrow a term used by administrators, that could be pulled harder to reduce the burden on unionized employees.

Among those additional levers, as identified in the One Oberlin report released last spring by the Steering Committee of the Academic and Administrative Program Review, are the College’s financial relationship with the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association; compensation for other employee groups, including faculty and administrative staff; and the Conservatory, which brings in a relative loss of money per student as compared to the College of Arts and Sciences.

Administrators have made clear that all of these levers are being pulled to some degree in the interest of financial sustainability; this is how they have arrived at their language of “shared sacrifice.” However, it is clear to us that the proposal to outsource dining and custodial services pulls the hourly worker compensation lever too far — especially as hourly workers are more vulnerable than other employee groups on campus with regard to job mobility.

Further, it is important to note that the UAW has recognized the need to reduce worker compensation across the board in order to achieve financial stability for the institution. UAW Chair Erik Villar has expressed his willingness to make concessions at the bargaining table because it is evident to all members of this community — including UAW — that despite being a nonprofit, the College needs to make financial compromises in order to have a future. 

Given Villar’s perspective, it’s clear to us that some portion of the approximately $2 million that would be saved via outsourcing — although certainly not all of it — could be realized through the regular bargaining process, an avenue that wouldn’t cause 108 members of our community to fear unemployment come July. The College’s goal should be to reduce UAW employee benefits, as it has already done with other employee groups, rather than pursuing a drastic course of action before the institution’s hand is truly forced. 

We are not naive to the fact that reducing employee benefits rather than terminating or outsourcing positions will not yield the same $2 million toward the College’s financial stability. However, students have a great deal of respect for union workers and value their past and ongoing contributions to the Oberlin community — so much so that we must be willing to accept the consequences of standing by them in this difficult time. 

Students must be willing to make trade-offs. Other levers will need to be pulled further in order to achieve the necessary financial outcome without placing the brunt of the burden on these employees. This might mean a smaller OSCA; it could mean further cuts to the Conservatory. We hesitate to speculate too specifically because we do not have access to the full data, but we do feel it’s important to acknowledge that standing by our pro-union values and opposing outsourcing will come at a cost. It’s a cost this Editorial Board believes is worth it, and we are heartened to see our fellow students largely viewing the trade-off in the same way.

As students, we completely support President Ambar and the College’s efforts to prioritize education as the primary mission that drives our institution. Oberlin is meant to educate young adults and launch them into the world; we do not want to sacrifice that mission in any way. We understand that budget cuts are necessary in order to maintain that mission into the future.

While education is the central principle that guides our decision-making, our core mission is supported and surrounded by an infrastructure of values. Chief among these values is our responsibility to take care of one another, as well as our commitment to social justice — including our firm belief in the strength of workers and the power of unions. We are not condemning frugality. We just believe harming invaluable members of our community, sacrificing key values that support our core mission, is not the way to achieve it.