An Open Letter to Students

 It’s with sincere and profound sorrow that I want you to know that the Susan Phillips Social Justice Scholarship Fund spring interviews have been suspended indefinitely. I know that this will disappoint the students who have benefited from stipends each summer for the past four years, and will deprive others of important internship opportunities in the future. 

I have looked forward tremendously to coming to campus in the spring to listen to your creative project proposals and again in the fall to hear about your actual experiences. You have restored my faith in the future during these bleak, divisive times for America — more than I can ever express. Therefore, the decision I’ve made to suspend the program this year as well as to reconsider the continuation of the program in future years has not been an easy one.

As you well know, the Oberlin administration has announced that it is seriously considering laying off 108 United Automobile Workers-represented custodial and food service workers and outsourcing those positions. As a lifelong union activist, I can’t in good conscience fund a social justice program when Oberlin’s administrators are contemplating going down the road of union busting. The outsourcing proposal runs completely counter to Oberlin’s long history of promoting social justice. Consequently, if Oberlin succeeds in busting UAW Local 2192, the scholarship fund will be terminated permanently.

I fully understand the need to cut expenses to ensure Oberlin’s long-term survival. But targeting members of the union that has represented Oberlin’s service workers for two-and-a-half decades is callous, short-sighted, and of questionable benefit. Oberlin has renewed contracts with the UAW for eight consecutive three-year contract cycles. Why now is a union workforce with decent wages suddenly not acceptable?

The College administration claimed that Oberlin’s support staffs’ wages are far higher than comparable positions in the area. This statement overlooks the value of the cooperative history of labor relations that has existed between the UAW and Oberlin since the 1990s. Outsourcing these jobs not only would devastate the lives and futures of those laid off but also would undermine Lorain County’s economy by creating throw-away jobs with substandard pay. Even a single person can’t live comfortably on the $9–13 per-hour rate subcontractors typically pay for custodial and foodservice employment — much less support a family.

The so-called “shared sacrifice” is not being evenly felt across the board. Even if top-salaried employees, including professors, have taken wage freezes and benefit reductions, they start at a much higher level and the economic squeeze is likely felt minimally by those who do keep their jobs, if at all. Living in a small town like Oberlin is more than affordable for people who have six-figure salaries.

Oberlin needs to take a hard look at its values and history and realize that financial decisions are not just about the bottom line. The College’s administration needs to embrace leadership, community, and decency as it considers cost-cutting options. Workers should never be considered expendable. 

I love Oberlin and continue to try to find ways to be involved with Oberlin students. But union busting, added to the Gibson’s fiasco, will serve only to strike another deeply damaging blow to Oberlin’s reputation and future. There are other ways to cut $2 million from the long-term annual budget. I know that many hours have been spent on ideas and discussions to ensure that Oberlin will be robust and financially secure for generations to come. I respectfully urge President Carmen Twillie Ambar and her administration to take union busting off the table and explore other solutions.