Student Senate On Supporting UAW

 This article is part of the Review’s Student Senate column. In an effort to increase communication and transparency, Student Senators will provide personal perspectives on recent events on campus and in the community. This statement was originally released in an email to the entirety of the student body in Student Senate’s weekly newsletter.

Due to Oberlin College’s financial deficit, President Carmen Twillie Ambar and administrative staff have decided to formally consider contracting with outside vendors instead of continuing their contract with the United Automobile Workers union. This could lead to a total of 108 full-time workers losing their UAW jobs: 52 full-time dining employees and 56 full-time custodial workers. This would reduce the size of the UAW union at Oberlin by two-thirds. College administrators estimate that these layoffs and subcontracting could save more than $2 million annually. 

This move toward outsourcing elicited a significant response from both UAW representatives and the student body. On Wednesday, Feb. 19, organizers estimate that more than 800 students and members of the Oberlin community demonstrated outside of a General Faculty meeting in King Building to show solidarity with the UAW, the workers, and their families. As Student Senators, we succeeded in allowing UAW and student representatives to voice their opinions and concerns in the meeting. 

Throughout the meeting, President Ambar repeatedly argued that Oberlin’s academic and musical excellence are the core of Oberlin’s mission and are the parts of the mission which should be prioritized as we look to Oberlin’s future. 

We fundamentally disagree with the characterization of Oberlin’s mission as espoused by President Ambar. Of course, as she has argued, academic and musical excellence are key parts of what makes Oberlin great. But what makes Oberlin special is its historical commitment to social justice. 

Oberlin has always portrayed itself as offering more than academics; it offers academics with a conscience. A vital part of an Oberlin education is how students are prepared to fight for what they believe in and do what is right, even — and especially — when it’s hard. We believe that the College must stand by our community’s true mission, rather than alienating prospective students by talking the social justice talk but not walking the social justice walk. Gutting one of our campus unions and betraying the families that have built and maintained our community — in some cases, for generations — is unconscionable and runs counter to the mission that attracted us to Oberlin College in the first place. 

We believe that in order for Oberlin to survive the current difficulties that all liberal arts colleges are facing, as well as our specific financial challenges, Oberlin needs to invest in the parts of itself that have historically made it stand out. Its identity includes an incredible Conservatory, a co-op system, a commitment to sustainability, and high-caliber professors. 

But at the core of Oberlin’s identity is a commitment to social justice and standing up for what is right. Many students, including Student Senators, chose Oberlin because we felt that Oberlin’s moral commitment was something special and something we wanted to be a part of. Union busting doesn’t just betray the workers and their families who keep this campus running, it betrays the students and alumni who chose Oberlin for its values. When the actions of the Oberlin administration run so deeply and publicly counter to the image of Oberlin that’s sold to students, we worry that it turns away prospective students and believe it contributes to Oberlin’s plummeting retention rates. 

We argue that any action severely undermining Oberlin’s long and oft-touted history of fighting for social justice threatens the health and longevity of the institution. 

As a Senate we stand in full support of the UAW and we condemn the actions of the administration that run counter to Oberlin’s mission and values as stated on the Oberlin College website. 

We support any further peaceful demonstrations and encourage all students to stand up for Oberlin’s workers. However, we also acknowledge that not everyone may feel comfortable protesting and that different students face different types of risks in these situations. For example, students who aren’t U.S. citizens may experience much harsher consequences if police are called to a demonstration and they are arrested. Even if they are not involved in any unlawful behavior, pictures of them at an action on social media could negatively impact them since social media accounts are now monitored as part of the U.S. visa application process. It’s also increasingly likely that customs officers search students’ phones when they’re entering the U.S. They can look through messages, emails, and social media accounts to look for anything they believe to be unlawful behavior. Any perception of unlawful behavior could result in a student’s visa being revoked. Please be mindful of this if you are encouraging others to attend a protest. Student safety is a priority for the Senate and for our whole community. 

We also urge the student body to contact the Student Senate for support as well as guidance in future endeavors. We strongly believe in the cause and want to help!