Proud Union Traditions: Celebrating Fifty Years of OCOPE

In 1970, faced with increasing workplace inequities, a group of women working for Oberlin College decided to take matters into their own hands — to organize and fight back. The result was the Oberlin College Office and Professional Employees union, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. OCOPE’s founders included secretaries, library staff, dorm directors, and others. 

Like other workers before them, they organized with four main objectives in mind: A greater voice in decisions affecting their work lives; Better and more equitable pay and benefits; Equality of treatment and a fair opportunity for advancement; and Dignity and respect.

Before OCOPE was founded, clerical and technical employees at the College were subject to widely disparate pay and benefits, depending on where they worked and who their supervisor was. They might get a raise now and then, but salary increases came at the discretion of the department head, and sick leave was granted in an arbitrary fashion. Only full-time employees received any benefits at all, while many workers were assigned a slightly less than full-time schedule and designated as “temporary” no matter how long they had worked at the College. The inequity these conditions produced acted as a strong stimulus to unionization. 

Negotiated by a team consisting entirely of women, OCOPE’s first contract in 1971 won important gains for the membership including provisions for job security, a formalized grievance procedure, and progress toward consistent benefits and treatment. For the first time, employees who worked fewer than 40 hours per week became eligible for benefits.  

At its genesis OCOPE shared many concerns with the “second-wave” women’s movement – then at its height. In 1973, an Ad Hoc Committee on the Status of Women at Oberlin issued a report advocating recognition of seniority and the principle of equal pay for equal work across employee categories. This helped bring the College administration to the table with OCOPE and resulted in a review of all administrative assistant positions and the establishment of a pay chart based on job description and years of service.

By 1978, our existence as an independent, unaffiliated union was becoming untenable. Legal fees incurred during contract negotiations and grievance settlements threatened the union’s future, prompting OCOPE to begin looking at various international unions for possible affiliation. In the end, we chose the Office and Professional Employees International Union and became OPEIU Local 502. Affiliation offered a reliable source of professional support and advice and provided relief from debt accrued over the previous eight years. In addition, OPEIU agreed to allow us to retain our autonomy as an independent local within the international union.

We continued to make forward strides during the 1980s, gaining tuition benefits for union members and our children in the 1987 contract — despite one upper level administrator’s assertion that higher education was valued less by OCOPE members than by faculty and the Administrative and Professional Staff. Our union also took an active role on campus and beyond; in 1985, OCOPE passed a resolution in support of divestment of College funds from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa, joining our voices with resolutions from faculty, students, and alumni. Throughout the decade we hosted a monthly film series featuring documentaries on labor history and other social justice topics, which drew audiences from across campus as well as the surrounding community. Our support for Yale University’s clerical and technical workers, steelworkers in Lorain, and fellow OPEIU members at the Elyria Methodist Retirement Home strengthened our ties to the larger labor community. 

At the same time, OCOPE was facing an environment increasingly hostile to labor, both nationally and on the Oberlin campus under the administration of S. Frederick Starr, whose new director of personnel boasted in his résumé of expertise in “union avoidance.” In 1984, the College administration began seeking concessions in areas like vacation, sick leave, the grievance procedure and, most importantly, healthcare coverage. To the present day, healthcare has remained perhaps the top issue of contention between OCOPE and the administration. In 1984, and again in 2010, we came close to calling a strike, but creative negotiations, informational picketing, member engagement, and community solidarity allowed the bargaining committee to achieve agreements that retained the core features of our benefits package. 

Another ongoing challenge has been job security, beginning in the Nancy Dye administration, which featured two rounds of job cuts. More recently, the so-called “One Oberlin” plan took direct aim at campus unions, further reducing the number of positions in our bargaining unit and targeting our benefits and salaries. Although these decisions profoundly affect our lives, unionized workers had no voice on the committee that formulated “One Oberlin” — reminding us why our founders created OCOPE in the first place. 

Although the union has experienced significant changes over the past half century — for example our membership no longer consists predominantly of women — in some ways, our biggest challenges remain unaltered. However, we also have new opportunities: There seems to be a greater understanding that most workers at Oberlin College share common interests and can work more effectively together than alone. To that end, OCOPE has recently joined with the other unions on campus as well as the Oberlin chapter of the American Association of University Professors to develop ways to amplify our voices. Furthermore, after reaching a historic low in 2008, support for unions nationally has been growing steadily and now stands at 65 percent. 

Fifty years after our founding, OCOPE continues to uphold our proud union tradition.