Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Les Leopold: Author and Labor Advocate

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing
Les Leopold

Les Leopold, OC ’69, is an author and the executive director of the Labor Institute and is on the steering committee for the Alumni for Oberlin Values. His recent book, Wall Street’s War on Workers: How Mass Layoffs and Greed Are Destroying the Working Class and What to Do About It was inspired by Oberlin College’s mass layoff of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Could you start off by telling me about what catalyzed your recent book?

I’m an Oberlin grad, class of 1969. I was terribly disturbed by the layoffs of the janitorial and food service workers that took place during the pandemic. And I, along with many other alumni, tried to do something about it. We raised money, but we were unable to convince the administration to change its behavior. But that got me thinking about layoffs.

We had interns from Oberlin College working on interviewing some of those workers. And when I saw the transcripts, I was very disturbed by what I heard. This was a colossal shock for the workers who were laid off. They were not just crestfallen, but seriously disturbed — trouble sleeping, eating, crying. You could see that health hazards were going to trouble these people, or many of them. And they were angry at what Oberlin had done to them. They felt betrayed that the College didn’t live up to its values, and they felt they were cut off from being part of the Oberlin family. I saw this coming when Oberlin started talking about One Oberlin, and then they didn’t include the workers. I raised this with faculty, and they just seem to be oblivious somehow. I started to research it, and I saw that this was a much larger problem than I had imagined. I saw that the story — not just their story, but the story of mass layoffs – had to be told and somehow injected into the political arena. 

Why do you think this is important to be talking about right now?                                                                        

Unless you’re super rich, you have to find a way to work to survive. So, if you have no economic stability, you are going to be bothered by that. And that’s going to take many forms, one of which is a kind of withdrawal from the democratic system. I think the rise of authoritarianism has its roots in mass layoffs, which have been profound. We estimate 30 million people have gone through mass layoffs since 1996.

There are two theories about why it is that the working classes turned more toward the Republicans and away from the Democrats. One theory says it’s basically the growth of homophobia, xenophobia, sexism, racism, and such, and that there’s a growing illiberal resentment against elites. The other theory, which I think I’ve proven, is that as mass layoffs rise, the Democratic vote goes down. In the counties where that took place in the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, there was a very tight, statistically significant correlation between rising mass layoffs and the decline of the Democratic vote between 1996 and 2012.

We found these remarkable long-term surveys with tens of thousands of responses to pretty similar questions over time. And during that period, since 1996, we viewed 23 social issue questions and it turns out, in no cases did they get more illiberal. In about half of the cases, they got significantly more liberal. So, if there’s a move away from traditional, democratic party politics, it has to do the failure to address mass layoffs.

So you’re saying that people are switching to the Republican Party because they feel abandoned by the Democrats?

Exactly. I think the disaffection with the Democrats is because there was an expectation, especially when there were economic difficulties, that the Democrats would come to the rescue as they did during the Roosevelt administration, the Truman Administration, even during the Carter administration. So, it was an expectation that the Democrats would address something like mass layoffs. 

Instead, it appeared that not only was it ignored, but on several key fronts, like support for the North American Free Trade Agreement. They felt that this would be good for the economy, but it was terrible for working-class people, especially white working-class people in rural areas where an alternative job is very difficult to come by. If a plant shuts down in rural Pennsylvania, and a thousand of your coworkers are looking for jobs at the same time, not only have you lost your family at work and your self-worth that comes from your previous job, but now you’re scrambling, and the odds are very low of getting a job anything like the one you just lost. And people have gotten very cynical about politics as a result. 

Pivoting back to Oberlin specifically, what do you think Oberlin College could or should be doing differently around these questions?

Very first thing that they should do is apologize to those workers. There was no reason to lay them off. The College was not about to go bankrupt. It’s not clear that they saved any money as a result of it. It was just an exercise in power. And I think it caused a lot of unnecessary harm — harm that the administration, the Board, refuses to face up to, or refuses to acknowledge when it’s almost a religious principle. If you do harm to somebody, you should try to make it right if you can. This was a harm that was foreseeable. Truth and reconciliation, I think, is necessary here.

The second thing they should have is half of the seats of the Board should be workers at the College. Oberlin’s been such a good innovator historically, and on the progressive edge of things. Instead of sliding and becoming a kind of a Wall Street-thinking type operation, protecting their endowment – you know, they’re so proud now of the billion-dollar endowment. How do you justify saving a couple of million a year, supposedly from these layoffs? It’s really contradictory and embarrassing. But set up a model for the future, put workers on the Board, representatives from all different unions and some faculty, and see if you can’t figure out how to work cooperatively. 

And I think the Board has got to open itself up so it becomes more transparent. Students who are concerned about Gaza can’t figure out what the endowment has or doesn’t have. It’s totally opaque. And they have a lot of excuses on why they can’t open their books. But they should open their books, for the sake of the students, the workers, the alumni; everybody wants to know. And I think the administration should face up to what they did, because then they wouldn’t do it again so quickly. They think they did everything right — they were just tough negotiators. But the final package Oberlin offered was impossible for any union to accept. They just wanted to get rid of the union. 

Why is unionizing important on campuses?

I think wherever people work, they need a collective voice. One person against a large, powerful institution means that you’ll be abused. It’s inevitable. The law is such that you have no rights on the job unless you have a collective bargaining contract. So, I think everybody should be organized. And if you look at Scandinavia, just about everybody is, and it leads to a much more cooperative situation because management learns quickly that the best way to get things done is to form joint committees with workers. It leads to better, more productive responses to the changes that are always needed to make corporations and the public sector run better. 

How has the College changed since you were here?

We had our tussles with the administration in the ’60s as well. I’d say one of the biggest differences I feel I’m sensing between students today and students then is that we felt unbelievably empowered. We felt Oberlin was ours while we were there and that it was our right to demand changes, to make changes. The place so dramatically changed in the four years I was there. You had no social rights. People got expelled for sleeping together. As first-years, the girls had to wear a dress and sit in every other seat. The boys had to wear a jacket and a tie and sit in the other seats.

And all of that changed with the Vietnam War protests. There was just this sense that we could make these changes. We felt we would succeed. Did we always succeed? No, but we felt very much that the place was ours. And I was in love with Oberlin. What broke my heart was the layoffs. I couldn’t believe that they were going to do this. 

The war was awful, and it did cause some division on campus. But even that kind of worked out in a very positive way. We just felt like things were moving in a good direction. I don’t feel that way right now.

I think the leadership of Oberlin, basically when they went to grad school, they kicked up this ethos that you have to be tough. You have to be a tough manager. You can’t have compassion. That’s old school. New school is the bottom line. Otherwise you’ve got to run your company into the ground or someone else will take it over. You’ll get fired and they’ll put somebody else in that’s tougher than you. And in my book, toughness is quite unattractive and cruel.

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