Like schools across the country, Oberlin College has gone remote in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. As students left campus on March 16, many mourned not only the loss of community and increased financial strain that returning home would bring, but also the effective defanging of a powerful and growing student-labor solidarity movement founded roughly a month earlier.
Oberlin’s solidarity organizing, which is attempting to save 108 unionized campus jobs threatened by outsourcing, is part of the growing movement for labor rights in higher education. Like Oberlin, campuses across the country — most notably, graduate students in the University of California system striking for a cost-of-living adjustment — have faced unforeseen barriers to their organizing efforts as a result of campus closures.
But these closures also underscore the importance of the issues organizers were already mobilizing around: in order to survive, during normal times, and especially during an emergency, people need sustainable livelihoods and health care. As Oberlin moves to outsource the positions of 108 unionized workers who are, at this moment, sanitizing the campus against COVID-19, it is leaving them at risk of losing their jobs, health care, and paid sick leave in the midst of a global pandemic. The college is engaged in a particularly deadly form of union-busting.
United Against Union-Busting
Oberlin’s labor solidarity movement launched on February 18, when Oberlin president Carmen Twillie Ambar announced in a campus-wide email that the college was considering contracting with outside vendors to replace 108 unionized positions in the dining services and custodial departments represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW). This proposal, which the college claims would save more than $2 million, would eliminate roughly 70 percent of the UAW bargaining unit at Oberlin and dismantle much of the union’s power. In other words, this was a proposal to bust the union.
Less than twenty-four hours after the email was released, more than 800 students — almost a third of Oberlin’s student body — gathered to protest in Oberlin’s main academic building, demanding a reversal of the proposal. Since then, organizers held a demonstration each week, rallying to support the UAW at their first negotiating meeting and delivering over 4,500 petition signatures from students, alumni, and the surrounding community, demanding a reversal of the proposal to Oberlin’s board of trustees, as well as arranging teach-ins, banner drops, and art events with workers and students.
More than 2,600 alumni, including prominent program funders, have pledged to cease all donations to Oberlin if the outsourcing occurs. Statements of solidarity have come from major unions like SEIU and the Chicago Teachers Union, congressional candidates, US senator Sherrod Brown, prominent advocacy groups like Make the Road and the Working Families Party, and student-worker movements from colleges and universities across the country. Yet Oberlin administrators have so far refused to change their stance.
The organizing efforts at Oberlin are part of a growing workers’ movement in higher education that is gaining strength across the nation. Graduate students, faculty members, and staff across campuses at the University of California have gone on strike in opposition to the neoliberalization of higher education, withholding their labor and disrupting the university until their demands for a cost-of-living adjustment have been met.
But as students are moved off campus to limit the virus’s spread, the momentum and solidarity built through countless hours of in-person meetings and actions has been abruptly curtailed. Students can’t demonstrate during a quarantine, so the pressure on administrators has been greatly reduced.
Organized Labor Protects Us All
For many, including hundreds of thousands of campus workers around the country, the coronavirus pandemic has amplified economic and health-related precarity. At UC Santa Cruz, graduate workers won back fired teaching assistants’ health care at the start of the outbreak, and in doing so, they demonstrated that organized action promises a way forward through the crisis. Similarly, when the University of Illinois announced, incredibly, that it would not provide additional paid sick leave for graduate student workers across the UI system who contract COVID-19, the graduate student union successfully organized to win two weeks of paid leave for graduate workers affected by the virus.
Health care, along with safe living and working conditions, is central to Oberlin’s UAW solidarity organizing. It would be unconscionable for Oberlin to fire or otherwise cut the health care of the targeted workers during a global pandemic, especially as it relies on those same workers to potentially expose themselves to the virus by cleaning rooms left behind by departed students. To date, the administration has not made any comments on employee health care in light of the coronavirus.
But the administration seems to be specifically targeting union health care. The $2 million that Oberlin expects to save annually through outsourcing approximately coincides with the compiled benefits packages of the 108 UAW workers. By outsourcing, Oberlin can avoid any obligation to provide health care and other benefits to those who work on its campus.
With the onset of coronavirus, the costs of cutting staff health care and paid time off are acute. Not only does paid time off and health care ensure that the disease is less likely to be transmitted — resulting in better health outcomes for everyone — but it also protects and values those workers who will be among the first exposed in any outbreak. How can Oberlin continue to portray itself as a progressive institution if its labor practices hurt both its employees and the surrounding community? How can Oberlin ask its unionized staff to protect and care for its students when it refuses to offer them the same respect?
Though on-the-ground organizing is off the table at Oberlin for now, we can continue to fight through other means. We’re coordinating with alumni to continue to exert financial pressure against the school, and the college is being shamed in the press and on social media. But what’s happening at Oberlin isn’t unique. Elite universities with multibillion-dollar endowments across the country are responding to the pandemic by laying off their subcontracted employees en masse, such as Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. We have to tell Oberlin and every other higher-ed institution engaged in outsourcing and union-busting that we won’t stand for it — especially in the midst of a pandemic.