Oberlin students protest replacement of union workers

By Roy Landersen
March 23, 2020

Hundreds of students protested Feb. 18 less than 24 hours after Oberlin College President Carmen Twillie Ambar announced that the university plans to lay off 108 union workers and contract their jobs out. Many workers facing the layoffs joined the protest. College officials claim the job cuts are necessary to save money.

One student held a handmade sign reading, “Student-Worker Solidarity.” Students chanted, “What’s disgusting, union busting!” while lining the corridors outside a meeting between university and union officials.

The layoffs violate the college’s “progressive values,” protest organizer and Oberlin student Matt Kinsella-Walsh told the press. “These are the people who cook our food, who clean our homes, who care for us when we’re sick.”

Ambar released a statement saying these cuts would save up to $2 million annually and were needed because the liberal arts college was facing “unprecedented financial and demographics challenges, including unsustainable budget deficits.”

Some 52 dining service and 56 custodial employees organized by the United Auto Workers union will be replaced July 1. Erik Villar, chair of UAW Local 2192, told the Elyria and Lorain County Chronicle-Telegram  Feb. 19 that some workers have worked for the college for more than 30 years, one for 43. Some who are only three or four years away from retirement are members of families that have worked there for generations.

Villar said that since Ambar became president the college has “become more of a business, about money.”

Al Fleming, a plumber at the college for 24 years, told the Chronicle-Telegram, “If there’s a problem with the wages we negotiated, why aren’t they looking at their lawyers and administrators instead of us? Change starts at the top.”

Like many privately owned schools, Oberlin is being battered by the capitalist economic crisis and a number of its own mistakes. And like bosses everywhere, the officers look to make workers pay for their problems.

College tries to crush Gibson’s

Oberlin’s administrators also face another challenge of their own making. They were found guilty in a unanimous jury verdict for organizing a smear campaign to try and crush Gibson’s bakery, a family-owned local business with a 134-year history that has provided pastries to the college for decades.

Top college officials helped organize student protests and a boycott of the bakery in November 2016 — falsely claiming the store owners were racists — after a college student who is African American, with the aid of two fellow students, attempted to shoplift wine from the store and was arrested. The three later pled guilty to attempted theft and testified no racism was involved in the affair.

The jury found the college administration guilty of libel against the Gibsons and the court
ruled it must pay $44 million in damages and fees. Rather than admit its guilt and pay the bakery, the college has appealed and hired an additional phalanx of lawyers to try and bleed the Gibson family and break their spirit. The family says it won’t back down.

The reality is that Oberlin College is a capitalist institution and like any capitalist business, it ultimately rises or falls on having a budget that produces a positive bottom line, despite any “progressive” veneer or non-profit status.

The administrators and trustees have to squeeze the workers and small businesses in town like the Gibson family bakery to bolster that bottom line. And they don’t hide their class contempt for both as they do so.