by the Student Labor Action Coalition
art by Jeanne Hill
[originally published October 2021]
Oberlin’s dining system is failing us—but how did we get here? The issues students have been facing the past few weeks are symptoms of a much larger, and very troubling, issue: Austerity. Austerity is the process of cutting spending and increasing revenue, which Oberlin does by slashing programs on campus and increasing enrollment. Beginning with the launch of the Academic and Administrative Review (AAPR), the committee Oberlin put together to balance their budget in 2018, Oberlin has focused on cutting costs and saving money wherever they can. This has been done with no consideration of the students, staff, or community. Despite claims of being in a financial crisis, Oberlin’s nearly $1 billion endowment fund—donation money set aside for use in times of crisis—remains untouched. In the past few years, the school has refused to use the endowment, instead choosing to outsource dining, sanitation work, and student jobs within CDS. They have also hiked up the price of OSCA, cut disability services and the MRC budget, hired fewer RAs, and instituted limits on hiring professors.
The endowment fund is currently being used for alternative investments, a problematic and secretive way to build assets. This method of investment permits only a few people to see what the college is investing in, which raises the question: why are they so intent in hiding their investments? Furthermore, the fees and contracts (potentially totaling up to $15 million a year) that Oberlin must pay for this investment essentially funnels money into Wall Street while accruing little in return. The use of alternative investment and implementation of austerity measures are the college’s desperate attempts to improve their poor bond rating (the school's equivalent of a bad credit score). By cutting back programs while using the endowment as collateral, the school can hike up its bond rating and continue to increase its non-taxable endowment fund. A better option would be an Index fund, a more transparent method of investment that would provide stability and ensure a higher rate of return.
The Oberlin community has the power to demand accountability. Oberlin is a brand, and it thrives on its image as a liberal hub with happy students. We have a serious chance to unmask the institution as a money-hungry business that will cut as many programs as needed to increase its value. Spending our endowment on risky investments and implementing a harsh austerity program is negatively affecting our community—look no further than the state of labor on campus.
Anyone who was on campus before the pandemic hit remembers the college’s decision to fire 108 unionized dining and custodial staff as part of their move from Bon Appétit, our previous dining provider, to AVI. The decision to outsource to AVI for food service was part of this austerity program, as the move was estimated to save $2 million a year. AVI does not have a good track record with unionization and has been known to exploit workers; however, the demonstrations by workers and students pushed them to contact the UAW and to get a contract for Oberlin workers that started in February of 2021. AVI hired 43 workers who were willing to stay out of the previously fired 108. This was not the case for Scioto, the new custodial service, which did not retain previous staff and chose to remain non-unionized.
Despite their attempts to placate students and workers, AVI is certainly not worker friendly. Students, who are now employed through AVI instead of through the school, were required to work a minimum of 12 hours a week, or three shifts of 4 hours. This has now been changed to one shift a week thanks to a petition that was circulated by students. In addition, policies around breaks and missing work are harsh. Workers are required to call off two hours ahead of time if they are going to miss a shift, and even then they will receive a disciplinary notice. If they don’t call off, they are fired on the spot. Workers are also required to clock in and out for bathroom breaks, despite Ohio law mandating that breaks under 20 minutes be paid.
AVI has been grossly unprepared for this semester. With the combination of over-enrollment as well as staff shortages and supply chain issues, they have failed to adequately provide food for students. This is all something that Oberlin and AVI could have prepared for, yet made the conscious decision to not hire more workers. Due to the staff shortages, and as part of a clause in AVI’s union contract, management has asked everyone to cover open shifts, and can force workers to cover those shifts even on their days off. Days off for our staff are no longer a right, but a luxury that can be taken from them at the drop of a hat. Workers have even reported being forced in for back to back shifts (after already working a 40 hour work week), essentially being forced to work 7 days in a row.
All of these problems with dining are directly connected to Oberlin’s austerity policies. Not only does it affect workers negatively as they are moved to working for contractors, but it also affects the experience of students as it impacts the quality and accessibility of the place that houses and feeds us. Day by day the college stands by as more trash piles up around campus, food gets harder to access, and all the while student and adult workers are forced to work beyond their capacity. Enough is enough, it's time for us all to speak up and make our voices heard.