by Mary Ann Montgomery, Izzy Sanchez-Foster, and Keagan Tan
Saturday, February 18th, marked the 3-year anniversary of Oberlin College’s announcement that they were considering outsourcing over a hundred unionized workers. Despite a robust student, teacher, and alumni-led campaign against the layoff, the decision to fire 113 workers was finalized in August 2020. This decision was made in order to outsource dining services to AVI, disrupt the union, and cut costs, furthering the Board of Trustees’ neoliberal agenda. Removing longtime custodians, dining service workers, and other staff disrupted the Oberlin community and drastically impacted the lives of those fired. Lori, a former custodian employed at Oberlin for 26 years, expressed that for her the layoff “was like suffering through a death and I went through a deep depression.” The stress of this event was only worsened by the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic had just begun and finding work was extremely difficult. Marsha Rae Douglass, a former GCC cook and custodian was barely back a month after undergoing surgery before getting laid off. She shared that “trying to find a job in the middle of the pandemic was...awful. It wasn't happening, everything was closed down. So now I had no job, I was still trying to recover not only physically but financially from the kidney
transplant, bills piled up, it was a mess.” The layoff fucked over hardworking, compassionate members of our community. Most of them were at the college for over ten years, and several were a mere month or two from retirement. These workers, more than any of the faculty and students, were painfully aware of where the college was headed after these layoffs. Jack Kubicki, who had been with the college for 13 years, stated, “...they're just trying to do away with the unions because they don't want to pay nobody health benefits, they don't wanna pay a proper wage. When you work for somebody for a long time, you would hope they cared enough about you that they'd want to see you be able to live a decent life when you retire.”
In the summer of 2022, the Labor Institute (an Oberlin alumni-run organization) sponsored an internship where four Oberlin students, two of them SLAC members, conducted interviews with 16 of the workers fired in 2020. In the interviews, we found that the consequences of the layoff were felt far and wide, and the short notice of it left workers scrambling to make ends meet. They experienced significant healthcare, housing, and other financial challenges; forced to blow through their savings just to survive. Over decades of service, the workers had established themselves in the community by providing skilled labor and expertise while supporting themselves and their families. They developed close relationships with the students and staff. They helped feed us, kept our homes clean, and generally went out of their way for us. Some even drove students to doctor’s appointments and cooked them meals.
The interviews conducted in 2022 have been used to create a report that will soon be printed and distributed across town and campus. This month, using findings from the report, we’ll be creating an exhibit that will offer those affected a chance to tell their own stories, try to find justice, and encourage us all to fight for our community. The audio-visual display will be presented in Mudd Library starting March 10th.
Most of us weren’t on campus for the layoff, and it’s imperative that we understand what motivates our administrators (surprise, surprise: it’s not kindness, joy, or the pursuit of education). Furthermore, we must respect and honor workers past and present, who are the heart of this
community. Before the end of 2025, Oberlin’s contracts with Campus Security, UAW, Carpenters, and OCOPE are all set to expire. This means Oberlin could attempt the same layoff and outsource technique, so understanding what happened in 2020 will ideally prepare us for the fights ahead.