Oberlin and the Anti-Labor College

by Cameron Avery

[originally published spring 2020]


On February 18, as many of us know by now, the College made public its intention to lay off 108 unionized employees in the dining and custodial divisions and replace them with outsourced contracted labor. In addition to the blatantly immoral nature of the decision, which jeopardizes the well-being of 108 individuals and families, there are a number of important points that need to be understood. If the plan is passed, the new employees will certainly make less money than the unionized employees who negotiated for a living wage from the College. They won’t receive the benefits that unionized employees do, including healthcare,, which makes up a large part of the benefits package given to unionized employees. The College’s commitment to tuition reimbursement for the children of workers, a key part of the desirability of an Oberlin job, is not extended to non-union employees. In short, Oberlin plans to create a new workforce of underpaid, exploited, precarious laborers who have no recourse to the collective power of a union. There can be no discussion of this decision without first realizing its inherent and undeniable cruelty. We should realize by now that Oberlin’s “groundbreaking”, “visionary” One Oberlin plan is really just a cover for a classic scheme: fucking over workers and leaving the institution’s highest-paid untouched.

This kind of action from college administrations is commonplace, and has become increasingly swift and brutal in the past few years in both public and private institutions. The most notable recent example is UC Santa Cruz’s treatment of graduate student workers, who are paid to do TA work. On February 28, UCSC terminated at least 54 and up to 80 graduate student workers who had been organizing for a living wage adjustment to their pay. These workers, many of whom were living out of their cars due to the extreme disparity between their income and the cost of housing, were terminated for simply refusing to turn in their grades for the Fall semester until they received a modest increase in pay. In both UCSC and Oberlin, one thing is abundantly clear: those who perform the most essential tasks in the university are also those who the administrators in charge will get rid of the fastest.

Oberlin and UCSC are just two extreme cases of a country- and world-wide landscape of anti-worker universities. In every college and university in the United States, workers without whom nothing would function are being underpaid, overworked, and laid off. Adjunct and non-tenure track professors, dining hall workers, maintenance staff, student TAs, RAs, to name but a few: everywhere they are treated as disposable elements that can be cut loose at a whim.

How, one might ask, can they get away with it? Across universities and colleges, narratives of financial “crisis” have been used to justify brutally anti-union, anti-worker measures. The idea that everyone must sacrifice in order to make up budget deficits—no matter if one is a student, a high-six-figure paid administrator, a faculty member, or a custodial worker—obscures the clear class antagonisms at play. If everyone has to sacrifice, then Oberlin can put things like a slight reduction in an administrator’s salary on the same plane as a massive layoff of unionized employees. The apolitical, technocratic terms that Oberlin—and colleges everywhere—use to justify assaults on labor need to be recognized as not simply descriptive but as tools of governance in themselves. When a school faces a crisis, the logic goes, tough decisions have to be made. By framing cuts as necessary, decisions can be rammed through that otherwise would have been unthinkable. This is what some have called austerity: using an “everyone has to give something up” narrative to attack the lowest-paid.

But this isn’t the only tactic that institutions of higher education have used. Schools with so-called “progressive” reputations, like Oberlin, can leverage their status to sweep decidedly non-progressive actions—cutting 108 unionized jobs, for one—under the rug. The College hopes that with this decision, it can cement forever what it’s hoped to do for a long time: to lure students in with shallow, almost meaningless promises of “social justice” while hollowing out the communities that underpin any meaningful social change. It’s a move that parallels one that’s being made across the country: ruthlessly anti-worker institutions have realized that they might be able to get away with it if they can make gestures to progressivism.

We need to de-romanticize our views about academia, and start to acknowledge that colleges and universities, no matter how much we value the experience they give us, can still be run like the most cold-hearted of businesses. In her email announcing the job cuts to students, President Ambar told us that it was only by cutting 108 union jobs and replacing them with hyper-exploited contractors that Oberlin could focus on the “academic and creative endeavors that prepare [its] students for lives of purpose.” If this is the message that the administration wants to send us—that our “lives of purpose” are dependent on sacrificing the livelihoods of the people that ensure our college functions—then we need to make it clear that we do not simply care about the quality of our degree separate from the working conditions that support it.