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  7. Oberlin College – Self-Inflicted UAW Labor Trouble

Oberlin College – Self-Inflicted UAW Labor Trouble

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The Oberlin College Series

Posted Jun 7, 2020 at 14:15. Revised Jul 24, 2021 at 15:37.

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ChaosFarm LogoOpening the ChaosFarm barn door

JD has been reflecting on the troubles of the world from the pleasantness of ChaosFarm. Among those troubles is the problem Oberlin College is facing in deciding whether or not to contract out college support services. This is not an easy issue because many people are upset over the college engaging in what amounts to union-busting.

The pleasantness of ChaosFarm has been largely shattered now by the murder of George Floyd and the predictably insane appeal the College has filed against Gibson’s Bakery. This appeal is perfectly sane for our new age in which facts and opinions are the same things. Indeed, the lawyers in this matter and the court will probably have opinions that will be synonymous with facts. Life is easy in a world where facts and opinions are morphed into the same thing. A barn door to nowhere is being opened by this new paradigm.

Featherbedding in academia
Academic Featherbedding

chutzpah, hype and horse manure for the Gibson Bakery appellate court decisionOberlin College motto and the UAW

Superficially, Oberlin College’s problems with the UAW are the result of needing to cut expenses sharply due to many different issues. Many years of a disconnected BOT not addressing the foreseeable financial crunch plus the unexpected coronavirus epidemic have brought matters to a head. Like all other colleges and universities, Oberlin has a growing administrative bureaucracy of amply paid people. The president of the college receives compensation of at least $11,000 PER WEEK, and the college’s growing entourage of Deans and other functionaries are paid correspondingly.

Oberlin College began with almost no administrative personnel, but that has radically changed over the subsequent 187 years. The initial “Learning and Labor” motto contained a very blurred line between administration and faculty. There was no tuition. The founding concept of no tuition and students doing the labor has been replaced by very high tuition and almost all of the labor being done by non-student employees.

Conflating “Labor” in the original Learning and Labor model with the college’s UAW workers today is absurd. Would those early students had the right or a need to strike? Would there have been a grievance resolution team? Would they have considered striking for more learning in return for less labor? JD does not think so.

From Facebook to Animal Farm

Recently there were some exchanges on FaceBook over how the Oberlin College “Learning and Labor” motto applies to the College’s current issues with the UAW. Part of this discussion morphs 1833 student labor into 2020 union labor. It is right out of George Orwell’s book Animal Farm.

The text of a Facebook post by C follows:

As someone who has used the “learning and labor” motto as a talking point in worker advocacy at Oberlin, I can tell you I know that that term originally was associated with the student work program, which we no longer really have. I can tell you all activist students I know also know this. I personally would like to see MORE students working on campus. But as far as using the term now, it speaks to more than just a work study program. It speaks to the importance of a well rounded education, to the importance of understanding the kind of work that goes into running a school and making it possible for students to get an education. It’s a motto that shows students are not better than workers or staff on campus, we can be one and the same. The spirit of all that is honored in a hearkening back to “learning and labor” in the context of today’s labor organizing on campus. It’s the institution that has been exploiting their history, not activist students.

JD salutes C for her caring about the UAW workers. Nevertheless, JD is troubled by her Orwellian logic and non-sequiturs. It is an interesting jump for C to morph the 1833 payment in kind by student labor into the 2020 parent payments in cash for union labor. The student labor in 1833 was by the students and for the benefit of the students and to make the College go. In contrast, today, the students are paying the union workers to do the “dirty work” so the students can live in a privileged position. Such a customer-vendor relationship is an inherently unequal one.

JD considers himself to be a more significant activist than the current students because he has been calling out the reactionary, elitist, and opaque trustees of the College. They hold the ultimate power while lurking unseen in the shadows – all while fancying themselves to be “progressive.” If you want to be an activist, C, focus your efforts on the people who hold power. Stop paying attention to catching the mice and start making the big cheeses squirm because the big cheeses control the mice. Start shining some light down the rat holes of power.

Incoming Students promise a fight to save the UAW

The following letter to Oberlin College President Ambar was published in the Oberlin Review, May 28, 2020.

Dear President Ambar,

Oberlin Admissions chose an incoming class that cares about the world, and many of us committed out of a belief that the College felt the same way. Now, we’re not so sure. When we learned of Oberlin’s plans to lay off 108 unionized workers and replace them with an outside contractor, we were forced to question whether or not Oberlin is truly the school that was marketed to us. Oberlin claims the motto, “Learning and Labor,” but does it practice it? We have yet to be on campus, but we know that both learning and labor are equal parts of the ecosystem that makes Oberlin such a special community. We know that one cannot exist without the other.

“Think one person can change the world?” was repeated to us countless times throughout the process of applying to Oberlin. Oberlin has repeatedly promised us that it cultivates a community where we can learn to make change, and yet now we see the College actively dismantling the organized labor that makes this school run. We are only as good as the communities and spaces that shape us. So how can we learn to fight for justice at a school which, by devaluing and dismissing the members of the United Automobile Workers union that are its foundation, is only modeling injustice? We fear arriving on campus in the fall only to find that the community that drew so many of us to Oberlin has been destroyed by union-busting.

We have grown up watching the slow dismantling of unions, and have felt the devastating effects of this firsthand. We have seen our families and communities affected by rising inequality, and have worked jobs where the absence of organized labor is too keenly felt. Many of us are only able to attend Oberlin because of our families’ union-won wages and benefits. If Oberlin continues forward with union-busting, it will be practicing the same anti-worker politics that are eviscerating families and communities across the nation and which harm its long-term survival.

A recent advertising letter from the College read, “Oberlin is the right place for you … if you think complacency is not an option.” When it comes to the livelihoods of dining and custodial workers, we refuse to look the other way. We find comfort and pride in the powerful organizing work by current students and are excited to learn and organize alongside them. We believe that being a member of the Oberlin community means standing up for justice, and we call on the administration to match its community’s values. We’ll see you in the fall — get ready for a fight.


Sky Milstein ’24
Kimberly Love ’25
Despina Rizopoulos ’24
Ellis Liebeskind-Blaufarb ’24
Saphira Klearman ’24
WD Williams-Derry ’24
Olivia Wohlgemuth ’24
Eli Sadow-Hasenberg ’24
Martina Taylor ’24
Maya Irizarry Lambright ’24
Anna Sophia Abundis ’24
Leah Coco ’24
Zoey Birdsong ’24
Andrea Orozco ’24
Penina Biddle-Gottesman ’24
Hannah Isenberg ‘24
Peter Fray-Witzer ’24
Nessie Slyker ’24
Daphne May ’24
Lily Crikelair ’24
Sydney Rosensaft ’24
Caroline Smith ’24
Roxana Reisch ’24
Jonah Covell ’24
Becca Schiff ’24
Willa Frierson ’24
Joshua Bowen ’24
Owen Potter ’24
Ros Kish-Levine ’24
Lanie Cheatham ’24
Anna Holshouser-Belden ’24
Alex Thompson ’24

Students demand that an employee be fired

JD is not sure of the context in which college employee Norma Frasher wrote this social media post. Norma could have been referring to the George Floyd murder or could have been speaking figuratively in an unrelated context and in a poorly thought out way. In any event, Norma is quoted out of context.

The Google Docs link to this petition and the document itself are read-only, so the original petition and its signature solicitation link cannot be included here. It is unclear why the link to this petition is read-only, considering that the petition’s author presumably would want as many people as possible to see the link and act on it. A reader can only activate such a link from the one page where it resides, and any effort to email or text the link would result in sending only a picture of the link. The link itself would be “dead.” Not the best way to promote a message.

The petition has no attributed authorship. Its nearly 1200 signatures make it significant even though it is written poorly and is possibly misleading. The petition’s substance is reproduced below for the reader’s perusal.

7/29/2020 update: The Oberlin Review reports that Frasher apparently has been fired. The Review failed to report the context in which Frasher’s dumb remark was made.

See the screenshots below.

Important Oberlin College Contacts

Seán Hanson shared a link on Facebook:

June 3 at 2:27 PM

In the past, I’ve found that contacting the Alumni Association isn’t usually the best way to try to get attention to a concerning issue or crisis at Oberlin, because they are generally overburdened, separate from much of the administration, and more often experience fatigue during major issues.

As a result, I put together an easier to scan directory for direct office lines throughout the college, organized by their role (administration, deans, etc.) and in a somewhat prioritized order. I made this for myself, but figured I’d share this with everyone so that it can help you when you are making calls and want to avoid going through twenty tabs on the website.

(edit: after an hour on the phone, I added the corresponding public email addresses)

As an alumni, I’ve found that Oberlin’s Alumni Association frequently is a combination of overburdened and unable to effectively communicate concerns about the overall college and conservatory, notably in times of crisis. Accordingly, I find myself often calling specific offices that might be better suited to handle the issue at hand, and will be more visible. I thought I’d organize their numbers by categories for quick reference in the future, and offer this list. For any office that has a dedicated email address, I’ve provided this as well.

All information has been pulled from the official websites of each office or organization.

Link to Seán Hanson’s Important Oberlin College Contacts. 

Essential workers unicorn
Unicorn thanking essential workers
Credit: JD Nobody

Retrieved Jan 30, 2023 at 22:27.
Copyright ©2023 Charles E. Dial. All rights reserved.

By JD Nobody

JD Nobody, OC '61, had a 56-year career in developing software. This involved IT application design and maintenance, software engineering, bank operations, and article-composing software for The Business Torts Reporter. In the US Air Force, he was an ICBM launch officer, administrative officer, and finance officer.

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It’s surely lamentable that Oberlin has effectively changed its motto from “Learning and Labor” to “Think One Person Can Change the World? So Do We.”
The former bespeaks a humility that is becoming. The latter suggests a form of hubris that is just plain silly.
For those interested, there are still a handful of “work” colleges in the United States. The most notable, perhaps, is Berea College in Kentucky. Here’s a link with info about all of them:https://workcolleges.org/
Surely Oberlin College would be a less foolish and more responsible institution if its students were required to work to maintain the operations and physical plant of the school. The kids would learn valuable lessons about the dignity of labor. This in turn might cause the administrators of the college to take less of a condescending and contemptuous view of hard-working local merchants, such as the Gibsons.

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