The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News December 1, 2006

Workers Identify Problems with OC Unions

Sidney Small makes night rounds of the campus while on duty as a Safety and Security officer, as he has done for six years. He is currently nearing the end of his first year as president of the Oberlin College Security Association, the union that represents Oberlin’s 17 security officers. Small is quick to share stories of his job, but there are certain things he will not talk about. He has concerns about how OCSA interacts with the administration, but fears repercussions if he criticizes certain aspects of the job.

“At such a liberal place,” said Small, “I think it’s crazy that you can’t voice your opinions.”

Oberlin’s staff is represented by four different unions. Oberlin College Office and Professional Employees is roughly tied in membership with the approximate 200 members of the United Auto Workers local 2191. Both unions encompass a broad array of employees. Everything from secretarial work to audio visual to piano tuning belongs to OCOPE, while custodians, food service workers and physical plant workers are part of the UAW union. The school’s three carpenters are represented by a branch of a regional council. The final union is, of course, OCSA.

Small is not alone in his hesitance to speak about the union. Employees in Dascomb, when approached, were leery of even broaching the subject when the word “union” came up.

Several GCC/UAW workers cleaning up after lunch in the Rathskeller agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “As far as I’m concerned the union doesn’t do a whole lot,” said one employee of 15 years. Among her objections was the fact that local 2191 also represents Children’s Services in Lorain.

“We need to hire more people,” she continued. “You would think the union could get some more people in.”

She was not alone in this thought. Maintenance employee Junior Porter said, “They need to hire more maintenance [workers].”

The UAW, which came to Oberlin in 1994, negotiates a four-year contract with the school. Food service employees such as Henry Schmitz found some problems with the contract.

“You should start out part-time,” he said, “[and] they should count that toward full-time.”

However, Schmitz gives the union a positive review overall. “I think they represent us well,” he said.

Another food service worker who preferred not to give her name did not agree. “The [union president] never wants to talk to anyone,” she said, “Every time our rep calls him he’s in a meeting or doesn’t call back. Nothing gets resolved.”

She objected to the nine-month contract that leaves most workers unable to get a job at Stevenson during the summer, saying: “There is no work, really no work, during the summer.”

Some employees’ dissatisfaction may be coming from the simple fact that the unions currently classify, rather than unite, the school’s workers. Gill Kudrin, teacher of the US Labor History ExCo and longtime Teamsters organizer, offered the analysis that creating “multiple unions,” with white-collar workers belonging to one union and blue-collar workers to another, “can create its own set of problems, particularly due to the fact that there is still this issue of division of labor in the US.”

Whatever the cause, communication seems to be a recurring problem. Small’s frustrations in acting as spokesman for his fellow security guards proves, despite Manager of Employee Relations Mary Blavos’ statement, that “the elected leaders represent the collective membership.”

From Blavos’ management point of view, the most frequent problem in union-administration relations is that OCOPE’s rules about seniority hiring can get in the way of the school hiring the best candidate. While an outside applicant might meet the posted requirements of a position, explained Blavos, OCOPE’s contract states that internal candidates who meet the same requirements must be hired for that position.

Blavos also sees the union potentially getting in the way of the agency of the individual, going so far as to say, “It takes away individual ability to determine rules and regulations of the workplace.”

No one knows more about individual voice than Small. He has to work according to the College’s stipulations.

“We’re the ones out there in the field doing what they say to do,” said Small. “It sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t work.”


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