A union representing faculty at a Brooklyn private school rooted in Quaker beliefs could be dissolved by school administrators who don't find the union very "Quaker."
Staffers at the Brooklyn Friends School — where tuition runs a minimum $45,400 — voted in May 2019 to unionize with UAW 2110, which represents workers at Columbia University, NYU, and Museum of Modern Art. The vote, intended to offer a voice to all faculty members, happened months after the hiring of Crissy Caceres as the new Head of School. The school was established 153 years ago, and continues to espouse Quaker beliefs of social equity.
Caceres has since launched a campaign to decertify union representation at the school, petitioning her request to the Trump-backed National Labor Relations Board, exploiting the reversal of an Obama-era ruling that allowed religious schools such as BFS to unionize.
In an email sent to teachers and shared with parents last Friday, Caceres argued that the union goes against the school's "Quaker values," that include direct interactions with teachers when discussing work conditions.
"Working through a third party to communicate with all of you hinders us in hearing from you, in your words, about issues you may want to raise directly with the School concerning your working conditions and professional experiences," Caceres wrote, referring to the union as the third party. "Unity is our approach to being in community. We respect that our truths and divergent opinions are all part of one greater spirit that we can only access through direct and open communication of these individual truths. If we are to fully practice our Quaker values of respecting others and honoring every individual’s inner light while compassionately responding to existing needs, we must be legally free to do so."
Dan Magaziner, a parent who received the letter, was offended by the email, calling it "morally abhorrent." Magaziner, who's studied labor relations and teaches African history at Yale University.
"The school is telling me that [unionizing is] not Quaker. And that in fact, Quakerism impels them to use a Trump administration rule that was designed to discriminate against LGBTQ people, and to deny abortion access and birth control by religious employers to union members and to bust unions. They're now a Quaker school in Brooklyn that's going to say, 'because we are Quaker, we're going to destroy this union,'" said Magaziner.
"What makes it even harder is that we know personally, dozens of families from the school who've written direct letters to the Head of School, asking for a meeting and asking for a conversation and have received no reply," said Magaziner. "And Quakerism is supposed to believe that you govern through consensus and that you collaborate and you consult. And this is not that."
On Friday afternoon, the school sent another email to teachers reaffirming their position to make its plea to NLRB. "Our decision to file this petition came after much consideration, reflection and—on the part of the many Quakers who sit on the Board—worship. We understand why community members and colleagues would be concerned about the impact that this decision might have on the voices of our colleagues," read the letter.
Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW 2110, told Gothamist that talks to hash out the first contract have stalled.
"Everything's on the table, including action," said Rosenstein, though she did not elaborate whether action includes a strike. "And it's not just over health and safety. This is an existential threat to the union. The point about the health and safety is right at this period of time, when workers health and safety is being challenged, and when their job security is also an issue -- because the school just laid people off — it's more critical than ever, that workers be able to have a unionized voice," said Rosenstein.
With the union and school administrators at loggerheads, talks on the health of safety of the school ahead of reopening have also dragged. School begins on September 14th and will be split between in-person learning for grades K-4 and virtual instruction for the remaining grades for the first 8 weeks of session. Sarah Gordon, a third grade teacher who is supposed to physically report in for the first day of school and a member of the negotiating committee, has not had a meeting on school reopening.
"There are so many unknowns with reopening and that can turn on a dime and we just really want to make sure that we have pathways so that our voices have to be heard because we're going to be the ones face to face with children," said Gordon. "And that's why it feels like for us the stakes feel very high to take away the union."
Rosenstein has ratcheted up her own campaign for support, enlisting 200 parents, teachers, and former staffers to send an open letter to Caceres, criticizing Caceres for violating the values of the progressive school.
"Standing behind a policy that unfairly restricts the rights of workers to unionize, serves to delegitimize the school's legacy of integrity and social justice," read the letter. "At a time when our country is ravaged by a pandemic, jeopardizing lives and livelihoods, it is shameful and behwildering that BFS would attempt to destroy its own employees' union rights."
A petition has also gone out and signed by just under 500 families opposing the school's plan.
Caceres did not respond to a request for comment.