[UPDATE AT BOTTOM] Teachers and staff at the Brooklyn Friends School are getting ready to strike starting on Monday in response to administrators' ongoing opposition to their decision to unionize the Quaker private school.
The UAW Local 2110 -- representing school faculty and staff -- has urged parents to show their support by not sending their children to school during the strike, either in person or remotely. It’s unclear how many will take part, but some parents launched a GoFundMe page to support the union strike fund this week that raised more than $45,000 as of Sunday afternoon.
Katie Bednard, who has a 5th grader and an 8th grader at the school, said her children won’t be attending their remote classes on Monday. “Our teachers are what makes BFS,” Bednard said. “They are the ones who deliver the curriculum. They give meaning to the mission and I think that’s why there’s so much support.”
Actor H. Jon Benjamin, whose son is a senior at the school, has also lent his voice to the cause, telling Gothamist, “I’m obviously on the side of the teachers and staff members who voted by majority to unionize and certainly don’t support the school’s efforts to try to change that, especially considering the pandemic, when the union is probably most needed.”
Head of School Crissy Cáceres criticized the union members for threatening to strike amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“The BFS board of trustees and school leadership have been listening, and continue to do so, to the sentiments being expressed by those colleagues who have voted to strike, as well as those who haven’t,” Cáceres and the Board of Trustees said in a statement on Friday. “At the same time, we are disheartened that some would choose this course of action during such a chaotic time for our families. We do not expect to be unified in our opinions on every matter, but we will always strive for unity in our mission and dedication to students.”
Staff at Brooklyn Friends, where tuition runs upwards of $46,000 per student, voted to unionize in May 2019. As teachers began negotiating their first contract with the school this year, Cáceres sent a letter in August saying she was petitioning the National Labor Relations Board to decertify the union, arguing that it was out of step with the school’s Quaker values. Among them is the premise that third parties impede discussion.
The NLRB is empowered to protect workers’ collective bargaining rights but has rolled back some protections under the Trump administration. The agency ruled in June that it doesn’t have jurisdiction over the employees of a private religious college, a precedent that could pose a threat to the BFS union.
BFS union members voted 120-5 to authorize a strike in late September, but said they would call it off if Cáceres rescinded her petition to the NLRB. Instead, Cáceres and the school’s Board of Trustees sent a letter to parents on Friday explaining that they would hire substitute teachers during the strike.
“While we are disappointed that some of our colleagues have chosen this path, please know that the School intends to carry on serving our students and families and maintaining the integrity of our curricular program,” the letter read.
The letter claimed that the school had “thoughtfully contracted with a number of teachers who have been hired in anticipation of the strike” through a “mission-aligned partnership” with Kokua, a substitute teacher staffing organization. But a call to Kokua Friday revealed that the company decided not to contract with the school after receiving news of the strike. BFS has also posted an ad for substitute teachers on Indeed.com.
BFS staff said they intend to picket in front of the school during the strike. Administrators released a Safety and Security Plan on Friday that included hiring additional security and enlisting NYPD officers to come to the school, a move that alarmed some teachers and parents.
“You’re turning the police on teachers?” said Rachel Mazor, an English teacher and parent at BFS, incredulously. “Have you missed the entire BLM movement?”
At the time the petition to decertify the union was filed, the school was in the midst of laying off staffers, and the union put negotiations over its first contract on pause this summer to negotiate severance packages and other benefits for those who were losing their jobs.
“We were negotiating in what we thought was good faith, really quite regularly, throughout the summer,” said Sarah Gordon, a member of the union negotiating committee who teaches third grade at the school.
Some members of the Quaker community have challenged BSF Board of Trustees' position that a union is antithetical to the school’s Quaker mission. Three former Quaker clerks who sat on the BFS Board have been trying to mediate between the union and the administration.
“We are deeply concerned about the state and future of Brooklyn Friends School,” the former clerks said in a letter sent to the board last week. “We believe that the school’s survival as a Quaker institution depends upon the immediate resolution of this conflict.”
Sue Aaronson, who teaches languages at the school, said the severance package the union negotiated over the summer helped soften the blow when her husband, who taught photography at BFS, was laid off. Aaronson, who has been at BFS for 39 years, said she voted for the union in order to establish job protections and protocols that don’t change from one administration to the next.
“I’ve worked under six heads of school and 16 upper school heads, and so many times whatever process and protocol has been there has been thrown out and the new administration has to start all over again,” said Aaronson. “My mantra is that process and protocol shouldn’t depend on the personality of administrators. That means people are not treated equitably and that’s the most important thing.”
The union has said it will continue its strike until the administration ceases its efforts to get it decertified from the school.
Update Monday, October 5th: Brooklyn Friends School leadership are closing the school on Monday and Tuesday "as negotiations are ongoing," according to a spokesperson for the school. However, the union is still striking and rallying each morning outside the school.
After assuring parents Friday that the school would remain open with substitute teachers during the strike, Head of School Crissy Cáceres sent out another email Sunday reversing course.
“We have made the extremely difficult decision to close school this Monday and Tuesday," Cáceres wrote. "This decision will allow for these conversations to take place and simultaneously avoid the stressful impact of a strike on our students, families, and colleagues.”
BFS leadership also sent out a statement Sunday saying that, over the weekend, "Brooklyn Friends School and the UAW, through counsel, began discussions about a potential resolution to the current situation with the hopes of preventing a strike beginning Monday, October 5."
A member of the union negotiating committee told Gothamist that there have not been negotiations between school leadership and the union.