The head of a 153-year-old Quaker school in New York City says that “Quaker values” are the reason she is trying to dissolve the school’s labor union by using a Trump administration labor board ruling that allows religious schools to exempt themselves from the requirement to bargain with unions.
The labor battle has arisen suddenly at Brooklyn Friends School, a private K‑12 school where tuition can run close to $50,000 per year. In May of 2019, about 200 staffers at the school voted overwhelmingly to unionize with UAW Local 2110. Theirs is a “wall to wall” union, including not only teachers, but also maintenance and cafeteria workers and office staff. The union drive overlapped with the November 2018 appointment of Crissy Caceres as the new Head of School at BFS. According to Maida Rosenstein, president of UAW 2110, Caceres convened a staff meeting shortly before the union election to encourage employees to vote “no,” arguing that a union would be antithetical to the Quaker method of decision making by consensus.
“It’s ridiculous, because our union vote was [nearly] consensus,” Rosenstein said. “[BFS] is barely Quaker, it’s a completely secular school. They don’t operate by consensus. They operate by unilateral decision making.”
The union is still negotiating with the school to secure its first contract. It also recently negotiated severance terms for a group of employees who were laid off. Now, all of that has been put on hold. Last Friday, Caceres sent out an email to parents of students at the school telling them that she intended to ask the National Labor Relations Board to allow the school to, in essence, forget about the union election, end contract negotiations and kick the union out of BFS entirely. “Working through a third party to communicate with our colleagues hinders us in hearing directly from colleagues their views and concerns about issues that affect their working conditions and professional experiences. Unity is our approach to being in community,” she wrote in the email. “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 celebrating every individual’s inner light while compassionately responding to existing needs, we must be legally free to do so.”
Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled NLRB overturned an Obama-era ruling that required religious schools to follow labor law and engage in collective bargaining with unionized employees. The new standard — consistent with the Trump board’s pursuit of rules hostile to organized labor — holds that religious schools have the right to reject unions as a matter of religious freedom, which supersede labor rights. (Nothing in the ruling requires religious schools to refuse to negotiate with unions, and in fact many religious colleges and universities do collectively bargain with their unionized staff.) Caceres intends to use the new ruling as the basis of BFS’s challenge to its own workers’ union.
Crissy Caceres did not respond to requests for comment.
The unusually aggressive anti-union move has sparked a backlash among some parents and alumni of the school, which serves a community firmly immersed in the liberal Brooklyn milieu. An open letter to Caceres and the school’s board that is currently being circulated, signed by more than 200 teachers, alumni, parents and former employees, asks the school to withdraw its petition with the NLRB immediately, and criticizes the attack on the union in scathing language.
“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,” the letter says. “At a time when our country is ravaged by a pandemic, jeopardizing lives and livelihoods, it is shameful and bewildering that BFS would attempt to destroy its own employees’ union rights.”
It is unclear how long it might take for the school’s legal petition to be ruled on, but the union is not standing idly by. Rosenstein said workers have asked the school to return to the bargaining table, but have not yet received a response. In addition to the existential question of the union’s ability to continue operating at BFS, the school’s move has also put on pause the ongoing negotiations over health and safety concerns related to the beginning of the new school year, which is only weeks away.
“For them to pick a fight with us now over this doesn’t make sense. I feel like they’re very out of touch with the reality of the school community and what current events are,” Rosenstein said. In the meantime, she said, the union is “developing our own timeline” for escalations, which could include “all the mechanisms we have for putting pressure on an employer.”
Though it is not unheard of for a private school’s labor relations policy to clash with its public image — in 2017, for example, a Washington, D.C. charter school named for Cesar Chavez waged an anti-union campaign — Caceres’ attempt to portray union busting as a necessary consequence of Quaker beliefs is bold. The American Friends Service Committee, the prominent Quaker charitable organization, is not only unionized itself, but routinely publishes statements in support of unions. In her letter to parents, Caceres wrote that “Regardless of how this legal matter proceeds, we remain committed to our Quaker values, and to continuing to work together intentionally, with active listening, respecting others, being open to diversity of perspectives, showing compassion, and providing a safe and open space for everyone’s voice to be heard.”
Everyone, that is, who is not unionized.
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Hamilton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. You can reach him at Hamilton@InTheseTimes.com.