A Pricey Private School Says “Quaker Values” Justify Aggressive Campaign to Destroy Its Union

Brooklyn Friends School takes advantage of a Trump labor board ruling.

Hamilton Nolan August 20, 2020

Brooklyn Friends School in Downtown Brooklyn, New York. Ajay Suresh/Flickr/creative commons

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.

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.

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