In its long-running off-Broadway show, the Blue Man Group is known for offering up innovative performance art through creative uses of paint, food and drums. But when it comes to dealing with its workers, the popular theater troupe sticks to the same-old union busting strategies routinely used by corporate employers like Amazon and Starbucks.
In the face of these anti-labor tactics, teachers at the Blue School — an independent private school in Manhattan founded by the Blue Man Group — held a one-day walkout on Tuesday to demand that management recognize their union, which won a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)-supervised election earlier this year.
“We are striking because we want Blue School to stop abusing the legal process and come to the bargaining table,” said Ari Bloom, a middle school math teacher.
Founded in 2006, the school spans pre-K to eighth grade and encourages kids to embrace the same kind of creativity associated with the Blue Man Group. According to Bloom, the teachers first started organizing in 2020, at the height of the pandemic. With many parents taking their pre-K students out of the school after a move to remote learning, management reduced preschool teachers’ hours, resulting in pay cuts and loss of health insurance coverage.
“The school acknowledged that they made that decision to slash preschool teachers’ salaries, but nobody in leadership took any kind of pay cut,” Bloom told In These Times. The cuts came two years after management purchased a new building in an ambitious effort to double the school’s capacity from 300 to 600 students. “They were spending money irresponsibly. They probably spent $25 million on that new building, plus they got custom-made desks, all this stuff, and teachers didn’t really have a voice in any of those financial decisions.”
Bloom also claimed that teachers haven’t gotten a raise in the past two years, that a promised three percent raise in a previous school year was rescinded the summer beforehand, and that the school temporarily stopped matching the teachers’ 401(k)s up until this February.
In a statement to In These Times, a Blue School representative said: “This year, Blue School delivered renewed contributions to 401(k) plans, as well as a five percent salary increase across the board — with additional substantial salary increases to ensure teachers with similar experience and credentials are compensated equitably.”
“They’re saying they’ll give us raises for next year, but our priority is having that contract,” said Bloom. “The thing that’s so frustrating is they can make every decision about the terms of our employment, about what our salaries look like, without any kind of conversation with us. And the pandemic has made people realize how vulnerable we are.”.
Wanting to gain more of a say in the decision making, Blue School teachers started organizing with UAW Local 2110 in late 2020. In recent years, Local 2110 has been quickly unionizing multiple private schools and cultural institutions across New York City, such as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York City Tenement Museum and the Children’s Museum of the Arts.
“Unionizing is our right as workers and it’s consistent with the school’s educational philosophy,” said Blue School fourth-grade lead teacher Sarah Konowitz. “Unionization will create a more sustainable, equitable workplace, so that teachers and staff can just focus on our jobs — supporting students.”
By June 2021, a majority of the teachers petitioned the NLRB for a mail-in union certification election. But to obstruct the process, management retained the anti-union law firm Littler Mendelson — the same firm used by Starbucks and Apple in their own current union-busting efforts.
Calling the teachers “seasonal employees” because they don’t teach during the summer, management attempted to delay the election until October 2021. The labor board denied that challenge and the election moved forward, but once all the votes were in, management continuously filed challenges and appeals, delaying the ballot count for months.
The votes were finally counted in March showing a victory for the union. The following month, the labor board certified the election and issued a bargaining order to the Blue School. But the school wasted no time in announcing it would not recognize the union, but would instead issue more objections to the NLRB.
“They’ve continued appealing over and over again and making all these claims that the labor board keeps shooting down. Now we’re officially certified and they’re still trying to appeal this to death,” Bloom explained.
They continued, “Blue School brands itself as offering a progressive approach to education. The curriculum we use even includes studies of activism and labor union history. It’s hypocritical for them to fight our union this way.”
The Blue School appears to be employing the same tactics that its founders from the Blue Man Group used to stymie an International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE)-led organizing effort of Las Vegas stagehands in 2005. Before the stagehands successfully voted to unionize, Blue Man Group cofounder Matt Goldman — who now serves as vice chair of the Blue School board of trustees — promised to honor the election results “in accordance with the great democratic traditions of our country.” But instead, he refused to recognize the union and filed continuous objections, until the D.C. Circuit Court ordered Blue Man Group to bargain with IATSE.
In a letter to teachers and parents, Noah Reinhardt, the head of the Blue School, accused UAW Local 2110 of “improper electioneering.” He continued, “I have taken particular issue with the deliberate exclusion of colleagues who hadn’t yet begun at Blue School when the election was ordered, and, at the same time, the specific inclusion of individuals who no longer work with us.”
“Our colleagues’ decision to leave the classroom hurts Blue School’s children and their parents,” a Blue School representative told In These Times. “The school has been clear that this type of action will not impact the decision to appeal the outcome [of the union election] on the basis that the process was neither fair nor inclusive.”
“The school has consistently claimed that because the election happened over the summer, it wasn’t representative of the current employees, but the reality is that we’re out on strike and the school is closed for the day. They couldn’t open because of the wide amount of support there is for the union,” Bloom said during Tuesday’s walkout.
“It’s definitely been a really great experience of building solidarity and feeling empowered in this fight.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State University in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.