Brooklyn Friends is Unfriendly to Organized Labor
The Quaker school is arguing that a staff union violates their religious values
Brooklyn Friends School is an elite Quaker private school in Brooklyn. Tuition at the school costs more than most people spend on a new car, starting at $45,400 for grades K-12. The school traditionally is known as “progressive,” catering to the rich, liberal families of Park Slope Brooklyn.
This progressive education includes teaching labor history. Second graders are being taught about labor icons like Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez. So, it came as quite a shock when management at the school announced that they were filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to decertify the staff union. The school’s union represents about 200 staff members including teachers, maintenance staff, and office workers. As a private school they are not a part of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), but instead are members of UAW Local 2110. Also, unlike traditional teachers unions, Local 2110 organized the school wall to wall making them the sole bargaining agent with the administration.
According to letters sent to the staff and parents, head of school Crissy Cáceres said she filed the petition with the NLRB because the presence of a union violates the school’s Quaker character. “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,” she said, “we must be legally free to do so.” She went on to refer to the union as a “third party” which she claimed prevented her from speaking directly to the staff. She said this “severely limits our ability to collaborate closely with colleagues as individuals whose concerns and needs we want to address as personally and thoughtfully as we can.”
This isn’t the first time that Cáceres has squared off with the union. In 2019, after she was hired but before she took over the school, she called early morning meetings with the teachers to try and convince them to vote down the union. “She gave an impassioned plea that we didn’t need to do this, that she would listen to our concerns, that we had to give her some time and then we would see that we don’t need a union,” Jonathan Edmonds, a Brooklyn Friends learning specialist said. “And she used lines of argument along Quaker values. It didn’t sit right with me then, and it still does not sit right with me.”
The staff disregarded Cáceres and in May 2019 voted in the union with over 80% voting yes. She allegedly went on to tell the staff that she wouldn’t have taken the job if she knew the staff was organizing. After winning the election, Local 2110 began negotiating their first contract, but then COVID-19 shut down the school.
“They don’t want workers to have a unionized voice in their health and safety, apparently, because we’ve also criticized their health and safety protocols,” said Maida Rosenstein, the president of United Auto Workers Local 2110.
While Brooklyn Friends is using their religious beliefs to decertify the union, other Quaker institutions in New York City including Friends Seminary in Manhattan and American Friends Service Committee have staff unions. Ironically Cáceres told NYMag that she is not a Quaker and doesn’t affiliate with any religion.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Friends decertification campaign is likely to succeed. The NLRB ruled in June that the board doesn’t have jurisdiction over the employees at religious institutions that are organizing, although this would be slightly different then that case since Brooklyn Friends already has a union. Ironically a school that prides itself on liberalism is now relying on decisions funded by the conservative, religious right to break their staff union.
"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 parent Dan Magaziner.
Parents, teachers, and alumni are also fighting back. So far over 900 parents and alumni have signed a petition in support of the union. “Brooklyn Friends is never going to have the tradition and gravitas of Packer. It’s never going to have the toniness of St. Ann’s, or the campus and athletic spirit of Poly Prep. But what Brooklyn Friends does have is social justice,” said a former faculty member. “When the board makes decisions like currying the favor of the Trump-dominated NLRB to try and decertify a union, in addition to feeling dishonest it seems like one of the stupidest things the school could do.”
School is slated to begin on September 14th, but Local 2110 warned that if negotiations don’t restart and the decertification attempt doesn’t end, the staff could go on strike. "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."