Protesters rally against Brooklyn Friends School union busting

BFS union protest
Brooklyn Friends School 10th-grader Anaïs Irizarry (left) and English teacher Fadwa Abbas rally against union busting on Sept. 4.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

Dozens of faculty, parents, and students at Brooklyn Friends School rallied on Friday morning to demand that administrators stop their union-busting efforts and honor the staff’s calls for collective bargaining, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to one teacher.

“We need a union in order to hold those in power accountable for listening to our voices, for following just and transparent procedures and including us as equals for decision-making that affects our livelihoods — and at this moment also our lives and our health,” said BFS Union negotiation committee member and teacher Sarah Gordon at the Sept. 4 protest near the school at Willoughby and Pearl streets.

One math teacher of the pricey Quaker school said the union — which consists of educators, cafeteria workers, and maintenance staff — was more essential than ever, as the coronavirus-related budget gaps have already prompted BFS honchos to lay off more than 30 employees.

“Not everyone has a voice, not everyone has the power to have a voice,” said Jonathan Edmonds. “People really feel that their jobs might be on the line if they critique or complain. And so banded together, we are a stronger voice.”

BFS teacher and alum Jesse Phillips-Fein protests against the school leadership’s union busting.Photo by Kevin Duggan

Under the leadership of Crissy Cáceres, the school’s administration filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to decertify the union on religious grounds, arguing that collective bargaining violates the school’s “Quaker values” by coming between administrators and staff.

More than 1,000 members of the school community shot back with a letter urging Cáceres to withdraw the petition to dissolve the union, which the staff formed in 2019 with United Auto Workers Local 2110.

One Quaker accused Cáceres, who is not a Quaker, of abusing the religion to quash organized labor.

“It’s not [against Quaker values], it has nothing to do with Quaker values that I believe in,” said Leslie McCarthy, a member of the Brooklyn Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, the formal name of local Quakers. “If you call yourself a Quaker school you should use the Quaker process. You reach unity before you make a decision, and unity involves everybody involved in the process.”

(R-L) BFS math teacher Jonathan Edmonds, his kids, and Leslie McCarthy at Friday’s rally.Photo by Kevin Duggan

The controversy, first reported by NY1, made headlines in recent weeks because of the school’s progressive reputation and its curriculum that highlights social justice activism and labor leaders.

Following the news coverage, Jason Novak, the Head of Lower School, allegedly doubled down against the union at a Sept. 2 school meeting when he asked the organizing leaders to “question their racism” for standing up against Cáceres, a woman of color, according to one teacher.

“The logic here goes like this: Ms. Cáceres is a woman of color, therefore she should be allowed to be a dictator and mistreat her employees, many of whom are people of color, and all of whom make less money and have less power than she does,” said Fadwa Abbas, an English teacher, who is Black. “As a woman of color, I’m ashamed that you have chosen to reinforce the very hierarchy that you claim at the pulpit every single day, that you seek to dismantle — it’s pathetic.”

BFS science teacher Teresa Cano rallies against union busting.Photo by Kevin Duggan

One 10th-grader echoed protester demands, and said the school should respect its educators, whose work is both important and increasingly difficult as the school prepares to reopen amid the pandemic.

“I think it’s wrong. Our teachers work hard for us every day, and they’re some of the most essential workers there will ever be, and so you need to treat teachers with the utmost respect. The fact this administration isn’t doing that is messed up,” said Anaïs Irizarry.

Spokesman for the school, Dan Altano, declined to comment on Novak’s alleged remarks on racism, but sent the following joint statement by the Head of School and Board of Trustees in response to Friday’s rally:

“Our Board of Trustees and School leadership genuinely value and respect that there is a diversity of perspectives at this moment and that the opportunity to express those is foundational to our community. It was only after many days of collective and individual seeking and care that we came to unity on this decision with integrity and with the utmost respect and appreciation for our students, families, and colleagues, knowing that the response from the community would be strong.”