Brooklyn Friends School staff to strike over union-busting efforts

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

Faculty and staff at Brooklyn Friends School are planning to strike until the school’s administration halts its efforts to dissolve the staff union, according to the leaders behind the collective bargaining effort. 

“We do not make this decision lightly, and it only comes after exhausting all other options,” union reps wrote in an open letter to parents. “To protect our right to unionize, we will give up our financial security. We will also step away from BFS students, who are so important to our lives.”

The strike will begin on Monday, Oct. 5 and continue indefinitely until administrators of the ritzy Downtown Brooklyn private school withdraw their August petition to the National Labor Relations Board seeking to decertify the union on religious grounds — with the school’s principal Crissy Cáceres claiming that labor unions violate the educational institution’s Quaker values. 

“It is our belief that [a spiritual] community is created best through deep conversations between colleagues, students, and school leadership, often on an individual basis, to reach unity about what it means to promote spirituality at a Friends School,” administrators wrote in a page about the petition. “Based on our experience, we believe that a collective bargaining relationship regulated by the NLRB is inimical to the Quaker decision-making process.”

The petition seeks to piggyback off of a National Labor Relations Board ruling from June, which determined that the board has no jurisdiction over staff at religious colleges — thereby impeding the right of workers at religious institutions from organizing. The ruling, which was passed by the board’s new Donald Trump-appointed members, overturns an Obama-era ruling giving staff at religious schools the right to unionize. 

Faculty and staff launched the collective bargaining effort in the spring of 2019 following a string of controversial layoffs and growing tension between administrators and staff about a perceived lack of transparency, teachers said. Eighty percent of staffers voted in favor of forming the union with United Auto Workers Local 2110, shortly before the Cáceres took charge of the school. 

Teachers and parents have slammed the petition and demanded its withdrawal, arguing that the union-busting efforts go against the school’s social-justice-focused curriculum and progressive values.

“They were having conversations about Mildred and Richard Loving with children at age 4 that I didn’t have until law school,” said a Brooklyn Friends parent who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They were leading studies on Bayard Rustin and Cesar Chavez in second grade. I can’t square that with what the school administration is saying now.”

Community members at the school, which charges upwards of $46,000 for tuition, have also said that the petition comes at a particularly difficult time for the families and staff — as administrators announced the petition’s filing only weeks before their controversial decision to restart in-person classes.

“We are already concerned that the school is reopening without adequate procedures in place to protect us and the children,” said Sarah Gordon, a third-grade teacher who has taught at Brooklyn Friends for 15 years. “This is a time for the school to be working collaboratively with us, rather than trying to destroy our union.”

More than 1,000 parents, teachers, and alumni have signed onto a letter calling for the petition’s withdrawal, and parents have begun a fundraiser to compensate teachers once they go on strike — which has raised more than $18,000 since its creation on Sept. 30. 

Brooklyn Friends union members, who have protested outside the building against the decision, voted 120 to five to authorize the strike on Sept. 22. Since the vote, union leaders say they have been trying to work with the school to negotiate a path forward with the help of two Quaker professors who are labor relations experts, according to a letter from union members and UAW Local 2110.

“The professors have provided us with information on alternative methods of union negotiations and labor/management relations which they described as more in keeping with Quaker process and values,” the letter reads. “We are open and amenable to these alternative methods, including mediation, in order to achieve a collaborative and productive partnership with the School’s leadership, and avoid any disruption.”

UAW Local 2110 president Maida Rosenstein said that teachers never got a response to that letter.

“Everyone on our side would be willing to educate themselves about any process to work things through,” she said. “It’s regrettable that it has come to this, but people are very determined.”

The school’s leaders said that they’re listening to the concerns of staff, but they disapprove of the union’s decision to strike.

“The BFS board of trustees and school leadership have been listening, and continue to do so, to the sentiments being expressed by those colleagues who have voted to strike, as well as those who haven’t,” said Cáceres in a statement. “At the same time, we are disheartened that some would choose this course of action during such a chaotic time for our families. We do not expect to be unified in our opinions on every matter, but we will always strive for unity in our mission and dedication to students.”

Editor’s note: Reporter Rose Adams is a former student of Brooklyn Friends School.