Hundreds urge Brooklyn Friends School to stop union bust in open letter

Brooklyn Friends School
Families and teachers at Brooklyn Friends School are enraged after the administration filed a petition that would effectively decertify the Quaker school’s staff union.
Photo by Chandler Kidd

More than 1,000 members of the Brooklyn Friends School community have signed onto a letter urging the administration to halt its efforts to dissolve the private Quaker school’s faculty and staff union.

“Having a comprehensive union that represented as many members of BFS was a priority, reflecting the Quaker values of community and equality,” read the letter signed by nearly a dozen teachers, and co-signed by parents, students, and graduates. 

The Downtown Brooklyn school, known for its progressive curriculum and emphasis on social justice, has made headlines after its administration filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board in August to dissolve the faculty and staff’s union on religious grounds, NY1 first reported.

The petition seeks to piggyback off of a June ruling that determined the board had no jurisdiction over staff at religious colleges, thereby impeding the right of workers at religious institutions from organizing. The ruling, passed by the new, Trump-appointed board, overturns an Obama-era ruling giving staff at religious schools the right to unionize. 

Leaders at the elite school, which charges $49,000 per year for grades three through 12, claim the union violates the school’s Quaker values by coming in between administrators and staff. Quaker teachings, and the school’s own mission statement, emphasize that everyone has “a divine inner light” — an individual voice that the staff union drowns out, school leaders claim

“The law that applies to an NLRB-regulated collective bargaining relationship places limits on employers’ ability to deal directly with employees on certain important topics,” said Dan Altano, the school’s communications director. “We believe these limitations are inconsistent with Quaker decision-making principles.”

Brooklyn Friends School was founded by the New York Quarterly Meeting Religious Society of Friends in 1867, and cut ties with the Quaker group in 2010. The school still maintains its Quaker rituals — holding a silent meeting once a week, and teaching a religion class — and half of the trustees on its board must be Quaker, according to the school’s charter.

The school has also remained staunchly progressive, and boasts a curriculum that emphasizes social justice. Because of its liberal reputation, parents said they were shocked by the administration’s union busting efforts.

“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.”

The petition comes at a particularly difficult time for the school, employees say. Not only did coronavirus-related budgetary shortfalls prompt leaders to lay off more than 30 faculty and staff members — comprising a large portion of the small school’s workforce — but Head of School Crissy Cáceres announced the petition’s filing only weeks before the start of the school year, which was rife with its own stresses, according to faculty. 

“It’s really stunning [this is happening] in a pandemic when we most need to advocate for ourselves around health and safety,” said dance teacher Jesse Phillips-Fein, who has taught at the school for 14 years. “What if something’s going on in the building that’s not safe, and I feel afraid that if I speak up, I’ll lose my job?”

Phillips-Fein also blasted the administration’s characterization of the union as a separate entity that comes between school leaders and staff. 

“Who’s the union made up of? It’s us,” said Phillips-Fein, adding that the union actually helps amplify each teacher’s individual voice. “They said, ‘We need to be able to hear everybody as an individual.’ But without a union — a collective which is made up of our individual voices — the school is more able to exploit us as individuals.” 

Cácares’ anti-union stance, however, does not come as a surprise to faculty. In one of Cácares’ first speeches to faculty after her appointment to head of school in 2019 — months before the union formed with United Auto Workers Local 2110 — she spoke passionately about her opposition to unionization.

“At some point in the day, it came to my attention that there was a possibility that BFS could become a unionized school and at that point, I can tell you that my entire spirit was rocked,” she said in a recording from March of 2019 obtained by Brooklyn Paper. “And it was rocked because I fundamentally believe that there is an inherent contradiction between being a Quaker school … and being unionized.”

Faculty and staff went ahead and formed the union with 80 percent of members voting in favor and with the Board of Trustees’ approval, sources said. The purpose of the union was to create a forum for discussion with the increasingly opaque administration, which has only grown less transparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to union members. 

“Teachers have been told that parents wanted to come back in person, and parents were told that teachers want to come back in person. So there was no dialogue about this at all,” said the president of UAW 2110, Maida Rosenstein, who added that the administration declined to work with the union to form coronavirus-related health and safety protocols.

But while Cáceres and the Board of Trustees have objected to the union on religious grounds, the local Quaker meeting — whose building once housed the school — has panned the union busting efforts.

“Brooklyn Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends has grave concerns about the recent decision by the administration of Brooklyn Friends School to seek the decertification of the school’s union,” said Joan Malin, clerk of the Brooklyn Monthly Meeting, which still shares its meetinghouse with Brooklyn Friends. “We question whether Quaker process was followed and if this decision reflects the values of Friends.”

There are no hard and fast edicts regarding unionization in Quaker teachings, members of the meeting said. The Friends Council on Education, a national association of Quaker schools, did not take a stance on the issue, according to The New York Times.

Despite the pushback, Cáceres and the Board of Trustees will continue with the petition’s filing, they said. 

“Brooklyn Friends School is not anti-union or anti-worker. The petition does not reflect any broader opinion about unions generally, and BFS acknowledges that unions have played an important role in the history of the American workforce,” said the school in a statement. “However, we do think that restoring individual colleague voices in place of that of the United Auto Workers is in the best interest of the School.” 

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

Correction [Sept. 23, 2020]: A previous version of this article listed the name of UAW 2110’s president as “Maida Rosenthal.” Her name is actually Maida Rosenstein. We regret the error.