Unfriendly Divisions: Union-Busting and Quakerism Collide at Brooklyn Friends School

Can a union really violate the Quaker values of Brooklyn Friends School? Photo: Ajay Suresh/Flickr

Everyone knew there would be layoffs at Brooklyn Friends School. Not even a school where tuition is the cost of a new car is safe from a major recession. The letters, though, were a shock. A couple weeks into severance negotiations with the staff union, head of school Crissy Cáceres made an announcement. The school had filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board asking it to decertify, or disband, its union. The presence of a union violated the school’s Quaker character, she wrote in two August 14 notes to teachers and families. “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.”

In this intimate school community, the news was an earthquake. It “came out of the blue,” remembers Sarah Gordon, who teaches third grade at Brooklyn Friends and belongs to the union’s negotiation committee. Nobody knew the school was even considering such an extreme decision. “It was like ‘wait, this is what you were doing?’ We had no idea,” echoes Laura Hulbert, a learning specialist.

At a different institution, that sense of surprise might be less profound. Employers usually don’t welcome unions, and they can adopt ugly tactics to prevent workers from organizing. But Brooklyn Friends isn’t the average workplace. The school is famously progressive. Parents hear of its commitment to social justice on orientation tours. Second-graders study the lives of labor leaders Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez as part of a curriculum on “change-makers.” The school’s union — which includes about 200 teachers, maintenance staff, and office workers, and is represented by United Auto Workers Local 2110 — seemed like a natural extension of its left-wing ethos. At least to staff.

On one point, everyone agrees. Social justice is central to the identity of Brooklyn Friends. The school itself attributes this to its Quaker affiliation. Though the 153-year-old institution is legally separate from the nearby Brooklyn Monthly Meeting and practicing Quakers are in the minority among its student body and staff, the school’s bylaws require that half the Board of Trustees be Quakers. (Though Cáceres does not identify as a member of the faith, in a statement to Intelligencer she said that she believes Quaker schools “seek to see the Light within each person, children and adults, and make space for their gifts to live vibrantly. This has always been consistent with my own personal beliefs.”) And while there is no Quaker dogma that dictates support or the lack thereof for labor organizing, Quakers don’t exactly have a reputation for union-busting, either.

“I think it is very clear that Quakers have long been involved in labor organizing and workers’ rights,” says Jonathan Edmonds, a Brooklyn Friends learning specialist who has attended the Brooklyn Monthly Meeting for years. “And that has come out of a Quaker spiritual tradition of wanting to make sure that every voice is heard. It all relates back to the belief that each person, with no exception, has that of goodness in them, or that of Light, or that of God. We each have a spark of that divine or that goodness and that truth, and yet that truth isn’t complete without all voices at the table.”

Cáceres has pioneered quite a different argument. In her August 14 letters, she described the union as a “third party,” a common anti-labor phrase that paints unions as malicious interlopers. The union, in her telling, had even prevented the school from speaking directly with individuals about their working conditions, which in the middle of a pandemic “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.” A union, in other words, actually violates the school’s Quaker-ish liberalism. Possibly to drive this point home, Brooklyn Friends has retained a powerful, well-connected Democratic attorney: Kirsten White, who served as former Second Lady Jill Biden’s policy director from 2009 to 2013.

But Rebecca McMackin and Chris Roddick, the parents of a first-grade student, say that Cáceres’s actions undermine the qualities that sold them on Brooklyn Friends in the first place. “I’ve always been pretty wary of private schools,” McMackin said. But Roddick, a member of the Brooklyn Monthly Meeting, wanted a Quaker education for their child, and the school’s liberalism distinguished it from other independent institutions. “The school really does contribute more in scholarship funding to people who can’t afford the outrageous tuition. And so we thought that was a good justification for attending such an expensive school,” she explained. Both said that although they want to fight for their son’s teachers, the administration’s attack on the union makes them question whether the school is right for them over the long term.

Their dilemma is a microcosm of a broader struggle, waged on the surface by two competing spiritual notions. On one side stand educators and parents, both Quaker and not, who believe that Quaker values support labor. On the other stand Cáceres and the Board of Trustees, who argue that the union impedes the direct and open communication so prized by the Quaker tradition.

But look deeper, and a question presents itself: Is this spiritual warfare, or something more profane?

Parents and teachers who spoke to Intelligencer say that Cáceres and the trustees filed the NLRB petition at a difficult time for the school. The pandemic didn’t just lead to layoffs; it created serious public-health worries for staff. The new school year begins next month, and at Brooklyn Friends, elementary-grade teachers will report for in-person instruction five days a week. That troubles some, who cite aging facilities and a large elementary school–age population as potential risk factors for the spread of COVID-19. “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. Administrators addressed some pandemic-related issues raised by the union, but rejected a proposal for a remote start to the Lower School year, and denied a request for additional health and safety training.

While some teachers’ unions in other cities have threatened strike-authorization votes over reopening plans, the Brooklyn Friends union hadn’t taken similar steps. They were still in the process of negotiating their first contract, and they’d been busy, too, with the unwelcome task of hammering out severance packages for laid-off colleagues. “That it would be at this moment that the Board of Trustees and the head of school would seek legal action to have employees lose their bargaining rights is very disturbing. It makes an already troubling situation much worse, I think, for a lot of us,” said Gordon, the third-grade teacher.

But the timing of the petition may also be illuminating. Though the NLRB likely won’t rule on the petition before the beginning of the school year, the announcement does radically change the field of battle. The union is now in a fight for its life, and its best chance at victory may be to shame the school into backing down. With President Trump in office, and Republicans dominating the NLRB, unions already faced unfavorable odds. That Brooklyn Friends is a Quaker school, citing religious freedom in its petition for decertification, further rigs the game in its favor. The NLRB ruled in June that it has no jurisdiction over the employees of Bethany College, a Lutheran school — a carveout that severely weakened the labor rights of workers at religious institutions. Brooklyn Friends is trying something novel with its petition, which would overturn a union vote that already took place. But at least one expert thinks the NLRB might agree with the school’s argument.

“I think it’s highly likely that the school will prevail because this current NLRB is taking a very broad view of the ministerial exemption, as it’s called, of teachers and their union rights at religious institutions,” said Joseph McCartin, the executive director of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University. “The recent Bethany College decision really grants wide latitude to the employer to contend that their teachers shouldn’t be subject to protection by the NLRB.”

Conservative Christians and right-to-work groups hailed the Bethany decision, which means that liberal Brooklyn Friends could soon have some uncomfortable company. It may also find itself at odds with other Quaker institutions. The Friends Council on Education told Intelligencer in an email that it has no formal position on unionization at its member schools, including Brooklyn Friends. But other Quaker organizations have unionized without incident. Teachers at Friends Seminary in Manhattan have a union. So do the employees of the American Friends Service Committee, which a source described as being “like the Peace Corps for Quakers.” A 2016 statement on the Committee’s website praises Walter Reuther — a storied leader of the United Auto Workers — in effusive terms. Brooklyn Friends itself has acknowledged Quakerism’s links to labor in the past. A blog post on its website celebrates Bayard Rustin, who in addition to being a Quaker and a civil-rights activist also co-founded the A. Philip Randolph Institute of the AFL-CIO.

But in a statement, Cáceres took issue both with the United Auto Workers itself, and with the fact that staff had organized what’s called a “wall-to-wall” union, which represents maintenance and cafeteria staff alongside teachers. “Unlike other institutions, the Brooklyn Friends union includes every member of our colleague body with an outside labor management organization, the United Auto Workers, who have no experience working with independent schools,” she said. “Also, unlike the Brooklyn Friends and United Auto Workers relationship, other organizations are represented by groups made up of teachers — people who are educators and understand independent schools and the complexities of instructing young children.”

Rosenstein had no time for that argument. “Brooklyn Friends School is our first ‘independent school,’ but we represent contingent faculty at Barnard College, graduate teachers at Columbia and NYU, and other office and administrative staff at Columbia and Mercy College,” she responded by email. She also had a question of her own for the school. “Is the attempt to stigmatize our union for proudly being part of the United Auto Workers a Quaker value?”

In the four years since Rebecca McMackin and Chris Roddick first sent their son to Brooklyn Friends, they’ve formed close friendships with other parents. Their son is thriving, and they’ve come to appreciate the school for its welcoming environment and for its ethical principles. But in the end, Brooklyn Friends is still a private school. Tuition for grades three through 12 runs $49,000 annually. Preschool starts at $26,100 a year, making it more expensive than many private colleges.

“This school is incredibly diverse on so many levels, and I think that they care a lot about diversity and social justice. They can talk about that quite a bit,” McMackin said. “But the one thing that’s really lacking is economic diversity, and that contributes to the culture of the school.” She and Roddick receive financial aid to send their son to Brooklyn Friends, as do many other families. But overall, she added, “there is a very affluent culture there,” populated by “art dealers and finance bros” and other pillars of Brooklyn high culture. That influences the school’s rhetoric, she concluded: “When they talk about diversity, when they talk about social justice, they’re really talking about every other type besides economics.”

Brooklyn Friends has grown significantly over the last decade, and while that’s good news for the longevity of a beloved school, it can also be a source of philosophical tension. One teacher, who formerly served on the Board of Trustees and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the school’s facility “was a bit shabby” when they started working there 13 years ago. As a product of Friends schools who attends Quaker meetings, they found that humility “familiar.”

“The Friends don’t put a lot of emphasis on things being shiny,” they added. “Their fiscal priorities are often not in a place that glorifies physical space, or a certain kind of sheen on things. And that is essentially incompatible with surviving on the New York City independent school market.” The school’s endowment is still much smaller than that of other private schools, they explained. On its website, the school says its goal is to build a $10 million endowment. To put that in perspective, Manhattan’s tony Brearley School — which is smaller, more expensive, and just as old — has an endowment of well over $141 million.

To catch up to its competitors, the school has renovated classrooms, added a building, and offered new classes — which all requires the devil’s filthy lucre. The recession isn’t slowing, and private schools across the city are bracing for declining enrollment. Though nobody unionizes to bankrupt their boss — unions tend to prefer that their members have jobs — organized workers often demand better pay and larger severance packages.

And Brooklyn Friends was already vulnerable by the time the recession hit. Cáceres didn’t just inherit a union when she came to Brooklyn Friends, sources say. She also inherited a mess. “I hope that it has been made clear by everybody else that you talked to that the previous head of school was ineffective, and that is a hyperbolic understatement,” a former faculty member who supports the union said, and added, “She walked into a buzzsaw, make no mistake.” Poor financial decisions, administrative bloat, and an alienating management style left the school in a weak position, he continued, and those conditions pushed staff to unionize, too. The final vote took place months before Cáceres took up her new role.

But Cáceres also did not want a union, and she let her soon-to-be staff know it. Multiple sources say that in 2019, after she’d been hired but before she’d formally begun her new role, she called an early-morning meeting to urge staff against forming a 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,” Edmonds 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.” According to Hulbert, the learning specialist, Cáceres also told faculty that she wouldn’t have taken the job if the school had a union, and said that she had never pictured herself working at a unionized school. Cáceres confirmed by email that the meeting had occurred and that she’d asked workers to give her “one or two years” before moving ahead with the union.

“I did so because I felt that the process of Quaker decision-making involves a commitment to authentic and open communication between individuals as well as groups and would be hindered by a third party such as the United Auto Workers,” she explained.

Despite Cáceres’s early objections to the union, the school didn’t challenge the results of the election and by the time COVID-19 shut down school, contract negotiations were underway. The school’s decision to seek decertification is a drastic escalation, and it might also backfire in ways administrators did not expect. McMackin and Roddick aren’t the only parents who want the union to stay. For many, its existence is proof that Brooklyn Friends lives out the values in its marketing materials. “The idea that BFS is now considering joining the ranks of opportunists and scoundrels who claim that they, not the workers themselves, know what is in workers’ best interests is offensive to us,” school parent and Yale professor Daniel Magaziner wrote in an August 16 letter to Cáceres and trustees. A petition in support of the union now boasts over 900 signatures from parents and alumni.

“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,” the former faculty member said. “When the board makes decisions like currying the favor of the Trump-dominated NLRB to try to decertify a union, in addition to feeling dishonest it seems like one of the stupidest things the school could do.”

Brooklyn Friends, however, appears committed to its path. In an August 21 letter to parents and teachers, Cáceres acknowledged the outcry, but said that she and the trustees will move forward with the petition. In the meantime, the wider Brooklyn Friends community struggles with another Quaker value. In times of conflict, Quakers strive to come to unity. This is not the same thing as unanimity, they explained; it’s something closer to consensus. (Like an 80 percent vote in favor of unionizing.) Coming to unity can take a long time. It involves a lot of listening and a great deal of patience. Parents and staff believe that’s still possible. But nobody thinks it will be easy. Not as long as the school clings to a unilateral, and very un-Quaker-like, way of making decisions.

“Whoever wins this fight, there will be tensions,” Roddick, the parent, worried. “How do you recover from this? How do you regain trust from each other?”

Union-Busting and Quakerism Collide at Brooklyn Friends