Brooklyn Friends School students returned to class on Thursday following a three-day strike by teachers and staff brought on by the administration’s drive to decertify their union. The school’s administration agreed to rescind its petition to the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday after days of picketing and negotiations.
BFS has a reputation as a progressive school, and its students got an education in labor relations this week, as many went out to picket, along with BFS parents, in support of their teachers’ right to unionize.
One mother who asked not to be identified told The Indypendent that she explained to her young child that their family was supporting the union because “the teachers deserve to have fairness in their jobs. They talk about fairness in the classroom, and being each other’s ally… It felt hypocritical that the school couldn’t walk the walk when it was doing that kind of talk.”
The school’s administration has argued that the Brooklyn Friends School Union (BFSU) violates the school’s Quaker values, citing a ruling issued this summer by the Republican-dominated NLRB. That ruling overturned an Obama-era rule that required religious educational institutions to recognize their workers’ right to unionize if they chose to do so. A FAQ issued by the Board of Trustees insists that a negotiation-based relationship “results in an adversarial relationship that detracts from the relational and personalized nature of our community as we seek to center children.” In place of a union, they prefer “deep conversations between colleagues, students, and school leadership, often on an individual basis”.
While the administration insists that it filed the petition in order to defend the school’s Quaker values, parents and faculty saw it differently. BFS parent Matthew Cohen questioned the school’s stated motives. “They wanted to be able to unilaterally impose the working conditions, with little or no input. That’s usually why people don’t want a union. And I can’t imagine why this would be any different.”
Fadwa Abbas, an English teacher in grades 9-12 said, referring to Quaker values and the union, “The practical reality is that the two don’t mutually exclude each other. There is nothing that prevents our head of school from collaborating with employees around questions and issues that impact school life.”
The BFSU was established in 2019 and is affiliated with UAW Local 2110. It is a “wall-to-wall union” that encompasses all the workers at the school which gives it more power, according to Sarah Gordon, a third-grade teacher and a member of the union’s negotiating committee
The importance of having a collective voice for workers grew with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Faced with having their union dismantled, BFSU’s members voted 120-5 in favor of going on strike and then rallied student and parent support as well.
Abbas was glad to see the petition rescinded, and see the union recognized by administrators: “Ultimately we are the frontline workers,” she said. “Recognizing our union, recognizing us as a collective who does important work is a way of establishing that the role we play is significant. It empowers us to do the best of our abilities.” This would benefit everyone in the school community, she noted, most importantly the students.
Parents and teachers who spoke with The Indypendent said that the push to decertify the union had reduced their confidence in the BFS administration. In a statement provided to The Indypendent, the school now says it is committed to “working towards a Collective Bargaining Agreement contract with the UAW that will allow us to open the lines of communication with the purposes of providing better care for our colleagues” and has proposed public forums for the community to move forward together.
Rachel, a parent of two BFS students, said that despite all the pain caused by the fight, she was focusing on the positives. “There is a lot of love in this community, and this has really brought it out.”
Abbas also noted the solidarity that came out of the last few weeks, and urged the school to move forward. “Focus on what’s most important in this moment which is to keep a community whole,” she said “because this is probably going to be the most challenging school year we have in our lifetime.”
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