- Interview by
- Mindy Isser
This morning, teachers and staff at Brooklyn Friends School, a private Quaker school in New York City, are going on strike indefinitely. Their goal: to force the school to recognize their union and bargain in good faith.
Workers at the school voted overwhelmingly to unionize with the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2110 in spring 2019. But after contract negotiations began, the school’s leadership filed a petition to decertify their union, citing a recent National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision that determined the board cannot exercise jurisdiction over religious institutions. While the school boasts about its commitment to social justice, its relationship with its own employees tells a different story.
Jacobin contributor Mindy Isser interviewed third grade teacher Sarah Gordon, a fifteen-year veteran at Brooklyn Friends School and a member of the union’s negotiation committee. Their conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
What prompted your organizing?
There’s a more general answer and a more specific answer. Generally, there was and remains a lack of transparency in procedures and policies. Things really varied across the board within different divisions of the school and in different positions. There were a lot of discrepancies in policies and procedures, and in compensation and salaries. There was very little transparency in how those decisions were made and even where we could find that information in writing.
In addition to all of that, there was no grievance procedure. They just hired an HR person a month ago, for the first time ever. If you had a problem with someone, there was no place to go. And there were widely different evaluation procedures that weren’t standardized at all. All of this led to feelings of confusion and a real lack of equality, even in terms of access to information. So much of it was just in institutional memory and dependent on who your direct supervisor was.
More specifically, there had been a committee called the School Affairs Committee that was run by the board, and it was supposed to deal with issues around employment policies. But the board dissolved it in 2017 or 2018 and instead created what they called the Faculty Staff Council. People were either nominated or self-nominated, and it was supposed to be a way for our voices to be heard, since they dissolved this other committee.
I became part of that, and we spent an entire year having meetings with different faculty and staff, basically about what we loved about Brooklyn Friends School and what we wanted to change about it. Across the board, we heard the exact same things, about transparency and discrepancies around hiring, and issues about evaluations and fears around job security. At every meeting, unionization was brought up by someone new. We compiled all of the information about our issues and concerns (not about unionization of course) and presented it to the board. They said thank you, and nothing was ever addressed.
We realized that our voice was being transmitted, but that there was nothing in the structure that made them respond to our issues or be held accountable. There was no structure. At that moment, people were like, wait, we have a real sense here that everyone is saying the same thing, and school leadership is unresponsive. And we have no system to collaborate with them. And that’s how we started organizing!
What did organizing feel like? What did you learn?
Most of our organizers were on that Faculty Staff Council. Organizing is so interesting because it’s really not preaching, it’s talking to people, it’s having conversations. It’s about finding out what people think — what their experiences have been like at Brooklyn Friends, what they love about it, what they want to change about it.
It was an amazing experience to be in the school I’ve been in for more than a decade and to be able to have discussions with newer workers, with non-teachers, with teachers in other divisions. I got a much bigger sense of who we are. I’m constantly in awe of my colleagues. Everyone is so smart and so considerate.
How did you choose which union to affiliate with?
Most of the independent schools in New York are unionized with teachers’ unions. But what came out of our Faculty Staff Council is that all of us workers at Brooklyn Friends School are part of the same institution. We didn’t want to have just a teachers’ union or just an office workers’ union. We wanted a wall-to-wall union.
And we found our way to UAW Local 2110. They’ve organized a lot of institutions like ours, with more complicated memberships, like MoMA, where they have curators and gift shop workers in the same union. That was a priority for us. People said, I’m not going to do this if it’s only teachers. And especially as a Quaker school, one of our central tenets is equality. We didn’t want to leave anyone behind.
Were you surprised by how the leadership reacted?
As we got closer to going public, we had an outgoing head who, in the middle of our unionization efforts, announced his retirement. Crissy Cáceres, the head of school, was hired but wasn’t set to start until July of 2019. When she heard about our unionization effort, she called a meeting in March, before she started, and she said that she didn’t want to work in a unionized school.
It was kind of fascinating; I remember it so clearly. She told us a story of being at a leadership institute where she was told to name three kinds of schools she wouldn’t want to work in. She said she wouldn’t want to work in an international school because her husband wasn’t adventurous, she didn’t want to work at a school that didn’t have social justice at its core, and she didn’t want to work at a unionized school. How can you separate social justice from unionization? It was astounding.
But once we submitted our petition to the NLRB, the board of trustees wrote a letter to the entire school community that we had filed and that they agreed to neutrality. We won our union decisively, we won by 80 percent. Crissy came on, we started negotiations, and it felt like we were going through a learning process together and trying to find our footing in this new way of decision-making.
This was in early winter 2019, and then the pandemic hit in March. We paused negotiations so we could all get our bearings, and then in April we started to reach out again to resume negotiations. With the pandemic and all the uncertainty, it felt even more important to get our first contract and to get some stability. We proposed switching to a simplified short-term, year-long contract. The school didn’t respond to our request.
And then in May, there was a lower school division meeting, and Crissy came [on Zoom], and informed everyone that she wanted us all to work over the summer without pay. Her direct quote was, “I wish I could tell you that you could have a summer, but you can’t.” We filed a charge with the labor board, for trying to change the terms and conditions of our employment — all while not responding to our calls to meet about bargaining.
Then after we filed, they started meeting with us, and we withdrew our petition. They got a new lawyer, and she’s very savvy; she worked for Jill Biden. When our negotiations resumed, the tenor was quite nice, it felt positive, their lawyer would thank us for our thoughtful proposals and say this is exactly how negotiations should work. We were meeting throughout the summer, negotiating on Zoom, and we were close to a contract.
And then they let us know there were going to be layoffs. We paused contract negotiations, and we started negotiating layoff reductions and severance packages. I thought that was all in good faith, with the shared understanding that the world had changed drastically, that schools in New York had changed drastically.
We were still at the apex of the pandemic, and we didn’t know what it would all look like moving forward. We knew there was a drop in admissions, we knew that our programs would look different. But two weeks to the day after we finalized and signed off on these layoff and severance negotiations, they sent an email to the entire school community that they were going to try to decertify our union.
They filed a petition with the NLRB because of a Trump labor board ruling about Bethany College, where they wanted to have a union election. It was ruled that the [National Labor Relations Act] didn’t apply to them, which was a reversal from Obama-era policies. They’re claiming a religious exemption and that the NLRA does not apply to Brooklyn Friends, and as such, our union should be decertified.
The implications are horrific. It’s not just about the union at this moment, it’s about Brooklyn Friends ever being able to unionize, and obviously endangers other institutions as well. This is a seemingly very progressive school. Our focus on social justice is why people send their children to Brooklyn Friends and not prep schools. We’re a school that teaches activism from pre-school up — and then this. It’s completely perplexing.
What kind of support are you getting? What are parents saying?
There’s been huge amounts of uproar, but they’re met with silence from the school. The school claims that because of rules around collective bargaining, they can’t comment. Parents are furious — they made a website supporting us. They posted the school’s NLRB petition to decertify us. Many families are really on top of it. But they’re also incredibly confused. No one here really understands the long game.
What we have now is an untenable school year to start with. Everything up through fourth grade is in person, only middle and high school is remote. We’ve been in the building for weeks. To take away our ability to advocate for our own health and safety, to shut down all communication, it has been so disheartening. The parents and their support, and the broader community’s support, is the only thing that feels like a life raft. Without that, it’s just horrible.
None of us understand why this is happening. It seems very opportunistic with the labor board and the impending election — are they trying to do this now in case they miss their opportunity if Joe Biden wins? I don’t know for sure, but why now? The opportunity came up from the Trump labor board. It’s classic union-busting, and it’s at the expense of families and students.
How did you decide to make the big decision to go out on an indefinite strike?
We wrote a letter very quickly after all this happened and got no substantive response. There’s also an open letter that’s been signed by almost one thousand people — parents, students, community members, alumni. Also no response. There have been hundreds of letters written to the board, families calling for meetings, we had a rally with elected officials. Nothing. We are constantly faced with a wall of silence.
They’ll say that they are “just seeking a legal clarification” to explain why they’re doing this. It’s actually kind of surreal. The language is so vague and so dishonest. When you look at their petition, they propose zero people in our bargaining unit. That’s not a legal clarification, that’s union-busting.
There was a proposal put forward by former board members to get us out of this untenable situation, calling for us to meet with them and calling for the board to meet with them as well, and to use mediation to finalize a contract and even try alternative means of negotiating that might feel more aligned with Quaker process. All just to get us out of this situation. Members of the union have met twice with them, and apparently some board members have too, but there’s still been no movement, even with this lifeline that’s been tossed.
We’ve really been trying, but the issue seems to just be that we are unionized. They third-party our union all the time — they always say the auto workers or even the international union of the auto workers to make it seem like it’s not us, but actually it’s us deciding to strike. There’s a classist tone while talking about the auto workers, but meanwhile, other schools are watching us and unionizing because of us. There’s this push for people around the country to unionize because of this erosion of our labor rights. The fact that our school would try to perpetuate that is just really demoralizing.
And we had just exhausted all of our options. We tried everything, and the stonewalling was just very clear throughout. Eventually we realized this was our last option, especially because their petition is with the labor board, which we have no control over, and it’s obviously run by Trump right now. Our strike vote was open for a week. 125 people voted, 120 voted to strike. That’s 96 percent of those who voted, and it’s a super majority of our union. The vast majority of us are going to be out on strike.
And how do you feel?
I’m not scared anymore, because there’s nothing left to lose. I was incredibly scared, but this is what we teach our students. We teach them that if something is wrong, you’re supposed to put everything on the line to fight for your community and fight for what’s right. It’s horrific, but the things it’s brought me back to are the conversations we had when we first started organizing. It’s about talking to people and finding strength.
We’re so alienated right now because of the pandemic, you would think this would be a moment that’s much easier to divide us. But it hasn’t been. And that’s because we’re united, and we’re fighting for the soul of the school, and we’re fighting for each other. I know it’s not going to be easy, but I think we can do it.
We’ve been telling our students for so many years — I can’t tell you how many students I’ve talked to about protests. All of the lessons I’ve taught, this is the moment to live it. The idea of striking is incredibly hard, it’s incredibly hard to say goodbye to your students and know you may not see them again for a while, but we can’t continue like this.
How can people best support you?
We have a strike fund, a hardship fund that the families have started organizing. It has $40,000 in it so far, and it’s going to help our staff not have to choose between doing the right thing and trying to survive during a pandemic. Please continue to write letters to the Board of Trustees and the head of our school. And join us at the picket line every morning if you’re in Brooklyn.