Anti-Union Progressives – The American Prospect

Posted By on September 9, 2020

Since its founding in 1867, Brooklyn Friends School has highlighted its Quaker valuesits website notes that those values include community: taking care of one another and equality: honoring each person and working against oppression. Considering the schools progressive traditions, many Brooklyn Friends families and alumni were stunned when school officials disclosed in mid-August that they had asked the Trump National Labor Relations Board to kick out the union representing 400 of its employees.

The school, with minimum tuition of $46,400 a year, asked the labor board to invoke a two-month-old NLRB decision and declare that as a religious institution, Brooklyn Friends no longer had to recognize or bargain with its union. Such a decision would effectively oust or bust the schools UAW local, which employees had overwhelmingly voted to join in 2019, forming a wall-to-wall union of teachers, office staff, janitors, and cafeteria workers.

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Brooklyn Friends is one of several progressive institutions that have resisted unionization efforts or tangled with unions in recent years. In July, a NewsGuild affiliate accused the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas of union busting after the ACLU initially refused to recognize a union through card check and hired a prominent anti-union law firm, Ogletree Deakins. Boston College, a Jesuit school, has opposed unionization by its graduate student workers, while two other Roman Catholic schools, Duquesne University and the Seattle University School of Law, battled against organizing drives by their adjunct professors. Numerous Jewish day schools have maneuvered to get rid of their unions. The General Theological Seminary in New York, the nations oldest Episcopal seminary, fired eight professors who were seeking to form a union, and several Roman Catholic hospitals have fought to defeat unionization, despite Pope Franciss strong support of unions.

Yale and Cornell have vigorously opposed unionization drives by their graduate student workersan arbitrator even found that Cornell had violated federal labor law by threatening to cut the number of graduate students if they unionized. (Cornell prides itself on having one of the nations most respected schools of industrial and labor relations, where many professors teach the union leaders and union organizers of tomorrow.) Harvard and Columbia reached contracts with their graduate student unions, but only after vociferous, multiyear fights that included walkouts at both schools.

Yale and Cornell have vigorously opposed unionization drives by their graduate student workersan arbitrator even found that Cornell had violated federal labor law by threatening to cut the number of graduate students if they unionized.

Considering the role that unions have played in lifting workers and advancing progressive causes, Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University and executive director of the schools Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, voiced dismay at these institutions battling against unions. This sends a terrible, devastating message that will undercut the kind of coalition were going to need to effect progressive change, he said.

To explain their anti-union stance, Brooklyn Friends board of trustees and the head of the school, Crissy Cceres, wrote to parents: If we are to fully practice our Quaker values of respecting others and celebrating every individuals inner light while compassionately responding to existing needs, we must be legally free to oust the schools labor union, UAW Local 2110. In a subsequent letter, they explained, We did this to amplify those voices [of our employees] and to make sure that we are hearing from every individual in our community. The school officials also wrote, Working through a third party to communicate with our colleagues hinders us in hearing directly from colleagues.

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Hundreds of Brooklyn Friends parents and alumni signed a letter supporting the union as well as the employees open letter to the school. The employees noted that when they petitioned for a union election in 2019, the school wrote that it recognized our democratic right to organize. In their letter to school officials, they added, That you would now question that right based on a reactionary Trump-dominated Labor Board precedent is unconscionable. Standing behind a policy that unfairly restricts the rights of workers to unionize, serves to delegitimize the schools legacy of integrity and social justice.

Katy Hansen, an employment lawyer, and her husband, Dan Magaziner, a Yale history professorparents of two Brooklyn Friends studentswrote to the schools top officials, saying, Your email referenced the problem of a third party coming between you and the schools employees. This is standard union busting boiler plate, familiar from the rhetoric of such well known anti-labor employers as Walmart. They added, We fail to see how your avowed goal of honoring the light of each individual can be reconciled with seeking to overturn how those individuals expressed their will through their vote to unionize.

At least for now, Brooklyn Friends seems dug into its position to dismantle the union.

This summer, the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, which represents workers at two dozen nonprofits, has sought to unionize the Scholars Strategy Network, a nonprofit that seeks to advance democracy and policy solutions by connecting researchers to public officials and journalists. Kayla Blado, the unions president, said a clear majority of the networks eight employees had signed pro-union cards and asked for voluntary recognition. Believing that a secret-ballot election is fairer, Theda Skocpol, a highly regarded Harvard sociology professor and director of the network, called for an election, and she, too, hired Ogletree Deakins. In response, Blado said, Its absolutely disgusting that an organization dedicated to strengthening democracy would go to such great lengths to suppress its staffs union.

Skocpol took offense, decrying what she said was a union-busting smear. She said the steering committee of the Scholars Strategy Network unanimously backs unionization. In a statement, she added, We support this secret ballot process and are in no way opposing unionizing or seeking to delay the process. She said a secret-ballot election helps in our small staff situation and allows each employee to have his or her say.

Unions are often quick to denounce an employers refusal to grant card check recognition as union busting. Labor leaders know that many employers prefer secret-ballot elections over card check because that allows them to mount intense anti-union campaigns before the vote. Skocpol said the network would not make any anti-union appeals to employees. She also said she had hired an individual lawyer and had no sense of the public image of that lawyers firm, Ogletree Deakins.

After the ACLU of Kansas was accused of union busting for refusing card check and hiring the anti-union firm of Ogletree Deakins, it hired a different law firm and said, We had no experience with this kind of law and reached out to an individual lawyer via a referral. The ACLU also dropped its insistence on a secret-ballot election, agreeing instead to a card check overseen by Wilma Liebman, former chair of the NLRB under President Obama. The United Media Guild won recognition, and the ACLU of Kansas, joined by the union, issued a statement, saying, At no time did the ACLU of Kansas, its executive director, management team or board of directors oppose unionization.

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Like many corporations, some progressive institutions see labor unions as an obstacle to smooth decision-making and efficiency and as an irritant that will push up employment costs. Many colleges and universities that are willing to accept unions for their professors and dining hall workers are intent on resisting unionization by their graduate teaching and research assistants. The schools contend that those graduate assistants are essentially students and not workers, even though the students argue that it is hard to maintain with any plausibility that the hundreds of hours of work they devote to teaching classes, grading papers, answering students questions, and working in laboratories is not bona fide work and that they therefore shouldnt be considered workers. Universities have been emboldened by the Trump NLRBs proposed rule to deny graduate teaching and research assistants a right to unionize.

In 2018, when Boston College was fighting their effort to unionize, many grad teaching assistants handed out flyers during Jesuit Heritage Week that said #PracticeWhatYouPreach along with a quotation from Pope Francis, There is no good society without a good union.

Many progressives are dismayed when religious and progressive institutions balk at unionization. If the nation is going to address profound problems like poverty, income inequality, and curbing corporate Americas inordinate power over the political system, they believe, it will be important to strengthen unions to empower workers and to serve as a more effective counterweight to businessas they were decades ago.

Blado, president of the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union, said, In 2020, were facing huge levels of economic inequality and racial inequality. If such employerswhich proclaim themselves to be driven by the mission of justicepose an obstacle to their workers having a better life through a union, Blado continues, theres no room for that in 2020.

With Joe Biden promising to push for legislation to help unions expand and increase worker power, progressives say that institutions like Brooklyn Friends and Boston College should be embracing unions.

What these fights are about is determining where worker organizations, worker power, and the labor movement will fit into progressivism/liberalism, Georgetown professor McCartin said. We need these institutions not just to recognize the right of workers to organize unions, but also to recognize the centrality of the labor movement and of worker organizations to any progressive agenda in the future.

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Anti-Union Progressives - The American Prospect

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