Campus Buzzes with Talk of Proposed Union


Maerose Daniels, Editor-in-Chief

On May 17 and May 18, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will host a secret ballot election on Poly’s campuses to determine whether or not eligible staff and faculty wish to be represented by an independent union. Conversations about a potential union have been trickling between faculty and staff for more than a year, and just this past fall, union organizers began a more official organization of their goals. 

If a union wins the majority vote in the upcoming election, the next step is contract negotiations between the school and the union. The organizers are seeking an independent union, meaning it would not be affiliated with a larger organization or federation, and would be run entirely by Poly employees. The union would also vote on a constitution that is already in the drafting process, according to the Poly Community Union public website, The constitution would determine the rules of governance, membership, and dues. A bargaining committee would be formed and survey employees to identify priorities. 

“We want to create a wall-to-wall union that includes all eligible workers: teachers, maintenance staff, athletic faculty, nurses, counselors, deans, and non-teaching staff. Our main goals are to negotiate job security, a transparent pay scale, and better benefits,” states the Poly Community Union website. Those in management positions, such as department heads, would not be eligible to be in the Poly Community Union. 

  A significant change upon the establishment of a union would be a transition from an individual negotiation salary system to collective bargaining. Concerns about pay equity and salary transparency are among the primary issues the union organizers have raised. 

The requests of the union organizers’ have been thought about by some faculty members for some time. AJ Blandford began teaching history at Poly in the fall of 2019 and is one of fourteen current faculty union organizers. “I began to hear people who had been here for years as well as people who are more recent, their concerns about pay equity primarily. That’s when I thought wow, seems like this school needs a union… it wasn’t until about a year ago that I really began thinking about it as something that might actually happen,” said Blandford. The union organizers include both newer teachers and Poly veterans including Spanish Teacher of 26 years Jose Oliveras, and Science Teacher of 41 years Bart Moroney. 

At Poly, like any workplace, union or non-union, people have honest disagreements about the best or fairest way to do things. That is the nature of having to prioritize how we best utilize resources to support our students. But we never want to fall short in the eyes of any colleagues—not one—and we obviously did. That is a humbling realization,” Head of School Audrius Barzdukas wrote in an email to the Polygon. 

The administration has acknowledged the union organizers’ concerns, but do not think a union would necessarily be the best way forward. “In our school, where relationships of mutual respect have always been a key part of the Poly experience (and a trait that teachers have typically cited as key to the meaningfulness of their work here), a union seems potentially disruptive of those relationships,” wrote Assistant Head of School, Academics Michal Hershkovitz in an email to the Polygon. 

The administration has taken steps to address these concerns through answering questions about the current salary structure via an email to faculty on February 27 and on their website, They have also established a Faculty and Staff Compensation Structure Committee and hired an outside consultant to offer information about unions to faculty and staff through invitational meetings. The union organizers’ host open zoom sessions and potluck picnics for anyone interested in learning more about them.

“The school is making efforts to amend the unfair and unequal pay that they’re offering. But they’re only doing that in response to the union campaign. It’s not a coincidence that in the year that the union campaign kicks off and gains all of this momentum, that they start offering these extraordinary raises and they create a faculty [and staff] compensation committee,” said History Teacher and union organizer Max Shmookler. 

“The Board’s strategic planning work long precedes the unionization effort. Key to achieving these objectives is ensuring that faculty and staff are compensated equitably and with transparency, and feel a sense of security,” the administration wrote in an email to the Polygon. 

The administration also provided a document for faculty addressing questions about salaries, salary transparency and unionization in the email on February 27. The document shared that the majority of full-time faculty make between 70k-100k per year, with 24 faculty members making more than 100k per year and 25 faculty members making less than 70k per year. “We have been focused for the past several years on ‘correcting’ for some longer standing discrepancies in salaries within departments, by giving higher raises to employees who earn less money. More work is needed,” the document states.  

In the union organizers’ document “A Union for Poly, by Poly,” which was handed out to faculty at a town hall on February 7, the union addresses other concerns they have: “Currently, many of us are asked to do extensive uncompensated work. This does not only include teachers, deans and coaches, but many of our colleagues in maintenance who have not been given time off for religious holidays like Good Friday.” 

The administration noted in an email to the Polygon they have “a comprehensive stipend schedule that compensates faculty for work outside the typical teaching load” and curriculum development grants for summer work.

There are many roles on campus that include shifts during nights and weekends and even federal holidays because our school never sleeps,” the administration also wrote. Hourly employees receive time-and-a-half pay for overtime and federal holiday work, and may also choose to work time-and-a-half schedules. After completing three years at Poly, staff members are eligible for four weeks of paid vacation annually, according to the administration. 

Union organizers had informal conversations throughout the spring of 2022 with faculty and staff about a potential union that became more formalized in the current school year, according to union organizers. 

In December 2022, the union organizers began a confidential card-signing campaign to gauge support and present to the administration the support for the union. On March 10, the union organizers emailed Barzdukas and the Board of Trustees asking for voluntary recognition of the union after they claimed to receive majority support in the card-signing campaign. The administration declined this offer, and Barzdukas notified families of the next step to move to an NLRB election. “While we respect their right to make this request, the Board of Trustees and I do not believe that voluntary recognition is the most transparent or equitable approach for deciding our future together,” Barzdukas wrote in an email to Poly families on March 14. Although the card signing process is complete, eligible voters may change their vote during the NLRB secret ballot election. 

The administration expressed concerns about the card-signing campaign in an email to faculty. “I have met with colleagues who voiced concern that organizers rushed them to make a decision and were not transparent about the implications of signing a card. Others have asked about steps they can take to revoke their cards,” Barzdukas wrote. 

According to Shmookler, each organizer was given envelopes with blank cards and a list of employees to talk to about the union over a three-to-four month period. They explained the unionization process, the pros and cons, and asked for support by requesting the employees to sign a card or consider it. Two people asked their cards to be returned to them because they had reservations, and they were both returned, according to Shmookler. 

After the school chose not to recognize a union voluntarily, the union organizers’ and Poly’s lawyers began reaching a stipulated election agreement for the official NLRB vote, which defines who is eligible to vote and the details of the vote. The official details of the election were announced in an email sent out to faculty on April 13, along with a note from the administration: “We sincerely hope for 100% voter turnout because that will mean each of you were part of this important decision for our future.”

As of now, the union organizers’ are confident that a union will win the election. “We, speaking as members of the organizing committee, we are happy to have a vote… we’re confident that we can win a vote,” said Shmookler. 

The administration’s website addresses questions about the upcoming vote,legal process and dues which would pay for legal fees, the union officials’ salaries, and the overhead expenses of operating a union.  

While the union’s ratified constitution would officially state dues, the drafted constitution says the dues would be capped at 1 percent and on a tiered system so that those with lowered salaries would pay less. “At our school, dues that employees will pay will cover the legal fees associated with collective-bargaining and provide stipends for those elected to serve in the union,” states the Poly Community Union website. 

“The fundamental thing is that right now we have no leverage and no power. We are simply told what happens. We’re allowed to make recommendations if we volunteer to do extra work. But the administration is under no obligation to implement those recommendations. We just have no voice, no meaningful voice,” said Shmookler. 

According to Barzdukas, the current salary negotiations work as follows: “After the budget is approved [by the Board of Trustees], individual employment agreements are released to faculty and staff for the coming year. In a typical year, 25-35 employees meet with their supervisors to discuss the terms of their agreements, including their salaries.” The current pay scale is not transparent to faculty and staff. 

“When a candidate accepts our offer of employment, we consider years of relevant previous experience and educational credentials to develop a compensation offer. We then share that figure with the candidate. We have some latitude for negotiation but that latitude is constrained by our desire to align compensation for similarly situated employees,” wrote l Hershkovitz in an email to the Polygon.

The administration strongly advocates that working together is more efficient without a union and has concerns. “This efficiency topic is one of my biggest concerns. Bloomberg recently reported that, for new union groups who actually reach a first contract, it takes on average 465-days to get there,” wrote Barzdukas.

“We have received applications and enrolled many families who left unionized schools in order to come to Poly. I knew that other schools had recent experiences with this that have turned out to be problematic for students and families,” wrote Barzdukas. 

Talk of a union has sparked conversations among faculty and the administration about the dynamic between the faculty and administration. “I like the idea in theory but I am a little bit worried about the conflict that this is all creating here at the school between faculty members and the administration,” said English teacher Laura Caldwell. 

If a union were established, the union contract could include a grievance procedure. As New York is an “employment-at-will” state, employers, including Poly, can dismiss faculty and staff without cause, unless otherwise stated in a contract. A grievance is a formal complaint that is filed by an employee or a union on behalf of an employee, typically when an employee feels that their rights under a collective bargaining agreement have been violated. “There would be union representatives, who, if somebody was going into a meeting with a supervisor and they felt uncomfortable or threatened in any way they could ask for representation,” said Blandford. 

Regardless of whether or not a faculty or staff member votes for the union, a majority win for the union would include all eligible faculty and staff so even those who prefer to stay out of it are affected.  

Poly teachers are not the first of their peer schools to strive for a union. The Ethical Culture Fieldston School and Friends Seminary have had independent unions since the 1970s. Negotiations were ratified in 2021 at a peer school of Poly, The Brooklyn Friends School, according to Brooklyn Friends School Union’s website. The Brooklyn Friends case has been referenced as a parallel example throughout the union organizers’ information zoom sessions in the 2022-2023 school year. 

The Blue School, an independent school in the Financial District, who advocated unionization with UAW, was certified after a majority of eligible voters voted for the union in the election in March of 2022; however, the school had objections, and an official bargaining contract was never ratified. (The Blue School is now closing after the 2022-2023 school year and their website attributes this to a decline in student population and other challenges.)

“I think [a union] can be both good and bad. Good in certain ways where certain advantages will be provided to all teachers, irrespective of their background,” said Math Teacher Gyanesh Sharma. “I can also see the disadvantages of having a union…if you want certain kinds of changes to be made, everybody has to kind of approve it before certain changes are made, and I genuinely believe that not all changes require a majority.” 

“From what I’ve heard from friends who work at other independent schools, my own kids at public schools where unions are very strong and a little bit from my brother who is in United Auto Workers, I think that there’s a legitimate concern about flexibility. I think unions tend to bring a lot of rules,” said Director of Service Learning and history teacher Elijah Sivin. “In terms of advantages, I do think equity is important. I do think you’ve got a lot of people who work very hard, and I think there is a significant imbalance in compensation. This is not unique to Poly Prep.” 


Additional reporting by Jess Dosik and Jordan Millar.