Teaching by Example

Poly Community Union, Contributing Writers

The employees at our school face a pivotal choice about whether to establish a union. You may have read emails that went out to families, seen faculty and staff wearing buttons, heard talk about the union from your friends, or even started following us on Instagram (yes, we know what Instagram is…kinda). Some students have begun to ask what a union is, why we want one at Poly, and how it might impact our school. These are excellent questions that deserve answers from the employees who started this movement about a year and a half ago. As a community which strives to inspire our students to seek a more inclusive and equitable world, we too have been investigating ways to make our workplace more inclusive and equitable. We have been working to learn about unions, educate our colleagues, and here we’d like to share some of what we’ve learned – and what we’ve come to believe.


A union is an association of employees who work together to negotiate their terms and conditions of employment with their employer. In our case, we believe that our union should be as inclusive as possible, including teachers, deans, athletic coaches and trainers, mental health counselors, maintenance workers, housekeeping staff, and our colleagues in the admissions, finance, and advancement office: basically, everyone employed at the school who does not serve as a manager or supervisor. The administration agrees on this point, and we have finalized a list of 268 employees across our two campuses who are eligible to vote in a secret-ballot election on May 17th and May 18th, 2023. If a majority of the votes cast in the election are in favor of the Poly Community Union, the school administration will be obligated to negotiate with us regarding the terms and conditions of our work. At peer schools like Fieldston, Friends Seminary, BFS, LREI, Bank Street, and City and Country, all of which are unionized, such negotiated contracts (called collective bargaining agreements) set out a transparent salary scale with annual salary increases, provisions for job security, and clear definitions of work obligations. Currently, most of Poly’s employees have no job security, and no knowledge of how the school values our years of experience and education. 


We want a union because it would provide us with a democratic and organized way to advocate for ourselves and secure a seat at the negotiating table. Right now, we have no collective voice. We negotiate one year contracts individually, in one-on-one meetings, a practice that research by ADP, Poly’s own payroll company, has demonstrated advantages white men over women and people of color. Right now, we have no job security and can be fired at any time, for any reason or no reason. The school has brought in outside contractors for housekeeping who may not be paid the same amounts or have the same benefits as Poly employees. When employees are let go, the school is not legally obligated to offer a reason and there is no independent grievance procedure short of hiring a lawyer and suing the school. We believe job security would help the school achieve its goal of “attracting and retaining the most diverse faculty and staff in New York,” as Ms. Solitto said in her January 29th email to faculty and staff (and has been reiterated many times since). Furthermore, our salaries are highly inequitable. People with the same years of experience and qualifications are paid differently; people with vastly different qualifications and experience are paid the same. The school has acknowledged this is a problem, saying in the same email mentioned above that “more work is needed” on this front, and that they are working on resolving inequities. We believe that employees should have an active and empowered role in this process and forming a union is the only way of guaranteeing that full participation.


For these reasons, the majority of eligible employees have already signed confidential cards expressing their desire to be represented by a union. Poly administrators have insisted on holding an election, as is their right, instead of agreeing to bring in a neutral party to count the cards and confirm our majority, as we had asked. That being said, we welcome an election as an opportunity for Poly’s employees to confirm the majority’s wish to negotiate together through a union structure for more equitable and transparent treatment.


So what would a union look like? A union is a democratic body in which members vote on key decisions. Who should our leadership team be? Let’s vote! What should our bargaining priorities be? Let’s vote! Should we accept certain compromises in a collective bargaining agreement or not? Let’s vote! Indeed, if we win the election on May 17th and 18th, our first order of business will be to circulate a constitution for the entire membership to review and vote on. There will be elections for representatives from different cohorts of workers who will form an executive committee, and for a President, Secretary, and Treasurer to help run the union as well as for an oversight committee who will run annual audits. Once the members have ratified the constitution and voted in our first slate of elected representatives, we will begin a collective bargaining process with Poly’s administrators. 


Once we – with the guidance of our attorney, Allyson Belovin at the law office of Levy Ratner – have negotiated our first contract, the union will only be involved with school business when an employee requests our help and every three or four years when we negotiate a new multi-year contract. As one former Poly employee who now works at Brooklyn Friends explained, “I can absolutely talk to admin and voice concerns. I am not even aware of the union at work 99.9% of the time.” Our aim is to make the Poly Community Union a resource for employees and a structure to advocate for equitable pay and job security, so that we all can focus our energies on our main priority: education!


While a union is by no means a perfect solution to the challenges our school faces, it would be a vital step towards empowering the people who work to make Poly the best school for you. There will be dues – or fees – that all members must pay, but we have chosen to create an independent union completely run by Poly employees without any involvement from outside organizers at big national unions. This will keep our dues very low: at Brooklyn Friends, which worked with a big outside union, the annual dues are 2% of everyone’s salary. Our dues will be capped at 1%. We are also finalizing a tiered dues system, which would ensure that those with lower salaries would pay dues far lower than 1%. This is in line with dues at other private schools with independent unions. 


There will also be compromises. Working together, we can advocate much more effectively for what we believe is most important, but we must understand that any negotiation requires flexibility and compromise from both parties. The upcoming election presents employees with a choice about the type of school that Poly can become. A vote for the union, we believe, is a vote for a school where employees feel heard and protected, and as a result invest their energies and abilities in growing our entire community. 


As community members, school employees, and educators, we try to teach by example: to practice what we profess. By unionizing, we are taking concrete steps that speak to Poly’s values of equity, justice, and accountability. We invite you to ask questions, learn more about us, or contact us at https://www.polycommunityunion.org/, or follow us on instagram at @polycommunityunion. 


Authors: Max Shmookler, AJ Blandford, Bart Moroney, Matthew Sagotsky, Jose Oliveras, Amy Richards, Maddy Wyatt, Annie Pulsipher, Terra Windham, Ms. Derman, Mr. Klett, Ms. Dreyer, Ms. Parker, and Ms. Ely