Roughly 40 teachers at the Blue School, a private Manhattan school founded by the Blue Man Group, walked off the job on Tuesday because the school has refused to recognize their union even after teachers voted overwhelmingly to unionize. With the majority of its teachers participating in the single strike, the school had to close.
Dozens of teachers gathered outside the school in the Financial District, holding signs that said “Why do we have the blues? BAD working conditions!!!” and chanting “If we don’t get it, shut it down.” Teachers say that, at the nominally progressive school, they teach students about labor organizing. (The school does not teach students how to join the Blue Man Group).
“It’s an exercise in self destruction not to recognize the union,” Maida Rosenstein, the president of Local 2110 UAW, which represents teachers at several private schools in New York City, told Motherboard.
The school is the latest in a growing list of outwardly progressive art museums, non-profits, and educational institutions to oppose unionization. The founders of the Blue Man Group started Blue School in 2006 as progressive alternative to Ivy League pipeline private schools. It fosters curricula designed by teachers and integrates cognitive neuroscience into its pedagogy. “We are a community of educators and families who believe in the undeniable capacity of children,” the school website’s homepage says.
“They do a whole unit on labor unions,” said Ari Bloom, a striking middle school math teacher. “The school brands itself on its progressive curriculum.”
On Tuesday, picketing teachers with “UAW on Strike” signs stood outside the campus’s entrance on Water Street to ensure no one crossed the picket line. The windows were decorated with “Black Lives Matter” slogans and a testimonial from a recent graduate that says, “We all have a voice.”
Striking middle school, elementary, and pre-k teachers told Motherboard that they began unionizing in December 2020 to address pay disparities, cuts to jobs, wages and hours during the pandemic, and low morale that spurred high rates of attrition. Since the pandemic started, teachers have not received a raise. After petitioning for an election in June 2021, 88 percent of workers cast ballots in favor unionizing with United Auto Workers Local 2110.
“My salary was cut by 10 percent during the pandemic,” said Mollie McQuarrie, a pre-K art teacher at the Blue School. “Some of us couldn’t make ends meet. The cuts destroyed our program.”
“They can’t retain staff,” said Karen Levenberg, a lead for pre-K students. “We lost four primary staff teachers in the middle of the school year. There was a period of time when the head of school was teaching art class.”
“Our colleagues’ decision to leave the classroom hurts Blue School’s children and their parents,” a spokesperson for the Blue School said. “The school has been clear that this type of action will not impact the decision to appeal the outcome on the basis that the process was neither fair nor inclusive; it excluded many colleagues who currently work at Blue School, created a high barrier to voting, and improper electioneering took place.”
Bloom, the middle school math teacher, said they make around $59,000 a year, but learned other middle school teachers on staff with the same experience and education are paid $15,000 more. “There’s really gross pay disparities.”
“This year, Blue School delivered renewed contributions to 401k plans, as well as a 5% salary increase across the board – with additional substantial salary increases to ensure teachers with similar experience and credentials are compensated equitably,” the Blue School spokesperson said.
The school has taken steps at every point of the unionization process to derail the campaign. Blue School has retained Littler Mendelson, the same anti-union law firm retained by Starbucks and Apple to prevent unionization, to fight its employees’ union drive. The school also challenged the mail-in ballot process and individual votes, made a motion to throw out a decision to hold the election, and has said it would refuse to recognize the union after it won a clear majority.
The Blue School’s tactics mirror an earlier effort to thwart unionization among its stagehands at a Las Vegas theater where the Blue Man Group performed in 2005.
In a March 2022 letter leading up to the union ballot count, the school’s headmaster Noah Reinhardt accused the union of “improper electioneering” and objected to what he described as “the deliberate exclusion of colleagues who hadn’t yet begun at Blue School when the election was ordered.” “Because of this, if the election is certified, the school will decline to recognize the union if asked to do so and will exercise its right to appeal the outcome,” Reinhardt wrote.
Last month, the National Labor Relations Board issued a bargaining order, notifying the school of its legal obligation to negotiate with the union over working conditions. So far, the school has refused to sit down at the bargaining table.