Labor union will review its use of coffin to display message after incident at Lincoln Elementary School

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EDISON – A labor union protesting discriminatory hiring practices from a contractor hired through the school district to do work at Lincoln Elementary School will review its use of a coffin to display their message, according to Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Eastern Region Local 77 Business Manager Carl Style.

“Some have argued that its use was inappropriate for an elementary school setting,” Style said in a statement on Sept. 3. “We agree and have begun a review of the process and will work to ensure we don’t make this mistake again. We think it is not good to expose young children to the imagery and we also think it distracts from the issue at hand: that a contractor hired in Edison is using what appears to be discriminatory hiring practices. We believe workers should not be discriminated against based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or any other arbitrary standards and we are willing to fight to ensure workers are protected.”

Before the school day on Sept. 3, members of LIUNA Local 77 in East Brunswick began setting up to peacefully protest. As part of their preparations, they assembled props including an inflatable rat, which symbolizes unfair labor practices, as well as a coffin and banner which symbolizes how bad employment practices kill middle class jobs, Style said.

Schools Superintendent Bernard Bragen, in a video displayed on social media, is seen knocking down the display.

“For the safety of the children, as the superintendent of schools, I really had no choice but to protect [the students],” Bragen said in a statement about the incident. “I responded immediately to the coffin on school property and knocked it to the ground. I asked the facility manager to grab anything he could to cover up the coffin and he ran inside the building, quickly returning with canvas drop cloths.”

Bragen explained for weeks he has been trying to address the concerns of the labor union after they showed up to protest outside the Edison Board of Education Administration building, to no avail.

When he learned the labor union set up a protest on Aug. 31 outside Lincoln Elementary School, a kindergarten to fifth-grade school, he said he spoke with union leadership onsite and said they did not have permission from the Board of Education to set up anything on school property.

He said he noted to the union members the location of their protest is “directly in the area where children (as young as four years old) not only line up for school in the morning, but is part of our evacuation routes for fire and other emergencies and will frighten children.”

“I also reiterated that I respected their right to protest and would allow them to place it in another spot about 50 feet away on school property, still viewable to the public road and the worksite, but would not be visible to our young children who were attending their first day at school the next morning (Sept. 1),” Bragen said in the statement.

Police were called and responding officers recorded statements from union members and Bragen.

On Sept. 3 at approximately 7 a.m., Bragen said he learned the members of the union returned with the display of the inflatable rat and a coffin.

“I cannot believe that any adults, regardless of the issues at hand, would think it was appropriate to place a coffin with a graphic image of a deceased body at the entrance of an elementary school on the first full day of school after the year we all just experienced,” Bragen said.

As for knocking down the display, Bragen said, “I would say that I would do the exact same thing again. Our children and staff need to be protected, especially when under our care at school.”

Style, in his statement, said union members “do not condone the use of any props or messaging that may negatively affect children and apologize for the poor judgement.”

“In this instance, the coffin was down before students arrived and we think that is for the best,” he said. “We will work to do better, and we hope Edison Township Public Schools will, too. We need to send a message that Edison Township Public Schools will not reward discriminatory business practices. On this matter, we should all be on the same side.”

Bragen said as of Sept. 8, union members have refused any attempts, even now, to speak with them.

The labor union did not return a request for comment by press time.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@newspapermediagroup.com