Legal-Aid Labor Dispute Could Cripple the Courts
A labor dispute between the Legal Aid Society and the union representing its lawyers is threatening to paralyze the New York City courts just as they are gearing up to deal more aggressively with criminal cases.
Representatives of the Legal Aid Society, a private group providing legal representation to poor people, and more than 1,000 unionized lawyers negotiated without reaching a settlement after the lawyers’ contract expired on June 30. The talks are now stalled, with each side accusing the other of refusing to return to the bargaining table and the union’s president, Michael Z. Letwin, talking about the possibility of a strike by the end of October.
”If management refuses in a general way to consider our proposals,” Mr. Letwin said, ”they will force us to strike. If that happens, the courts will not be able to function.”
Archibald R. Murray, the executive director of the Legal Aid Society, said the society is waiting for the range of expected pay increases for municipal employees before making commitments to its lawyers. Legal Aid represents indigent defendants in the city’s courts under a contract with the city, and city officials generally require Legal Aid to keep its pay increases in line with city contracts.
Mr. Murray criticized Mr. Letwin’s approach to the stalled negotiations. ”I don’t see where he gets off talking about a strike or closing the courts,” he said. ”I think that’s not responsible work or leadership.”
Legal Aid lawyers are a critical component of the courts in New York City because, under the law, people accused of serious crimes who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers must have lawyers appointed for them. In recent years, as many as 85 percent of all city criminal defendants have been judged too poor to hire their own lawyers.
Under its contract with the city, Legal Aid provides lawyers in about 60 percent of all indigent cases. The remaining cases are handled by private lawyers appointed individually.
The Strike of ’82
In 1982, a 10-week strike by the union slowed the courts and infuriated Mayor Edward I. Koch, who appointed a committee to study whether the city was too reliant on the Legal Aid Society. The committee concluded that the city’s agreement with Legal Aid ”fails” by allowing the union ”to seriously disrupt the criminal justice process.”
Mr. Letwin described the issues separating the two sides as major differences in approach over the role of the lawyers. He said the union was seeking to raise their stature through measures that would encourage them to remain longer and work in a more professional atmosphere.
”Clients should get from Legal Aid the same quality of representation they would get if they could pay for it,” Mr. Letwin said.
Mr. Murray said poor clients receive excellent representation in most cases.
The lawyers’ pay scale ranges from $29,000 for a beginning lawyer to $60,000 for those with more than 13 years experience. The union, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, is seeking a 15 percent pay increase and changes in working conditions.
One main issue is a union demand for more minority hiring. Minority lawyers make up 18 percent of the Legal Aid staff, its clients are overwhelmingly members of minority groups.
Other issues involve concerns about office space, growing caseloads, job security and a demand that gay and lesbian lawyers receive health and other benefits for their partners.
‘Ready to Strike’ Buttons
Last week, tension on the labor confrontation boiled over in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. On Thursday, Judge George F. Roberts ordered two Legal Aid lawyers removed from his courtroom because they were wearing buttons that said ”Ready to Strike.” Senior Legal Aid officials intervened and the judge agreed to suspend his order while the society appeals, arguing that the lawyers have a First Amendment right to wear the buttons.
By Friday, Legal Aid lawyers were wearing the buttons in courtrooms all over the city. ”We’ve put out the word for everybody to wear buttons,” Mr. Letwin said.