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January 30, 1991

1991.01.30: One-Day Work Stoppage By Legal Aid Lawyers (NY Law Journal)


New York Law Journal, January 30, 1991


Daniel Wise

AFTER SIMMERING for seven months, disagreements over a new contract for The Legal Aid Society’s 1,000 lawyers boiled into public view yesterday with a one-day work stoppage.

Management and the union immediately traded charges over who was responsible for the work stoppage that began yesterday morning, lasted through the midnight shift and resulted in picket lines at 13 courthouses in four boroughs.

Michael Z. Letwin, president of The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, accused management of triggering the job action by demanding what he characterized as a 1 percent giveback in wages or benefits, and by refusing to negotiate the union’s non-economic demands for affirmative action, more resources and job security.

Archibald R. Murray, the Society’s executive director, in turn accused the union of an “ill-considered action” that has put “at risk” their clients’ “liberty, homes and very survival.” Mr. Murray noted that negotiations have not broken off, with future meetings presently scheduled.

The impact of the one-day stoppage so far has been “minimal,” reported Justice Milton L. Williams, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for New York City Courts. Supervisors have had adequate coverage for arraignments and other proceedings, and union members “who were on trial showed up,” he said.

Mr. Murray estimated that about 10 percent of the union’s members represented their clients in trials or attended oral arguments of appeals.

Arraignments were handled “efficiently and effectively” by supervisory staff, Mr. Murray said, though some other proceedings were adjourned.

Nearly Unanimous

Mr. Letwin said that the union had authorized its members to continue with trials that were already in progress and to argue appeals. Otherwise, Mr. Letwin said participation in the day-long strike was “virtually unanimous.”

“Hundreds, if not thousands of cases, including trials, were adjourned,” he added.

If negotiations do not soon get back on track, Mr. Letwin warned, “we will eventually be pushed to a stronger, more extended action.”

A management supervisor indicated that the strike had not affected the Southern District of New York. Attorneys with the Federal Defenders Unit are a part of the union’s bargaining unit, even though they have a different wage structure from attorneys in the state court system.

John Byrnes, the number-two administrator of the Federal Defender Unit in Manhattan, said that “as far as I know everybody was in work.” Mr. Letwin said that he believed attorneys in the Federal Defenders unit were honoring the one-day stoppage.

Began in July

Negotiations for a new contract began in July following the expiration of a two-year contract.

Through much of the fall, negotiations were suspended while the Society awaited the outcome of the city’s negotiations with its own unions which were pivotal to its formulation of an offer.

In December, as the city’s bargaining with two of its most important unions—the Teamsters and District Council 37—neared a conclusion, the tempo of the negotiations picked up with five bargaining sessions since Jan. 3.

The Society has taken the position that it can offer no more than the 1.5 percent the city, its primary funding source, offered to its workers, and has asked the union to agree to savings to offset a $1 million increase in the insurance premiums for the union health plan in the current year.

Mr. Letwin charged that the Society is insisting upon a “net giveback of 1 percent” by demanding that it make up the premium increase, which amounts to 2.5 percent of payroll, while only tentatively putting on the table an increase of 1.5 percent of payroll. That position, coupled with a refusal to negotiate non-economic demands, Mr. Letwin asserted, is “entirely contemptuous” of the concerns of the union membership.

Mr. Murray countered that the union is “insisting upon 15 percent” wage increases at time “of severe financial austerity when state and city workers are facing layoffs.”

Mr. Letwin said although the union’s 15 percent demand remains on the table, once real bargaining gets under way the union will make clear what management already knows, that it is looking for parity with city workers who have agreed to contracts containing wage increases of from 3.5 to 5.5 percent.

Current union salary scales provide for a starting salary of $29,000 which increases in 13 steps to a maximum of $60,000. Starting salaries at the Corporation Counsel’s office are $36,000, and $33,276 at the District Council 37 Legal Services Plan, the union claims.

Affirmative Action

On the non-economic side, the union is pressing its demand for stronger affirmative action. The union contends that the Society’s record on minority hiring—17.4 percent for all staff and 9 percent for management—compares unfavorably with other comparable agencies. In the Los Angeles Public Defender’s Office, minorities make up 31 percent of attorney staff and in San Francisco, 45 percent, according to the union’s figures.

The Society accused the union of “belittling” its status as a “leading employer of minority attorneys.” In addition, Mr. Murray said the Society has made an effort to recruit more minority attorneys, bringing in 43 minority attorneys, or 34.4 percent, with the 125 new attorneys it hired last fall. Also in a little over a year, Mr. Murray noted, 11 of 32 attorneys promoted, or 34.3 percent, were minorities.


1991.01.30: Lawyers at Legal Aid Picket For Day to Show Frustration (NY Times)

Lawyers picket

New York Times, January 30, 1991

Lawyers at Legal Aid Picket For Day to Show Frustration


Legal Aid Society lawyers struck the New York City courts for a single day yesterday in a display of frustration over the lawyers’ roles as advocates for the poor.

Court officials said the disruption caused by the strike was minimal, partly because the lawyers are expected to return to work today.

Legal Aid supervisors and private lawyers handled many routine matters and some cases were postponed. A light volume in the city’s Criminal Courts also helped yesterday, said Mary de Bourbon, the spokeswoman for the Office of Court Administration.

After nearly seven months of negotations since the contract for 1,000 Legal Aid lawyers lapsed on June 30, the society’s management and the striking lawyers were not even agreeing yesterday about the issues separating them or the possibility of future disruptions in the courts. Striking to Send Message

“In a nutshell, it’s about respect,” Sonja White, a striking lawyer, said outside the Criminal Court building on Centre Street in Manhattan. She echoed the sentiments of many of her colleagues by saying that they were striking to send a message that the society is not as strong as it ought to be in working to assure the quality of representation given to poor people.

Archibald R. Murray, the executive director of the society, said the issues were basically financial. He said the lawyers’ assertion that the society had become too passive reflected a misperception of the purpose of the society.

Mr. Murray said the society’s role is to provide legal services, and not to function as a political organization.

Michael Z. Letwin, the president of the union that represents the lawyers, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, said other one-day strikes and a full-scale strike remain possible. Negotiations to Continue

Mr. Murray said that negotiations are scheduled to continue and that further job actions are unlikely.

The courts depend heavily on Legal Aid lawyers because the law requires that defendants facing time in jail who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer must be provided with one. Under a contract with the city, Legal Aid lawyers handle more than half of the criminal cases involving indigent defendants in New York City.

Because the society is a private organization, its lawyers are not covered by the Taylor law, which forbids strikes by public employees.

On the picket lines yesterday, many of the lawyers said they resented management’s casting of the dispute in financial terms.

Mr. Murray said the society disagrees with its lawyers about what issues are appropriate for bargaining. He said many of the nonsalary issues raised by the union, like better law libraries, would also take money.

The union, whose lawyers are paid from $29,000 to $60,000, asked for a 15 percent pay rise. Mr. Letwin said yesterday that the real issue is whether the society, which receives most of its financing from the city, will match the 3.5 percent raise won by several of the municipal unions.

The society has offered a 1.5 percent increase. But with cuts in health benefits, the union calculated that offer as a 1 percent cut.

Photo: Legal Aid Society lawyers picketing outside the Criminal Court building on Centre Street yesterday. (Neal Boenzi/The New York Times)

January 29, 1991

1991.01.29: 1-Day Strike At Legal Aid (Newsday)

Newsday, January 29, 1991

Section: NEWS



Legal Aid lawyers, who represent poor people in the city’s courts, plan a one-day strike today over affirmative action, wages, job security and other issues, their union said yesterday.

The 1,000 lawyers covered by the union have been working without a contract since the end of June.

The strike will start at 9 a.m. and will last until 1 a.m. tomorrow so that lawyers who work nights covering arraignments will be involved, said Michael Z. Letwin, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys.

Archibald Murray, executive director of the Legal Aid Society, said the society’s 200 supervising attorneys would step in to handle arraignments and other scheduled court appearances.

Management has offered the attorneys a 1.5-percent raise. But maintaining current benefits will take 2.5 percent of the funds available for wages and benefits, resulting in a net 1-percent pay cut, Letwin said.

Murray, speaking for management, said the union’s demands come “at a time when the city is in rather poor financial condition. Our principal source of funding is the city of New York.”

January 25, 1991

1991.01.25: Legal Aid Lawyers Plan to Strike Courts (NY Times)


New York Times, January 25, 1991

Legal Aid Lawyers Plan to Strike Courts


The union of 1,000 Legal Aid Society lawyers will try to disrupt New York City’s courts with a one-day strike today or next week to draw attention to a contract dispute, its officers said yesterday.

Lawyers’ strikes are rare, but the same union struck for 10 weeks in 1982. That strike infuriated city officials and slowed the courts, because Legal Aid lawyers represent most of the poor people charged with crimes in the city’s courts.

Since a contract lapsed on June 30, the union, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, and the Legal Aid Society have made little progress in negotiations over pay and other job issues. The union also is engagedin a philosophical debate with management over whether the society is pursuing its mission to the poor vigorously enough.

A prolonged labor dispute could have greater impact now than it did in 1982 because criminal court caseloads have grown sharply, and 85 percent of the cases involve indigent defendants. Further Actions Threatened

Michael Z. Letwin, the president of the union, said the one-day strike could be followed by other job actions — one-day strikes or a full-scale strike.

“It is very unfortunate,” said Milton Mollen, the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety. “It will have an unfortunate impact on the criminal-justice system and defendants.”He said it would be unprofessional for lawyers to strike. But he would not say whether the city would seek to have striking lawyers disciplined.

As a private organization that contracts with the city, the Legal Aid Society is not covered by the state’s Taylor Law, which prohibits strikes by public employees. But some legal authorities say a strike could be a violation of a lawyer’s duty to his client and invite punishment by the courts. Under the law, the court must appoint a lawyer for any felony defendant who is too poor to pay for one.

Mr. Mollen also said he would not speculate on whether the city would revive a proposal that Mayor Edward I. Koch explored during the 1982 strike. The Koch administration studied whether to abandon its contracts with the Legal Aid Society and provide lawyers for the poor through a new public-defender agency directly controlled by the city. The Issues Disputed

Besides the matter of pay in the present negotiations, Mr. Letwin, the union president, cited issues that “relate to our ability to provide the best quality representation to our clients.” Those issues include, he said, hiring more minority lawyers and providing better law libraries and health and safety standards in what are often dirty and unventilated court areas.

Archibald R. Murray, the executive director of the society, said Mr. Letwin had mischaracterized the dispute. He said it was mainly about money.

Mr. Murray said the society could not meet the union’s demand for a 15 percent raise, because it must offer contracts that are in line with the city’s contracts with its municipal unions. He said the society was prepared to offer a raise of about 1 1/2 percent.

Legal Aid’s courtroom lawyers earn from $29,000 to $60,000 a year, with the top scale reached after 13 years of experience. About 750 of Legal Aid’s 1,000 lawyers represent defendants in criminal cases and rest in juvenile and civil cases. Strike Called Inexcusable

“These are tough times for the city,” Mr. Murray said, “but that is not an excuse for leaving a client, particularly one who is indigent.”

He said Legal Aid’s 187 management lawyers would step in to handle some pending cases.

Mr. Letwin said the union delegates had directed the leaders to call a one-day strike before the end of January if there was no progress in the negotiations. The date is to remain secret until the last minute.

Legal Aid, the largest organization of its kind in the country, has grown sharply, along with the caseload of the city’s criminal courts, in recent years. The society provides defense lawyers in about 60 percent of the indigent cases. Private lawyers paid with public funds handle the remainder.

The labor dispute comes amid growing suggestions from inside and outside the organization that problems in operation may have come with growth. Challenges to the Society

Last summer, the state’s Chief Administrator of the Courts, Matthew T. Crosson, for the first time opened a portion of the Legal Aid contract to competitive bidding. He said the agency should not have a monopoly over the field of legal representation to the poor. In the end, Legal Aid kept the state contract, but only after Mr. Crosson said he had forced the organization to scale back what he termed excessive management costs.

Mr. Letwin won election as president of the Legal Aid union last year by outlining what he said was a broad platform to challenge the way the society functioned. He said the organization had forgotten its role as an aggressive advocate for poor people.

Legal Aid’s managers deny that basic issues about the organization are being raised. But some acknowledge that the stress of the criminal-justice system is being passed through to the lawyers for the poor. A Scrappier Approach Urged

“We are trying to provide quality representation in a system that doesn’t encourage it,” said Robert M. Baum, the lawyer in charge of the society’s criminal defense division, “and that creates frustrations.” “

In interviews, Legal Aid lawyers said the dispute had come to a flash point because the society’s management and its board members, many of whom are lawyers from the city’s wealthiest law firms, had become too passive on behalf of the poor.

Robert E. Massi, a lawyer in the Brooklyn office for 18 years, said Legal Aid’s board members were more interested in listing their charitable work on their office letterheads than in addressing the problems of defendants in the criminal courts. A Matter of Focus

“The issue here,” Mr. Massi said, “is whether we are here to be the Legal Aid Society for the poor of New York City or whether we’re here to provide high-salary jobs for people like Arch Murray and letterhead credits for the Wall Street lawyers who are on the board.”

Mr. Murray said the whole purpose of the organization was to provide service for the poor, and he said Mr. Massi and other staff lawyers ought to focus on the financial problems facing the organization.

“They ought to concentrate on trying to solve the problem,” Mr. Murray said, “instead of throwing rocks at the people who are trying to solve it.”

Photo: Archibald R. Murray, executive director of the Legal Aid Society, said the lawyers’ union dispute was mainly about money. (Neal Boenzi/The New York Times)

January 1, 1991

1991.01.30: Legal Aid Lawyers Take One-Day Walk (Newsday)

Newsday, January 30, 1991

Section: NEWS


Anthony M. DeStefano. STAFF WRITER; Leonard Levitt contributed to this story.

To chants of “defending the poor requires more” and “no contract, no work,” Legal Aid Society attorneys picketed city courthouses yesterday in a one-day strike seeking better wages and more aggressive hiring of minority lawyers.

The attorneys, who make an average salary of about $35,000, have been working without a contract since June, 1990. They charge that Legal Aid is in effect offering a wage and benefits package that would cut salaries.

“We believe that quality legal representation to poor people can only be maintained when those who represent them are fairly compensated,” Michael Z. Letwin, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, said at a news conference yesterday.

The union represents about 850 attorneys who serve poor defendants in the criminal and civil courts.

Court officials contacted yesterday said the strike had a “minimal” effect on criminal court arraignments and trials.

Negotiations between Legal Aid managment and the union were scheduled to continue today. If bargaining does not produce an agreement,  union officials said more job actions could be planned.

Legal Aid officials said they were offering a wage increase of 1.5 percent. But Letwin said that the union wants wage increases in the range of 3 1/2 to 5 percent, comparable to the recent settlements the city reached with municipal employee and teachers unions.

The two sides also disagreed on health benefits. Legal Aid spokesman Pat Booth said $1 million in additional funding is needed. Letwin said a proposal to raise the money through a 2.5 percent hike in benefit contributions from union members, combined with the 1.5 percent proposed pay hike, would mean a net pay cut for the attorneys.


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