New York Law Journal, January 30, 1991
ONE–DAY WORK STOPPAGE BY LEGAL AID LAWYERS
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.
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.
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.