ALAA Roots — An Unofficial Site

April 22, 1991

1991.04.22: ALAA Contract Ratification Meeting

Background: Fighting for Diversity and Compensation in 1990 Negotiations

In early July 1990, amidst an atmosphere of renewed municipal fiscal crisis, ALAA sought wage increases to match the ADA salaries, explaining that “quality legal representation to poor people can only be maintained when those who represent them are fairly compensated.”

As in previous years, the union’s most prominent non-economic demand was stronger affirmative action, a proposal that was strengthened by the creation of the Attorneys of Color of Legal Aid (ACLA), a caucus formed earlier in the year with the union’s strong support and initially co-chaired by Sallie Manzanet (Bronx CDD), Millie Pinott (Volunteer Division) and Magda Rosa-Ríos (Volunteer Division).

Since people of color made up more than 90 percent of the Society’s clients, but only 18 percent of Legal Aid Staff Attorneys and 9 percent of the managing attorneys, ACLA representative Azalia Torres told the press that, “[e]specially in this climate of racial tension, Legal Aid must begin to reflect the diversity of our communities,” while Letwin reiterated that “[t]he Legal Aid Society simply cannot afford to send the message to its clients that it is part of a judicial system that is widely perceived as being racially unbalanced and unfair.”

Management, however, remained intransigent on affirmative action, and refused, even after the contract expired on October 1, 1990, to make any economic offer. ALAA responded with public rallies on October 1, informational pickets, an invasion of the Society’s October 23, 1990 annual meeting and disruption of Management’s Christmas party at Park Row.

In early October, the union warned that “[i]f management refuses . . . to consider our proposals, they will force us to strike,” a prospect that gained particular prominence on October 4, when Supreme Court Judge George Roberts expelled Staff Attorneys Troy Yancey and Robin Frankel from his Manhattan courtroom for displaying “Ready to Strike” buttons. Across the city, Staff Attorneys defiantly wore the buttons to their own courtrooms.(8)

In December 1990, two months after contract expiration, the Society finally made its economic offer: reduced attorney health benefits and no wage increase — the equivalent of a net three percent union give-back. Management claimed poverty, but, as in the past, refused to reveal how the Society allocated its $120 million annual budget.

On January 29, 1991, union members counterattacked with a one-day strike, the date of which was kept secret until the night before. Striking Queens CDD attorney Chandra Gomes told the Daily News, “I love this job. I want to do something to help people. All I want is to be treated fairly, like everyone else.” Sonja White, of Manhattan CDD, told the Times, “[i]n a nutshell, it’s about respect.”

The Society answered by threatening to terminate health coverage for any attorney who refused to authorize payroll deductions toward the cost of insurance premiums. When, in late-February, attorneys voted 515-138 to reject this ultimatum, the Society unilaterally cut the benefits.

ALAA was now faced with a dilemma. Its members regarded health give-backs as unacceptable. Most attorneys, however, were understandably reluctant to strike. By early spring, therefore, the union implemented an alternative strategy of resistance based on “inside”(9) and corporate campaigns that included picketing the law firms of Legal Aid Board officers and bombarding Board members’ clients with a mass letter writing campaign.

Ironically, the city itself unintentionally helped to break this logjam. In early March, Deputy Mayor Milton Mollen had offered to fund salary increases if ALAA would agree to an “arraignment bureau” that would surrender the continuity of representation won in ALAA’s 1973 and 1974 strikes. “It’s reprehensible,” answered ALAA, “that anyone in the city administration is trying to diminish our clients’ rights by trying to blackmail us during a labor dispute.”

Having failed to buy off the union, Mollen suggested then that the Society compromise on ALAA’s economic demands, thus undercutting management’s insistence that the city would not permit it to exceed the pattern of municipal labor contracts. When the Society hemmed and hawed, the union vowed to disrupt Legal Aid’s April 24 fund-raising dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Under this threat, the Society offered to restore essential health benefits, rescind unilateral employee deductions and, for the first time ever, guarantee existing benefit levels for the life of the contract. Except for a small increase at Step 13, however, salaries were frozen. In other areas, the Society agreed to landmark improvements in job security, equal benefits for lesbian and gay attorneys, and health and safety.

When compelled by management’s terms to “recommend” the offer as a condition of allowing the membership to consider it, the Bargaining Committee achieved ratification by 267-162 — but only on a basis that unilaterally repelled the Society’s last-minute attempt to renege on its economic offer and to coerce ALAA into dropping a Civil Division affirmative action grievance.

Although the union had successfully endured, these difficult contract negotiations served to undermine members’ morale. Deeply concerned about health benefits, salaries and other working conditions, and without a prepared strategy, ALAA had ended up divided about how — or even whether- -to resist Management, a schism reflected within the Bargaining Committee. On the other hand, contract negotiations had generated greater membership activism and broad agreement on the need for unified strategy in 1992.

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