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October 4, 1994

1994.10.04: City to Replace Aid Attorneys Out on Strike (NY Times)

New York Times, October 4, 1994

City to Replace Aid Attorneys Out on Strike


Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, setting up one of the biggest labor showdowns of his administration, moved yesterday to replace the Legal Aid lawyers who walked off their jobs in a bid for higher wages.

Just hours after the lawyers formally voted to strike, Mr. Giuliani terminated the city’s contract with the Legal Aid Society, which is the direct employer of the lawyers. The city pays the society $79 million annually to provide the lawyers to represent about 60 percent of the indigent defendants in the city’s packed courts.

The lawyers do not negotiate with the city and officially struck against the Legal Aid Society. But Mr. Giuliani, who has said he wants to hold down the wages of all city workers to balance the budget, said that the lawyers too would have to recognize the city’s fiscal difficulties.

Mayoral aides said they had been in contact with administrators of the city’s courts and would have additional private lawyers on hand today to handle arraignments. They said they would seek a more permanent substitute for the Legal Aid Society’s 1,131 lawyers over the next few weeks.

“As I think we all know, there are many lawyers in this city that are looking for work and maybe they can have options that they didn’t have,” Mr. Giuliani said at a news conference at City Hall shortly after the strike vote. “This is not a monopoly that the city should allow itself to kind of be frightened by.”

Mr. Giuliani said his options included such possibilities as a contract with the City Bar Association, creation of a Public Defenders office, or expansion of a program for using private lawyers. Several months ago mayoral aides said they wanted to curtail that program because it is undersupervised and has, on occasion, been abused.

It was unclear last night what Mr. Giuliani would do if the Legal Aid lawyers offered to end their strike on terms the Mayor viewed as acceptable, or whether his strong stand was a tactical move intended to pressure the union to resolve the dispute on the Mayor’s terms.

The walkout of the lawyers and the Mayor’s quick reaction were just the latest in a series of crises in the city’s criminal justice system, which has been hard pressed to handle overcrowding in the courts and jails caused by the Mayor’s crackdown on crime and by a shrinking budget.

The administration sought to minimize the effect of trying to operate without the Legal Aid lawyers. “It might be a little bumpy, but the truth is I think it will move reasonably well,” said Dennison Young, Mr. Giuliani’s counsel.

The striking Legal Aid workers vowed a long battle against the Mayor. “This is sort of strike-breaking at its worst,” said Michael Z. Letwin, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, the lawyer’s union. “I think this is going to backfire. We are the first ones to stand up to this bully and we hope New Yorkers will stand up and say, ‘Enough.’ “

Officials of the Legal Aid Society planned an executive committee meeting this morning to assess where they stood. “At this point, to be honest with you, will the striking attorneys have jobs? I don’t know,” said Pat Bath, a spokeswoman for the Legal Aid Society. She said that 780 of the organization’s 1,131 lawyers handle criminal cases or criminal appeals under the agency’s contract with the city. The rest of the lawyers handle civil matters, juvenile and family court cases.

Arguing that the Legal Aid Society could not meet its commitments, The Mayor cut off the Legal Aid contract yesterday a few hours after the lawyers, who walked off the job when their contract expired Friday at midnight, formally voted to strike. On their first ballot at the Loeb Student Center on the New York University campus, the lawyers voted 482 to 304 to strike, with 6 abstentions. On a second ballot, they voted 681 to 56 for the strike, with five abstentions.

That offer provided no wage increase — the union had been seeking 4.5 percent over two years — but did provide bonuses of 2 percent of annual salary in each year of a two-year contract. The average Legal Aid lawyer makes $45,000 a year.

While the lawyers negotiate their contracts with the Legal Aid Society and not with the city, members of the Giuliani administration said they were watching the talks closely because they did not want the lawyers to receive wage increases that could be viewed as setting a pattern for municipal contracts next year.

Faced with a $1 billion budget gap, the administration has been seeking in recent days to negotiate $200 million in givebacks on health care benefits with the municipal unions and a new severance package to remove as many as another 7,000 workers from the city payroll.

Mr. Giuliani said yesterday that, because of the city’s dire fiscal situation, it could be more than two years before he would be able to offer any raises to municipal workers and that he expected the Legal Aid lawyers to understand that as well.

“The city does not have money to increase salaries this year,” he said last night as he was leaving City Hall, where he was confronted by striking union members. “They should know that.” Mr. Giuliani also criticized the managers of the Legal Aid Society for having granted themselves raises.

The society, which has a $140 million budget raised through state, city and federal funds and private philanthropy, had told its lawyers that fiscal trouble made the city “unwilling to make any money available for increases in compensation and benefits for the new contract.”

Mr. Letwin said that the wage settlement his union had been seeking would have cost $3 million to $4 million and could have come out of the society’s budget without seeking additional help from the city.

Mr. Letwin accused the Mayor of trying to imitate President Ronald Reagan, who dismissed striking air controllers from the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981. The union was later disbanded. Mr. Letwin said the Mayor, who was in the Reagan Justice Department at the time, “proudly takes credit for breaking PATCO in 1981, one of the most infamous anti-democratic steps ever taken in labor history.”

Mr. Giuliani said yesterday that he had not been the architect of the Reagan plan on dealing with the air traffic controllers, but had been present at some administration meetings and thought President Reagan was correct because public employees take an oath not to strike against the Federal government. He said the Legal Aid situation was not analogous because the lawyers are not government employees.

The next step in the confrontation was unclear last night. Mr. Giuliani appeared to leave a door slightly ajar to resume the contract with Legal Aid. Asked whether the society’s role was finished, he said, “That’s it for Legal Aid until and unless Legal Aid can comply with its obligations under the contract.” Asked at another point whether the strikers could return to work, the Mayor said: “I don’t see any sense on their part that they want to do that. So as far as I’m concerned I can only react to what they have done.”

Mr. Giuliani, despite tough talk, has generally reached amicable settlements with city unions, and he sought to characterize this confrontation as a “contractual issue” with the Legal Aid Society and not a labor dispute.

Aides to the Mayor said that courts would turn most immediately to private defense lawyers who already serve 40 percent of the indigent defendants in the city. The lawyers are part of a loosely organized program called the Assigned Counsel Plan. The decision to increase the use of such lawyers was a sharp about-face for the administration, which had just embarked on a test program designed to sharply cut the use of such lawyers in favor of Legal Aid.

Mr. Giuliani suggested yesterday that over the long term, the city could find other arrangements to provide criminal defense lawyers to the poor — possibly by contract with the city bar association.

Administration officials said that despite terminating the contract with Legal Aid, they would insist that any lawyers already involved in a case follow it through to its conclusion, and that they would go to court to compel the lawyers to do so if they refused. “The cannon of ethics says that you can’t abandon cases,” Mr. Giuliani said. “So I don’t know where lawyers come off striking. And here they are abandoning cases for an entire city. I’m not going to let them do that.”

Mr. Letwin said the striking lawyers would continue to represent their clients in cases that had already gone to trial.

Photos: After voting to push ahead with a strike yesterday, lawyers working for the Legal Aid Society marched to City Hall for a demonstration.; Legal aid lawyers counting strike ballots yesterday. From left were Nancy Ginsburg, Shanti Narra, Bob Zuss, Dennis Boyd and Tom Perry. The final vote came to 482 in favor of striking, 304 against. (Photographs by Jose R. Lopez/The New York Times) (pg. B3)

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