ALAA Roots — An Unofficial Site

October 5, 1994

1994.10.05: Striking Legal Aid Lawyers Bow to Mayoral Ultimatum (NY Times)

Striking Legal Aid

New York Times, October 5, 1994

Striking Legal Aid Lawyers Bow to Mayoral Ultimatum


Faced with an ultimatum by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, striking lawyers reached a tentative contract agreement with the Legal Aid Society late last night and agreed to return to work this morning, union and management officials said.

Neither side would disclose the details of the accord, and it was not clear whether the deal would be acceptable to Mr. Giuliani, who yesterday demanded that any new contract with the lawyers contain a no-strike clause, with automatic penalties for walking off the job.

The talks resumed at 7 P.M., just a few hours after Mr. Giuliani told the striking lawyers, who represent indigent defendants in New York City courts, that they must return to work today or risk being barred from working for the city in the future. By 10:30 P.M., the two sides had reached an agreement.

In taking a tough stance with the Legal Aid lawyers — who do not even work directly for the city, although the society gets $79 million a year in city financing — Mr. Giuliani was also sending a message to the 210,000 municipal workers, underscoring his stance that the city will not be able to afford raises for anyone. [ News analysis, page B5. ]

About 1,100 lawyers had walked off the job, voting Monday afternoon to turn down the Legal Aid Society’s offer of a two-year contract with no permanent wage increases.

Since 1966, the society has provided legal representation to the poor under a contract with the city. Mr. Giuliani responded to the strike by canceling the contract.

Commenting on the tentative agreement last night, Michael Z. Letwin, the president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, the lawyers’ union, said: “It’s a new offer. It’s not everything we would have liked, but in certain areas there are significant improvements.”

Mr. Letwin said the union would vote on the pact tonight.

A spokeswoman for the society, Pat Bath, said: “We have reached some understandings with the union, subject to the Mayor’s approval. The attorneys will be back at work tomorrow.”

The negotiations between the society and the lawyers were resumed last night in the downtown office of Sheldon Silver, the Speaker of the New York Assembly, after a day of protests by strikers and threats from the Mayor. No one from the administration was present, although Mr. Silver said they had been invited.

Cristyne Lategano, the Mayor’s press secretary, said last night that Mr. Giuliani had not seen the agreement and was still demanding a new arrangement between the society and the city that would prohibit strikes in the future.

“We’re pleased they recognized their ethical obligation to return to work, but we’ll still have to review a brand new contract with Legal Aid,” she said.

Mr. Silver, a liberal Democrat from Manhattan, said he intervened in the dispute because he was concerned about the chaos that could develop in the courts. The state, which has overall responsibility for the court system, pays part of the bill for Legal Aid.

At courthouses around the city, lawyers and judges said the effects of the strike by the union, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, were just beginning to be felt yesterday. Private lawyers were hired to take over arraignments at Manhattan Criminal Court, for example, and supervisors from the Legal Aid Society handled some cases, though they were not sure how long they could do so.

Before the tentative agreement was announced last night, Mr. Giuliani had insisted that any future contract with the Legal Aid Society must insure that the city has the flexibility to contract with private law firms, bar associations or other groups of lawyers besides the society to defend the indigent.

Mr. Giuliani’s stand was clearly intended to send a message to the city’s major municipal unions as his administration enters a new round of bargaining while trying to close a $1 billion budget gap. The Mayor has said the city cannot afford any raises in the next two years unless they are financed by increased productivity or other union concessions.

Mr. Giuliani said he refused the society’s request last week for additional money above its contract to cover a wage settlement because it would be a fiscal disaster for the city.

“If they don’t return to work tomorrow,” he said, “then what we will do is we will go ahead and enter into legal arrangements and binding contracts with other groups and they will not be part of it. If you look at the net effect of what a four percent increase would mean for the city, not just for those services, but what it means to all other negotiations, it would be a catastrophe for the city to agree.”

The union representing the lawyers had sought a 4.5 percent raise over two years from the society, which in turn offered a package with no permanent wage increase but rather two bonuses amounting to 2 percent of annual salary in each year of a two-year contract. The management also had sought higher payments from the union for health care. The average Legal Aid lawyer makes $45,000 a year.

But Mr. Letwin, the union president, said the wage increase he was seeking would cost $3 million to $4 million and could easily come out of the society’s current budget — a $140 million spending plan raised from state, city and Federal grants. He pointed out that the society’s supervisors gave themselves a raise of 4.5 percent earlier this year.

“All we are looking for is the same funding that the supervisors got,” he said.

Legal Aid lawyers tend to be young and typically stay on the job about six years. Each year, the society gets about 2,400 applicants from all over the United States and fills about 75 jobs.

Yesterday Chandra Gomes, 35, of Bellerose, Queens, a Legal Aid lawyer for eight years, said the job was the only thing she had ever wanted to do with her law degree. But she said, she had bills to pay, just like anyone else.

“They’re not offering any kind of increase,” she said. “I drive a car that’s 19 years old. We work Christmas and Thanksgiving and weekends, and we don’t get any compensation for that.”

Reaction to the strike was muted from the leaders of other municipal unions and it was unclear how much support the striking lawyers were getting. Stanley Hill, the executive director of the District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he was quietly urging the union and management to go back to the bargaining table. But he added he did not want the strike to affect his talks with the Mayor on the next contract for his workers.

“The workers should not be fired,” he said. “This should not be blown up. This is a very sensitive situation. I’m urging that both sides try to sit down and work this thing out.”

Photo: Striking lawyers confronting people who crossed the picket line at Legal Aid Society offices in Brooklyn. (Linda Rosier for The New York Times) (pg. B4)

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