ALAA Roots — An Unofficial Site

October 6, 1994

1994.10.06: Mayor’s Ultimatum Led to Legal Aid Settlement (NY Times)

New York Times, October 6, 1994

Mayor’s Ultimatum Led to Legal Aid Settlement


The eleventh-hour contract agreement on Tuesday between striking lawyers and the Legal Aid Society came about in an atmosphere of fear, as both labor and management came to believe that they were no longer negotiating to reach a deal on a new contract, but to save the society itself.

In the end, it was Sheldon Silver, the Speaker of the State Assembly, the second most powerful Democrat in the state, who played midwife to the tentative agreement, persuading both sides to take Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s threat to dismantle Legal Aid seriously.

But it was Mr. Giuliani’s ultimatum to the striking lawyers — to return to work the next morning or never work for the city again — that was the great catalyst for action.

“The Mayor’s ultimatum scared the bejesus out of everybody,” said Robert Batterman, a lawyer who represented Legal Aid management at the meetings. “I called the union lawyer, and I said there isn’t going to be anything to put back together if we don’t get the troops back to work tomorrow morning.”

Before the strike, Legal Aid was under contract with the city to provide lawyers to about 60 percent of the indigent defendants in the city’s packed criminal courts. It remained unclear yesterday whether the Mayor would allow the society such a broad role in the future.

Mr. Silver, who began his career as a law clerk, said he intervened because he was worried about the effect of a prolonged strike on an already overburdened court system. In addition, he said, he did not want to see the Mayor gut and revamp the city’s system for defending the indigent in the middle of a labor crisis, without any hearings in the Assembly.

Tuesday began poorly for the strikers. The walkout was barely felt in the courts as private lawyers handled new cases at arraignments, and few labor leaders showed up at an 11:30 A.M. rally in support of the strike on the steps of City Hall.

Earlier that morning, the executive committee of the Legal Aid Society had met to wrestle with Mr. Giuliani’s decision the previous day to respond to the strike by simply canceling the city’s contract with the society. They discussed trying to bring in a mediator to settle the strike and talked about where they might find money in their budget for a wage settlement.

But the rumor that the Mayor was going to take further steps against the society that afternoon hung over the meeting. “It was kind of a dismal scene,” said Michael Iovenko, the society’s president.

Meanwhile, the Mayor was meeting at City Hall with his top advisers: Dennison Young, his personal lawyer; Paul Crotty, the Corporation Counsel; Abraham Lackman, the Budget Director, and Katherine Lapp, the criminal justice coordinator. Rather than wait out the strike, Mr. Giuliani decided to step up the pressure, his aides said.

He would demand the lawyers return to work or be barred from working for the city in the future. He would also demand that any new contract with between the city and the Legal Aid Society have a no-strike clause and allow the city the flexibility to contract with other lawyer groups to defend the indigent.

Mr. Giuliani announced his ultimatums at a news conference at 2:30. Copies of his statement were faxed to the union and the society. Within an hour, Michael Z. Letwin, the president of the union, met with Mr. Iovenko and Thomas K. Brome, the society’s vice president, in Mr. Brome’s midtown law office to talk about possible ways to resolve workload complaints and to improve minority hiring, two sticking points in the talks.

“The Mayor’s ultimatum I think in effect brought about the end of the strike,” said one Legal Aid executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “What else would there have been to bring them to this point of having a meeting with us the day after they go on strike?”

About an hour later, Mr. Batterman, the management lawyer, who was tied up in the negotiations over the National Hockey League strike, telephoned Daniel Engelstein, the union’s counsel, and laid out a new offer: the same package of 2 percent bonuses in each year of the two-year contract, plus an agreement to let an arbitrator solve the disagreement over health care payments.

At the same time, Mr. Silver and his aides were trying to set up the meeting in their offices. Both sides arrived at about 6:30, locked themselves in a conference room and began talking.

Union officials acknowledged yesterday that the Mayor had warned them last week he would move to replace the Legal Aid Society if its members struck. But they dismissed the warning as a bluff intended to intimidate them. “We knew this threat was out there before we did this,” Mr. Letwin said. Nonetheless we stood up for what we believed in, and we got a better contract.”

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