Major Public Defense Nonprofit in New York Is Unionizing

Hamilton Nolan

An exterior view of the Bronx Civil Supreme Court on May 1, 2012 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by D Dipasupil/WireImage)

One of the nation’s most respect­ed pub­lic defend­er non­prof­its is union­iz­ing, the lat­est in a surge of union dri­ves at promi­nent non­prof­its across the country.

The Bronx Defend­ers, a large non­prof­it that defends low-income peo­ple in the Bronx, New York, told man­age­ment today that they intend to union­ize with the Asso­ci­a­tion of Legal Aid Attor­neys, an affil­i­ate of the UAW. The pro­posed union will have about 270 mem­bers, cov­er­ing vir­tu­al­ly the entire non-man­age­ment staff. Of those, about 100 are not attor­neys, includ­ing every­one from social work­ers to para­le­gals to facil­i­ties workers.

Employ­ees at the Bronx Defend­ers cit­ed issues like pay, health care ben­e­fits, and equal­i­ty of pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment and pro­mo­tions as moti­vat­ing fac­tors for the union dri­ve. But one fac­tor stood out more than any oth­er: the poten­tial for burnout among pub­lic defend­ers and those who work along­side them.

I’ve seen peo­ple who were hired with me who left already because of burnout,” says Imani Waweru, a staff attor­ney in the crim­i­nal defense prac­tice who has been at the orga­ni­za­tion for less than two years. What we do every day is advo­cate. Why not have a place we can advo­cate for ourselves?”

Naima Dreck­er-Wax­man, an asso­ciate in the immi­gra­tion prac­tice, agrees that burnout is a real threat — and believes that improve­ments in work­ing con­di­tions for the Bronx Defend­ers staff will trans­late to bet­ter out­comes for the clients. We need to ensure our work­force is treat­ed with respect in order to serve our clients,” she says.

Dis­cus­sions about union­iz­ing began qui­et­ly a year ago, and the effort to col­lect union cards inten­si­fied in the past cou­ple of months. (Union dri­ves at non­prof­its usu­al­ly win vol­un­tary recog­ni­tion from man­age­ment, thanks to the inher­ent pres­sure for the orga­ni­za­tion to live up to the ideals it espous­es. Employ­ees at the Bronx Defend­ers expect the same.) The cul­mi­na­tion of the union cam­paign comes against the back­drop of the coro­n­avirus cri­sis, which has hit both the Bronx and the incar­cer­at­ed pop­u­la­tion of New York City with sav­age force. The employ­ees of the Bronx Defend­ers see their union dri­ve as part of a larg­er strug­gle to improve a jus­tice sys­tem that often seems unable to keep up with the demands of the cri­sis. We’re all shar­ing this bur­den of a court sys­tem that’s not respon­sive to our needs,” says Drecker-Waxman.

Alexi Shalom, the union orga­niz­er at the ALAA, says his union has already won pro­tec­tive equip­ment and haz­ard pay in oth­er places. “”We’re see­ing the tan­gi­ble ben­e­fits of an orga­nized work­force,” he says. Our mem­bers are of no use to clients if they’re sick.”

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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