In a Blow Against Austerity, Legal Services Strikers Win Contract

Erik Forman

New York City councilmembers Margaret Chin, Daniel Dromm, Elizabeth Crowley, Ruben Wills, Donovan Richards, Jimmy Van Bramer, and Robert Jackson speak in support of striking workers. (Sonja Shield)

After 40 days on the picket line, 270 lawyers, paralegals, process servers and staffers at Legal Services NYC are going back to work.

They made a collective decision to hit the bricks on May 15 after management demanded significant contract concessions: a pay cut equivalent to two years of seniority, an increase in healthcare costs that could total thousands of dollars a year, a 29 percent reduction in employer contributions to retirement funds, and a freeze on cost-of-living pay increases.

In a vote of 135 to 27 with two abstentions, the union members ratified a contract on June 24 that beats back management’s most vicious attacks.

This is a huge victory,” says Ian Davie, a member of Legal Services Staff Association who was on strike. With escalating pressure on Legal Services NYC’s corporate board through daily pickets and deep backing in the community, the workers have won a contract that preserves current pay scales and retirement benefits, maintains the basic integrity of workers’ healthcare, and extends anti-discrimination provisions to cover gender expression.

With management initially demanding massive givebacks, victory in this case meant maintaining the status quo. This has often been the case in the last 40 years of labor movement history, as employers have waged what former UAW President Doug Fraser once called a one-sided class war…a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society.” He was referring to what has come to be called neoliberalism, the ruling class determination to erode all of the gains of the New Deal era.

Neoliberalism has taken form most recently in government austerity measures such as the sequestration” deal passed by Congress and the Obama administration, which will cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget. Funding cuts due to sequestration were a major factor in the concessions that Legal Services’ management sought. The strike victory represents a rare example of workers finding a way to hold the line against austerity.

Building a common front

Legal Services workers are accustomed to being on the front lines of the fight against neoliberal austerity. They are the last lifeline for those slipping through the cracks of America’s eviscerated social safety net. Last year alone, they helped over 60,000 New Yorkers caught in the jaws of government bureaucracies – tenants threatened with illegal eviction, welfare recipients wrongfully denied their benefits, HIV-positive people struggling to obtain medical care, and others who need a helping hand.

Workers feared cuts to healthcare and retirement benefits would make it impossible for dedicated lawyers and staff to make a career in advocacy, doing irreparable harm to Legal Services’ ability to fight effectively for its low-income clients. So Legal Services workers formed a common front with the people they serve and struck back. 

On June 12, the strikers convened a speak-out where their clients shared stories of how Legal Services workers made a difference in their lives.

Both my son and I probably would not be in this country if it were not for the amazing work of [immigration lawyer] Lynn Ventura,” said Manhattan Legal Services client Nancy Alfonzo.

My landlord has harassed me and sued me to try to get me out of my [rent-controlled] apartment so he could raise the rent,” said Philip Crawford, a client of LSNYC’s Brooklyn program said He did not think I could afford an attorney to defend myself. Thankfully, I was blessed to have Rachel Hannaford’s help. She represented me, allowed me to protect my rights, and helped me stand up to a landlord who continued to abuse the law.”

Nelson Mar fought to have my sons transferred to a school that addressed their disabilities and allowed them to reach their potential,” said Darlene Diaz, a client of LSNYC’s Bronx office. And I’m pleased to say that as a result my sons did much better in school.”

The lives of Legal Services Board members are a stark contrast to those of the organization’s clients. Board members hail from New York’s largest corporate law firms. The board Chair, Joe Genova, pulls down around $2.5 million a year as a partner at Milbank Tweed. His firm regularly represents Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Barclays, Citibank and JPMorgan Chase – the very banks that Legal Services NYC attorneys square off against to protect the poor from foreclosure. Legal Services workers saw in management’s cuts an attempt to impose the revolving door model favored at Manhattan’s corporate firms, where high-paid attorneys lord over a transient workforce of lower-paid lawyers more interested in advancing their careers than fighting for a cause. 

Management retained counsel from the notoriously anti-union law firm Seyfarth Shaw, known for the role one of its founding partners played in drafting the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, as well as for busting unions at Yale University and across the public and private sector. They didn’t pull any punches. During the strike, management unilaterally cut off healthcare benefits for the striking workers without notice.

Johanna Arias, a paralegal in the organization’s Long Island City, Queens office, says her husband was denied chemotherapy treatment for cancer as a result. It’s not fair for me or any of the union members to be affected this way,” she says.

Fortunately, the union was able to pick up the tab for his treatment.

In the end, years of good karma came back to benefit Legal Services workers. They collected over 7,000 signatures from clients and community members on a petition urging management to negotiate a fair contract. The groundswell of public support pushed New York’s City Council to action. Forty-two of 51 councillors and most of New York’s Congressional delegation signed a letter in support of the strikers. Rumors began to circulate that the City Council was considering pulling Legal Services’ funding if management did not settle the strike.

Facing unrelenting pressure from a united community, the board backed off its demands for deep cuts.

Reviving the strike?

The victory at Legal Services could serve as an example for millions of public sector workers who face cutbacks from sequestration. Across the U.S., funding reductions due to the sequester will literally mean death for Medicare patients who will be denied cancer drugs. It will stunt the lives of 1.2 million students who will lose access to Head Start and other programs, lay off inspectors responsible for ensuring mine safety, end important scientific and medical research, deny justice to the poor by furloughing public defenders and shrinking Legal Services staffing, and destroy at least 750,000 jobs this year. Some see in sequestration and its consequences the rise of Third World-style inequality in the United States.

As the pain of funding reductions due to sequestration and other forms of austerity percolates into communities all across the US, it will create the opportunity for thousands of struggles like the Legal Services strike in New York City. Of course, there are major barriers to realizing this potential. Corporate media has lent legitimacy to the manufactured government fiscal crisis, effectively shifting blame from the tax-evading 1% to public sector workers and the poor. And as Joe Burns has pointed out in Reviving the Strike, if unions reject the logic of austerity and concessions, they are by and large entangled in no-strike clauses or other legal strictures that limit the right to strike. In addition, staggered contract cycles and the division of workers into a patchwork of different bargaining units divides labor’s forces.

Despite these barriers, the victory at Legal Services shows that when unions build a common front with the broader working class, workers can win. It’s a strategy that has been used effectively by our Canadian neighbors. Quebec’s labor movement staged Common Front” strikes shutting down the province several times over the past 40 years. As a result, the working class enjoys $7/​day daycare for all children, the lowest university tuition and rent in the US and Canada, universal healthcare, and other public goods. If one strike can save Legal Services NYC, imagine the impact of thousands.

Erik Forman has been active in the labor movement for over a decade as a rank-and-file organizer, at the forefront of campaigns to unionize the U.S. fast food industry. He currently works as a labor educator in New York City and is pursuing a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Follow him at twit​ter​.com/​_​e​r​i​k​f​orman.
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