At a rally last week, legal workers for the poor threatened to go on strike this Wednesday unless they receive higher wages, better benefits and a guarantee that their union will continue to be recognized in the future. If the strike goes forward, it would be the third Legal Services strike in 10 years.
The roughly 100 protesters assembled near City Hall last Thursday are members of the Legal Services Staff Association (LSSA), the union that represents 275 secretaries, paralegals, process servers, maintenance workers, social workers and attorneys from 12 Legal Services offices in New York City. The nonprofit group provides free legal advice for poor New Yorkers in dealing with problems like illegal evictions, domestic violence, foreclosures, and welfare and education benefits.
LSSA has been negotiating for a new contract since the last one expired in June, but management and staff have not yet found a workable compromise. “We're very close to a strike,” said Nicole Salk, president of the staff's bargaining unit.
One of the most important sticking points has to do with a planned restructuring of Legal Services offices. The union wants a guarantee that under the new structure, both the union and its contract will be recognized, but management will not agree.
Other issues on the negotiating table are wage increases, benefits, pension and retirement fund. The latest wage increase offered by management was a two percent increase in each of the next three years, while the original union demand was a 20 percent raise over the next two years, Salk said. Legal Services salaries are, in general, much lower than most lawyers' wages: A first year attorney earns $34,000, and the lowest paid union member makes $22,000.
If a strike occurs, management will have to take over the staff attorneys' caseloads. Ongoing cases will be postponed, and no new cases can be taken, said Salk. “There's no doubt that the clients are definitely affected by a strike,” she added.
Rachel Rabinowitz, an attorney who represents Single Room Occupancy tenants, brought to the rally a home-made sign that read “2 percent won't pay my rent.” Her clients, said Rabinowitz, would be “extremely vulnerable if we strike. They'll be evicted both by legal and unlawful means.”