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When MFY Legal Services split off in January from its parent organization, Legal Services of New York (LSNY), workers were told their jobs and benefits would be secure. Now, they say, that promise has been broken. Its 13 attorneys and six staff went on strike starting October 29.

On the surface, the strike is about wages and health care. But MFY executive director Lynn Kelly said workers are still fuming over MFY’s decision to leave LSNY. Ironically, the move was supposed to give them more freedom.

Because LSNY receives federal funding, it is prohibited from serving the working poor or undocumented immigrants, or from filing class-action lawsuits. MFY, which focused on mental health, housing and government benefits advocacy under LSNY, broke loose in order to free its lawyers from that constraint. Although it continues to work in the same vein, it is now doing so with less money: about half of its former $5 million budget, Kelly said.

Most of MFY’s staff disagreed with the decision to split, said Ghita Schwarz, president of Legal Services Staff Association, UAW Local 2320, which represents 250 legal services workers citywide, including 19 at MFY. At the time, she said, workers worried that their clients might be confused by the changes, and that the firm could not afford to operate on its own. Management’s proposed contract confirmed those fears, she said. The contract would increase health care and prescription drug costs, cut off insurance for some spouses and partners, and disregard seniority during layoffs.

Una Perkins, a senior paralegal with MFY’s mental health law project, said that during her three decades at MFY, she’s been everything from a “counselor and a social worker” to “a surrogate mother” to her clients. While she’s eager to get back to them, she says, she isn’t willing to settle for an unfair contract.

On Wednesday afternoon, prospective clients who called MFY were told that, with the staff on strike, they would have to go elsewhere for help. Kelly, who has taken on some of her staff’s work, seemed exasperated. “Union leadership is angry that we left the federal program,” she said. “They don’t give a hoot that we can provide a broader range of services because of that.”

MFY is not the only public-interest law group whose workers were striking last week. All eight staffers from Goddard Riverside’s West Side SRO Law Project, who are also members of the UAW Local 2320, held a one-day strike Thursday, demanding better health care. The Law Project represents tenants of single-room occupancy buildings and helps preserve them as affordable housing.

“Our members dedicate their lives to ensuring that low-income tenants keep their homes,” said Ellen Wallace, president of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers. “They, too, deserve justice, and we’re prepared to fight for their right to decent health care and benefits.”

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