30th Anniversary of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys
National Lawyers Guild-NYC Annual Dinner
Michael Letwin, March 26, 1999
I thank the previous speakers for their kind and inspiring words.
At this time, I ask all ALAA members to rise and be recognized.
And that they now be joined by all past ALAA members.
On behalf of all of us — and the thousands of past and future members of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW Local 2325 — we thank the National Lawyers Guild– especially the indefatigable dinner committee — for this honor on our 30th anniversary of recognition.
In expressing our thanks, I know that I also speak for our sister and brother Legal Aid support staff, members of 1199, with whom we have an unshakeable alliance (will Legal Aid Society support staff please stand up).
I ask our members to rise because, in the best union tradition, ALAA has always been fought for, directed and defended by its members. It is fitting, therefore, that, the Guild tonight honors not an individual, but the union of Legal Aid attorneys.
Our union’s fight for equal justice, for racial justice, and for social justice explains the close alliance between ALAA, the Guild, and National Conference of Black Lawyers, and the fact, that many ALAA members were, and remain, Guild members.
That was true when Jerry Lefcourt and his colleagues started the union in 1968.
And it was still true earlier this week when 37 members of Legal Aid staff were arrested at police headquarters side-by-side with another 43 Guild members.
Our members’ commitment to these principles also explains the roster of our enemies.
As you can see from the union history contained in your dinner program booklets over the course of thirty years, previous Legal Aid Society managements, the Koch and Giuliani administrations, the presiding justices of the appellate divisions, the press and the mainstream bar, have attacked us with the accusation that the union’s demands — and even its very existence — conflicts with the needs of our clients.
But like workers in hospitals, legal services and municipal government, ALAA and 1199 members over the years have answered power with this basic truth: our members’ needs and our clients’ needs are one and the same.
For ALAA, therefore:
–The 1970, 1973 and 1974 strikes to win continuity of representation, training and better salaries were about clients;
–The long, hard ten-week 1982 strike for lower workload and higher compensation was about clients;
–Our twenty-year long fight for greater racial diversity among our staff, so that we can more accurately reflect the communities we represent, is about clients;
–Our participation in protests against racist murders in Howard Beach, Bensonhurst, and Staten Island during the 1980s was about clients.
–Our refusal to surrender continuity for raises in 1991 was about clients;
–The 1994 strike against a net cut in compensation, and in defiance of Giuliani’s union busting, was about clients;
–Our unyielding insistence on the abolition of Giuliani’s runaway defenders is about clients;
–Our opposition to the Rockefeller drug laws, to the criminalization of a whole generation of young people of color, and to the death penalty, is about clients;
–Our alliance with workers elsewhere who are demanding decent contracts, and democratic unions is about clients;
–Our current contract negotiations are about clients;
–And our role in the fight for justice for Adamou Diallo, and for an end to Giuliani and his war on poor and working people — that, too, is about clients.
It is precisely because we have stood for such principles, that times have always been rough for ALAA and 1199 members at Legal Aid; the past four and a half years have been among the roughest. Sometimes we have felt nearly alone.
But, as the commercial goes, “no tyranny can last forever.”
And today, as we bear witness to the birth of a new civil rights movement for justice in New York City, there is starting to be some light at the end of the tunnel — not just for our unions and for the Legal Aid Society, but for the 300,000 clients we represent each year, and the communities from which they come.
We so are proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in that battle with all of you.