2007.05.16: The Real Issues in This Election (Legal Aid)

The Real Issues in This Election
By Michael Letwin
Wednesday – May 16, 2007


The main difference in this election is not, as Elon Harpaz asserts, whether the “Union . . . must do everything possible to ensure that the [Legal Aid] pie . . . is as large as possible” — we have done that for many years. The difference is whether to stop there (the current leadership’s approach), or to be equally aggressive in dividing up that pie (Azalia’s position).

Lobbying — and Givebacks

From 1990-2002, Azalia was part of a leadership that — particularly after 1994 — put tremendous time and resources into lobbying with 1199 and management for Legal Aid funds.

With that in mind, we affiliated with the UAW in 1995 and with the Working Families Party in 1998. It’s a cumulative result of that work that the Union has, since well before 1994, successfully defended and/or won millions of dollars in LAS funding.

But we also recognized the need to ensure that staff attorneys and support staff would get their fair share of the Legal Aid pie, when necessary, by organizing joint ALAA/1199 membership action to give our unions the necessary muscle to extract the best possible contract from management.

The current leadership has a very different record. Believing, in Elon’s words, that “we have to keep any disputes between us and management out of the public eye,” it has indeed “lost its way . . . forgotten its fighting spirit and . . . abandoned its roots.”

Not because it has lobbied for Legal Aid funding, the need for which everyone agrees. But because it has actively discouraged members from fighting to defend and increase our compensation — or from even having the full facts with which to intelligently debate whether and how to do so.

That’s why, despite successful lobbying for Legal Aid funds both prior to and during the Rogers years, his administration (which effectively began in January 2003) yielded the worst contracts in our Union’s history.

Thus, during 2002-2006, joint ALAA/1199/LAS lobbing won $37.01 million in new and/or restored governmental funding.[1] Yet, at the very same time, on this leadership’s recommendation, and without a fight:

●In October 2003, we ratified a contract that fell short of the 3% salary increase to which management had previously agreed.

●In June 2004, we surrendered employer-paid TransitCheks and “deferred” a 1.5% bonus for two years.

●In December 2004, we accepted: (1) Substantial increases in attorney health premium contributions; (2) A one-year reduction of employer pension contributions by more than half; and (3) Complete surrender of the “deferred” bonus (above).

●In November 2006, we accepted a contract which didn’t include meaningful increases above step five, which sharply limited or denied the use of comp time, and — for the first time in our union’s history — didn’t include retro pay. (Junior attorneys did receive greater increases, and deserve still more; but so do attorneys at all levels.)

Yes, there was a serious fiscal crisis at Legal Aid during this period. But the Society still had — largely due to our unions’ efforts — a $180 million annual budget, much of which it decided to spend on new hires and other expenditures.

In other words, we had givebacks not because “there was no money,” as management and Union leadership claimed, but because the leadership refused to mobilize members to fight for that money to be spent differently.

In February 2005, Jim Rogers even promised — without the membership’s knowledge or consent — that “strikes won’t happen on my watch.” That is like trying to negotiate a plea bargain, while assuring the prosecutor that your client has no intention of going to trial.

Under these circumstances, givebacks are irresistible.

Fighting Back

Of course there are risks in fighting back; there always *have* been, for contrary to Elon’s claim, government never was “a passive bystander” to labor strife at Legal Aid.

In the 1973 strike, Appellate Division justices denounced the strikers for “abandoning the responsibility to the indigent which [ALAA] members assumed upon their employment,” and threatened that, if the strike did not end, “we will be compelled to take such action as is warranted by the circumstances.” In 1974, they threatened strikers with disciplinary charges, recommendations of dismissal and replacement by 18-B attorneys.

During the ten-week 1982 strike, Mayor Ed Koch nearly replaced Legal Aid with a governmental public defender office. And in 1994, Giuliani canceled the Legal Aid contract, purported to “fire” strikers, set up the scab RFPs and slashed our budget.

But strikes must be evaluated not only by their risks, but by their overall impact. For example, despite Giuliani’s ruthless retaliation, the 1994 strike[2] won us the best two contracts (1998-2000 and 2000-2002) in our Union’s history.[3]

The lesson is not that we must strike, but that we need to fight back, partly with the kind of “inside strategy” (escalating union action) that we used in the years leading up to 1994.[4] The only alternative is to stop being a real union.

As former Executive Board members Bob Zuss and Susan Morris wrote in their December 14, 2004 message against givebacks:

“We have a choice. Let’s not surrender without a fight. Let’s reaffirm our union’s democratic, fighting traditions by voting no and organizing resistance: a rapidly-escalating public campaign, including a press conference and pickets at Board members’ offices. Such resistance offers no guarantees. But isn’t resistance the reason we have a union in the first place?”

Azalia stands in this tradition, and it’s that which makes her candidacy so important.


[1] This included $8.6 million for FY03 (starting July 1, 2002), $11 million for FY04, $8.11 million for FY06, and $9.3 million for FY07.

[2] It is simply dishonest to blame the 1994 strike and its outcome on union members or leaders. The strike began when the Giuliani administration attempted to cut our compensation. The same administration illegally retaliated for the strike by setting up scab/RFPs and slashing the LAS budget.

Moreover, the strike reflected full membership mobilization, disclosure and democratic participation throughout. It was unanimously recommended both by the Union Bargaining Committee (which included George Albro, Richard Armstrong, Tom Bomba, Dennis Boyd, Barbara Byrne, Gail Geltman, Nancy Ginsburg, Michael Dinnerstein, Michael Letwin, Bob Massi, Judy Whiting, Michael Williams and Robert Zuss) and by the Delegate Council. The October 3, 1994 membership strike vote was 482-304 on the first ballot, and 681-56 on the second.

In short, we can be proud of the courage ALAA showed in 1994, under the most difficult conditions.

For full facts about 1994, see the attached excerpt [below] from our Union’s history, or go to: <http://www.alaa.org/pages/History.pdf>.

[3] These gains included:

●Salary. Combined rate/step salary raises that included 47% ($17,000) at step 2, and 20% ($14,000) for senior attorneys who benefitted from creation of new steps 14-25. No individual attorney received a combined rate/step salary increase of less than 14% ($10,000).

●Institutional Assignments. $175/shift lobster increase; taxi & meal allowance.

●Tax-free Income. TransitCheks ($720/yr. or taxable cash equivalent) & pre-tax supplement option; biannual bar registration fee ($300); $500/yr. foreign language allowance.

●Paid Time Off. Ten new discretionary bereavement days/career in all divisions; 5 new personal days/yr. and 5 new vacation days/yr. buy-back in non-CDD units.

●Parental Leave. Eight paid weeks for all new parents, including adoptive, step-, and each in 2-LAS households; unpaid parental leave expanded to fathers, step-parents, adoptive parents, domestic partners

●Health & Pension. Retiree health benefits and oral contraceptive coverage; upgraded dental, vision and long-term disability; and earlier LAS pension contributions.

●Part-timers. Annual salary increases, fewer hours required for employer-paid insurance; increased number of slots, more option for paid hours, elimination of job-sharing and child care requirements, and greater right to return to full-time.

●Work Hours. Flex-time & telecommuting.

●Private Practice. Non-conflict private practice option while on unpaid leave.

[4] First developed in the UAW and later embraced by the AFL-CIO, an “inside strategy” refers to a contract campaign in which union members conduct actions short of a full strike. ALAA’s 1990-1994 inside strategy is discussed at <http://www.alaa.org/pages/History.pdf>. See also, e.g., Brenner, ‘Inside Strategy’ Washington Post Byline Strikes, <http://www.troublemakershandbook.org/Text/Inside%20Strategies/Washington%20Post%20Byline%20Strikes.htm>; Brecher, New Tactics for Labor-Part II, <http://www.zmag.org/ZMag/articles/brechersecond.htm>.


ALAA’s 1994 Strike

[The following is excerpted from Letwin, History of The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys UAW Local 2325 (Rev. August 1999), <http://www.alaa.org/pages/History.pdf&gt;.]

The momentum generated by ALAA and 1199 during 1990-1992 carried forward toward the 1994 contract. What the unions could not know, however, was that Rudolph W. Giuliani’s election as Mayor in Fall 1993 foreshadowed the greatest attack on poor people, people of color, unions, and dissenters of any stripe in New York City since 1950s McCarthyism—and that one element of this attack would be to provoke ALAA into an unwanted and unsuccessful strike in which it and 1199 support staff would stand virtually alone.


Between 1992 and 1994, ALAA activism continued to grow, as did its alliance with 1199. On March 8, 1993, 100 Brooklyn CDD attorneys picketed Supreme Court and packed the courtroom of Justice Carolyn Demarest after she had imposed a $50 fine on Staff Attorney Sonya Zoghlin for appearing 15 minutes late. ALAA told the press that “this demonstration is about principle, not about money,” pointing out that “many judges show less respect for Legal Aid lawyers than for private attorneys, partially because of the type of clients they represent [and because] . . . Legal Aid attorneys are very tenacious when it comes to defending their clients, and this sometimes tends to slow court proceedings.”

On March 29, 1993, following the murder of a woman by her parole officer husband, 40 ALAA and 1199 members picketed Brooklyn Family Court to demand that off-duty law enforcement officers be prohibited from bringing guns into the courthouse. On December 3, 1993, ALAA honored picket lines set up by strikers at Legal Services of New York (LSNY).

On May 6, 1994, 130 Brooklyn CDD attorneys held a sickout after colleague Monica Sheehan was disciplined on the unsubstantiated charge that she was “rude, discourteous and inappropriate.”

On July 20, 1994, ALAA members in the Civil Division’s Brooklyn Neighborhood Office picketed over unmanageable housing caseloads and brought a related NLRB complaint. Union delegate Michael Williams told the press that “[w]hen clients have significant violations–like lead paint, or heat or hot-water problems–we simply won’t be able to go back to court two or three times to force the landlord to get repairs done.”

ALAA accompanied this activism by strengthening and expanding its leadership structure. For the first time, each major office or division would elect its own vice-president. Collective leadership would be bolstered by supplementing the Executive Committee with a standing Bargaining/Advisory Committee made up of officers and six issue and caucus representatives. Management’s longtime attempt to block continuity within ALAA’s leadership was countered by making explicit that the membership had the right to elect officers notwithstanding the Society’s limits on the duration of union leave.

Despite—or perhaps because of—this ferment, a strike appeared unlikely in 1994, particularly given the clear determination displayed by ALAA and 1199 in 1992.

In June, moreover, the city had accepted the Society’s proposal to reduce costly and unreliable 18-B assigned counsel representation. This plan, which followed the scathing exposé of 18-B fraud and its poor quality representation that had appeared in the New York Times, gave Legal Aid control of “the basket” of incoming cases in Manhattan arraignments, thereby increasing Legal Aid’s share of indigent criminal representation to the 75 percent rate prevalent in the Bronx and Queens. Taking its lead from Manhattan CDD Staff Attorneys, ALAA supported this plan as a means of strengthening such principles as vertical continuity.

At the same time, Board president Michael Iovekno welcomed ALAA’s suggestions for more productive negotiations, thereby generating uncommonly good will early in 1994 contract bargaining. Substantively, the Society agreed to remove the artificial ten-step limit on senior attorney salary comparability with ADAs. For the first time, bilateral subcommittees quickly reached agreement on ALAA’s proposals for greater affirmative action, health and safety, and quality of representation. In this context, settlement of 1199’s contract was expected to follow soon thereafter.

In mid-September, however, the Giuliani administration began to derail this process by declaring that it would not fund even a modest ALAA settlement.

On September 13, seeking to generate counter-pressure on the Society, hundreds of ALAA and 1199 members held a lunchtime picket at courthouses and offices around the city. That evening, following extensive membership discussion, the ALAA Executive Committee reaffirmed the union’s 1992 “no contract, no work” policy, effective October 1. On September 27, ALAA warned the press that “[t]he likelihood of a strike is very real,” a point punctuated in a September 29 rally of hundreds of union members at Park Row.

Behind the scenes, however, ALAA urgently sought to avert a strike. On September 30, the union dropped its demand for the same 4.5 percent salary increase given supervisors in July, and substituted a two percent bonus in each of two contract years—barely enough to offset the rising cost of health benefits. When the Society notified the administration that Legal Aid would be able to absorb this insignificant cost without additional city funds, the Mayor demanded that the Society reject ALAA’s proposed compromise as inconsistent with its no-increase policy for upcoming municipal labor negotiations. He further vowed dire retaliation were the Society to disobey, or the union to strike. Fearful of retribution, the Society rejected ALAA’s proposal.

Weekend Strike and Giuliani’s Threats

Since October 1 fell on a Saturday, ALAA sought to use the weekend as a final opportunity to convince management that settlement, even against Giuliani’s wishes, was far better than the alternative. At midnight Friday, September 30, 150 ALAA and 1199 members chanting “strike” marched into Manhattan Criminal Court arraignments and escorted their working colleagues out to a candlelight vigil that continued late into the night.

On Saturday and Sunday, union members from across the city joined the Manhattan picket line. Like earlier generations of Legal Aid lawyers, the mood was grave but defiant. ALAA told the press: If you cannot attract and retain experienced attorneys to represent indigent clients, then the experienced lawyers will be working only for those who can pay—and that’s not the kind of equal justice we believe in. Poor people deserve no less than the Menendez brothers or O.J. Simpson when it comes to quality legal representation. Until Legal Aid lawyers are treated fairly, the highest quality legal representation is reserved for the rich.

Susan Roche of Queens CDD said she was on strike to “get the respect for the work I’m doing and the clients I’m representing.” Young Ran Ra of Manhattan CDD said, “We walked out so we would be able to keep attorneys with experience who could provide the best representation to our clients.”

The administration replied by threatening to wipe out both Legal Aid and the union. City Criminal Justice Coordinator Katie Lapp privately warned that Giuliani would cancel the Society’s contracts if ALAA members voted Monday for an all-out strike. She stressed the Mayor’s determination by recounting his prominent part in breaking the 1981 PATCO air traffic controller strike. Giuliani uttered the same threats publicly, vowing that “[w]hat my administration will do . . . if they refuse to go to work . . . is to cancel the [Legal Aid] contract.”

May 3 Strike Vote

It was in these circumstances that ALAA members convened at New York University on the morning of Monday, October 3. While the subsequent strike vote may, in retrospect, appear hard to fathom, the decision facing ALAA members was far from obvious. Indeed, for nearly two hours, the members freely and openly debated the choices.

After repeatedly conveying Giuliani’s threats, the Bargaining Committee expressed the view that “the offer before us is simply unacceptable. . . . [A]lthough we are quite aware of the risks involved—and we must take the Giuliani threats seriously—we simply are at a point now that for us to accept an offer like this is far worse a threat.”

Some members argued that a strike would be catastrophic. Manhattan JRD attorney Tom Curtis said that “the strike is an obsolete weapon and in the case of this strike it would be stupid to be brought back to this floor by the 18-Bs and the other people who would walk in and do the cases without us.”

David Lewis of the Federal Defender Division said, “I do not wish to see [Legal Aid] commit suicide. I believe that is a genuine possibility.” Many of those opposing a strike advocated continuation of the “inside” strategy.

Underscoring the concerns expressed by Lewis, Letwin cautioned that, when voting, members should take into account that “all the things he said might . . . be true.” Most members, however, agreed with the Bargaining Committee that the union could neither accept a net cut in compensation nor buckle under the same threats of replacement made ever since the first ALAA strike in 1970. With lingering memories of extended 1990-1991 contract negotiations, few members supported the middle road of a prolonged guerilla warfare. Thus, Bob Massi, the Brooklyn CDD vice-president, argued that “[i]f you vote to send us back to the table, even with a [delayed] self-executing strike date . . . your Bargaining Committee will have absolutely no leverage at all.”

Moreover, strike proponents argued that management would capitulate before Giuliani could actually carry out his threat. As Bronx CDD attorney Chuck Ippolito predicted, “We take a strike vote, you guys take a walk with me this afternoon, and sometime tonight our employers are going to call our lawyer and they’re going to say what the best offer is.”

Similarly, Manhattan CDD attorney Len Egert argued that “[w]e’re going to have an agreement, if we vote to strike, way before anything like that [cancellation of the Society’s contract] happens. . . . And when we vote to strike, they’re going to come back with that real offer—quick.”

Volunteer Division vice-president Judy Whiting reported that “[w]e’ve made major efforts” to contact leading political figures. As a result, if Giuliani acted before a settlement, said Letwin, “we at least hope that those [municipal] unions . . . will stand by us because they understand that it is a test too.”

For many members, however, repeated insults and attacks by management over the previous four years had simply broken the camel’s back, regardless of a strike’s immediate outcome. Richard Armstrong, Manhattan CDD vice-president, warned that “you will never, ever, get any respect from your managers, and from this Legal Aid Society, if you accept this contract today.”

Manhattan JRD attorney Carol Fegan, a former flight attendant who had gone through the 1989 Eastern Airlines strike and resulting bankruptcy, said that “I can match my mortgages against anybody’s in this room, and I am a middle-aged person who gets more scared as the years go by about my future, [but] . . . I would vote yes for this strike. . . . Because [management] won’t stop. . . . [E]ach contract gets worse.” Even should the worst come to pass, said senior 1199 delegate Akil Al-Jundi, “we would have taken a stand. . . . [S]ometimes, you come to the conclusion that enough is enough is enough. . . . [Y]ou’re not in it only for yourselves. You’re in it for those who led the struggle before you, and for those who will come afterwards.”

Manhattan CDD attorney Maquita Moody told her fellow members that, like an innocent client, “you’re not guilty. . . . because you want a living wage. . . . because you want health care benefits. . . . . [a]nd because you represent the poor.” For Donna Lewis of Queens CDD, “deep down in my gut something tells me there’s no other way to go. And when there is no other way to go, you simply have to go ahead.”

Thus, armed with coverage by the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike fund, members voted 482-304 on the first ballot, and 681-56 on the second, to extend the strike into the regular work week. The immediate mood was spirited, but sober.

Steve Wasserman, of the CDD Special Litigation Unit said, “I’m just very, very proud to be part of this democracy. I have more faith in it than any other democracy I’ve ever been associated with. . . . And I will be with this group till the end.”

Maggie Kay, a senior attorney in Bronx CDD, said, “It’s about time. We’ve taken nothing for too long. I’m tired of it. It is time. God bless the union.”

Quickly adjourning after the strike vote, 800 Staff Attorneys—surrounded by TV cameras–marched down the middle of Broadway, past City Hall, to Manhattan Criminal Court, where they joined 1199 support staff already staffing the picket lines.

PATCO Revisited: Giuliani Cancels Legal Aid Contracts

Within minutes, Giuliani boasted to live television news that “[t]he canon of ethics says that you can’t abandon cases, so I don’t know where lawyers come off striking. And here they are abandoning cases for an entire city. I’m not going to let them do that.” He then announced both termination of all the Society’s city contracts—criminal and civil—and his decision to issue requests for proposal (RFPs) for the Society’s criminal work. “Hopefully,” said Giuliani, “this will be the last time lawyers strike against the public interest.”

Joining in the attack was Paul Crotty, a recently-departed Legal Aid Board officer who had remained bitter that the 1992 ALAA contract had been too generous. Now Giuliani’s Corporation Counsel, Crotty publicly demanded that the Board “fire those lawyers for going out on strike.” While he “conceded that the courts would face disruption” if the city proceeded with RFPs, Crotty “insisted upon punishing the Legal Aid Society.”

Blocked by police from entering Giuliani’s evening press conference, Letwin told reporters that the Mayor’s announcement was not only an attack on us and our clients, but it’s an attack on quality services for poor people in New York City. This mayor is destroying the institutions that poor people rely on, whether it’s the hospitals or the schools or, now, legal representation . . . This is strike-breaking at its worst. I think this is going to backfire. We are the first ones to stand up to this bully and we hope New Yorkers will stand up and say, ‘Enough.’ The broader issue is whether we’re going to have equal justice in this country . . . New Yorkers deserve the best quality representation. Someone has to stand up and say the war on the poor is over.

He then put these accusations directly to Giuliani, who had appeared on the City Hall steps.

ALAA members bravely withstood the Giuliani administration’s initial barrage. Brooklyn CDD Staff Attorney Bob Massi replied that “[w]e are the only ones who represent the poor and downtrodden in New York and. . . Giuliani does not consider these people to be a part of his New York. . . . You can’t terminate a contract with an organization because it’s having a labor problem. That’s like saying you don’t have a right to strike.”

Manhattan CDD attorney Susan Light said “[t]his is what we do, stand up for people’s rights, and to expect us not to stand up for our own, that would be ridiculous.” CAB attorney Mitch Briskey said that Giuliani “is not the King of New York City. He does not have the right to order us back to work. All we’re asking for is a fair contract.”

As in the past, some press reports treated the strikers sympathetically, while the city elite lined up with the Mayor. Paul Weiss partner Arthur Liman, a former LAS president and onetime Iran-Contra prosecutor, announced that Giuliani “had a responsibility” to end the walkout.

The Daily News editorialized that “[w]hile [strikers] have every right to bargain and demand higher wages, their ability to shut down something as vital as the courts gives them too much power . . . they must be held to the same no-strike law as other key city employees. . . . They must never again be permitted to hold the city hostage.”

May 4 Blacklist Ultimatum and Contract Settlement

The next day, Tuesday, October 4, ALAA sought to generate counter-momentum by bringing strikers and their allies to a press conference on the City Hall steps. Foreshadowing subsequent Giuliani administration attempts to repress First Amendment expression, hundreds of police physically blocked the media from contact with the strikers, who defiantly chanted “Rudy, Rudy is his name, union-busting is his game.”

Letwin told the press: New Yorkers deserve the best representation possible, and that’s why people come to [work at] Legal Aid. We don’t come here for the money. People who work at Legal Aid can be making $85,000 a year as first year associates on Wall Street. We take pay cuts because we believe in this work. We are the conscience of this city in terms of standing up for the rights of all New Yorkers, and that’s really the issue at stake here.

He also emphasized that, contrary to Giuliani’s claims, existing Legal Aid funds were quite sufficient to meet ALAA’s modest demands: “The Society, using its existing budget, can match the increase it gave to its own supervisors, 4.5 percent just as recently as July, without going to the city for additional funding.”

Speaking for CWA Local 1180, a union representing municipal employees, Ed Ott stated that “[w]e in the labor movement have to decide whether or not there is a bottom line we won’t go past. This is a Mayor who’s asking us to give up our health benefits, no wage increases, our jobs, and all for absolutely nothing in return.”

Manhattan Boro President Ruth Messinger said that “[t]his is not 1981 and this is not Patco. And the Mayor of this city must understand that New Yorkers will not tolerate union-busting.” State Senator Catherine Abate, City Council members Sal Albanese and Ken Fisher and others also showed up to defend the union.

Notably absent, however, were the major city unions that Giuliani’s attack on ALAA was designed to intimidate. Publicly, DC 37 Executive Director Stanley Hill advised “[b]oth sides [to] go back to the bargaining table.” Privately, DC 37 and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT)—the two largest municipal unions—conveyed to Giuliani their “neutrality,” presumably hoping to earn his favor in upcoming negotiations on his demands for $200 million savings in their members’ healthcare benefits.

Sonny Hall, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 (subway and bus workers), said “The Legal Aid lawyers’ strike was indeed a careless act, although they had an excellent case for their demands . . . Our concern is not why the mayor said no, but how he said it.” As the New York Times explained, the municipal union leaders were unwilling to antagonize the administration:

Whether the Legal Aid workers realized it, they had walked off their jobs at a critical point in the city’s relationship with its work force. Mr. Giuliani, having just completed a round of budget cuts and staff reductions, has now gone back to the workers, seeking more job cuts and asking them to start contributing toward their health-care benefits. . . . Until now, the municipal unions have worked unexpectedly well with the Republican Mayor, recognizing both the city’s fiscal difficulties and their own shortage of political support among the general public. But hard times and pent-up wage demands can be a volatile mix for labor leaders to handle unless they convince their members that the pain is shared and no one has a choice. The Giuliani administration seemed to fear that by striking, the lawyers threatened the spirit of collective sacrifice.

Or, as CUNY professor Stanley Aronowitz pointed out, “[l]abor’s strategy has become Giuliani’s strategy. The big fry make their deals.” Also notably silent were City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Governor Mario Cuomo—both Democrats.(13)

The strikers received support in some corners of the organized bar. NYCLU director Norman Siegel appeared at ALAA’s October 4 press conference.

The National Lawyers Guild/NYC Chapter offered its “support for your decision to strike over wages,” denounced “Giuliani’s decision to cancel the [LAS] contract” as being “designed to disenfranchise the city’s legal indigent defendant population and also cripple some of the most progressive elements in the New York City Bar,” and offered to cosponsor a press conference with the National Conference of Black Lawyers to back the ALAA.

Leonard J. Levenson, an 18-B attorney and elected officer of the New York Criminal Bar Association, offered his support by “applaud[ing ALAA’s] strike action,” and by vowing that “I will not serve as a strike breaker and will not accept any increased case load occasioned by your strike.”

Many private lawyers, however, regarded the 1994 strike as an opportunity for enrichment, rather than solidarity. “I’ve got to make a living,” offered Brooklyn attorney William Blasi, who made a point of arriving in court to pick up struck cases. Manhattan private attorney Mitchell Salloway celebrated: “More cases. More money. More food on the table.”

Rather than rally attorneys to the strike, Joyce David, Kings County Criminal Bar Association president and a former ALAA member, rationalized that “[i]t’s a shame, but times are tough and people have to make a living.”

Late that afternoon, emboldened by this alignment of forces, Giuliani issued the public ultimatum that any striking attorney who did not return to work by the following morning would be permanently blacklisted from all future city-funded representation:

If you want to show us that you’ll live up to your ethical obligations of not walking out on your clients, you have until tomorrow to do that. If you don’t then you’re not part of a responsible workforce that we could rely on in the future . . . There are many lawyers in the city looking for work.

Privately, he demanded that the Society’s Board avoid settlement in order to have the chance to make good on this threat.

While most ALAA members continued to respond courageously, ALAA’s leadership realized the union could not put its very existence at the mercy of Giuliani’s escalating—albeit illegal—threats. On Tuesday evening, after learning that the Board leadership was similarly concerned for the Society’s future, ALAA met Society at the offices of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, where they negotiated a slightly better package than that rejected by union members a day earlier.

Pursuant to this tentative agreement, the ALAA Bargaining Committee directed members to report to work the next morning, hoping thereby to deprive Giuliani of an excuse to blacklist ALAA strikers. On the evening of October 5, ALAA members convened at 1199’s auditorium and ratified the agreement by a vote of 544-150-3, after which Letwin told the press that “[t]he mayor used the strike for his own political purposes. . . . Nonetheless we stood up for what we believed in, and we got a better contract.”

Many members, however, reacted bitterly at being forced to capitulate. Queens CDD Staff Attorney Young Ran Ra said that “When I took this job I knew I wouldn’t be paid well, but there may come a time when I can’t work here. A lot of people are contemplating leaving because of what has happened.” Bronx CDD attorney Luis Roman said, “[i]f I’m back here tomorrow, the sign on my door will read ‘Dump Rudy Headquarters.’” Mary Beth Mullaney, a new Manhattan CDD attorney, voiced the mixture of pride and sadness felt by many ALAA members:

Seven months ago I left my family and friends in Irmo, S.C. . . . to work as a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society in New York. It is the job I had most wanted. On Oct. 1, I went on strike with about 800 of my colleagues. . . . I was asking Legal Aid Society management to redistribute funds already within the society. I struck because management gave itself a 4.5% salary increase, while giving staff lawyers nothing and cutting our health benefits. . . . There was nothing unethical about the strike. The lawyers work for a private firm that continued to represent clients during the strike. I also question the Mayor’s moral authority to accuse us of abandoning our clients. . . . I am ridiculed by my family and friends for the work I do. But I am proud of it because I am fighting to uphold individual rights for everyone, not just those who can afford it.

But Giuliani, now robbed of an excuse for mass firings, asserted that ALAA’s settlement meant nothing without his approval, that “[t]hey [Legal Aid attorneys] have a hope, not a reality of keeping their jobs,” and that any “new [contract] between the Society and the city . . . [must] prohibit strikes in the future.” Asked about the likelihood of issuing RFPs for the Society’s work despite the strike’s brief duration, Giuliani replied, “[i]t’s very likely.”

Public Analysis

Giuliani’s “victory” over the strikers was the subject of widespread comment. The New York Times praised the Mayor for his “firm foundation in fiscal reality . . . . The [strike] was a foolish challenge.” Ed Koch, who had supported the 1974 strike, before unsuccessfully trying to break the 1982 strike, now celebrated Giuliani’s “courage in taking on the striking Legal Aid attorneys.”

Lawrence Kudlow, economics editor of the far-right National Review and a chief budget economist during the Reagan administration, gleefully predicted that “Giuliani’s action on the Legal Aid lawyers was a very significant development; to some extent it’s a New York City version of Reagan’s PATCO confrontation . . . I’m sure it has sent a lot of public union officials scurrying.”

Writer and former public defender James S. Kunen came to ALAA’s defense in the Times: “The strike was fated to fail because these advocates for the indigent were demanding the one form of compensation their fellow citizens are unwilling to give them: respect.” Labor analyst Robert Fitch concluded that,

what’s surprising is not that Giuliani broke the [ALAA] strike by threatening to fire everybody and is now picking his teeth today with the attorneys’ bones. It’s that the rest of the city’s municipal labor movement—once regarded as the most militant and powerful in America—mostly looked on while the mayor gnawed away on the carcasses of their fellow trade unionists.

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