New York legal services workers launch indefinite strike
New York, NY – Picket lines graced the sidewalks in front of Brooklyn and Staten Island courthouses this week, as the legal aid attorneys and staff of CAMBA Legal Services (CLS) launched an indefinite strike. The workers at CLS won their union in May of 2018, as part of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys – UAW 2325 (ALAA), and have been in contract negotiations with management ever since.
CLS is a wing of the larger CAMBA organization, which has multi-million dollar annual contracts with the city and the state to carry out real estate development and social services. The free legal services component of CAMBA’s operations includes defending poor and working class communities against evictions, unsafe housing conditions, foreclosure and deportation, among other things. Yet while the CAMBA organization as a whole has over $130 million, and the top executives take home more than $400,000 per year, these same executives have refused to invest adequate money in supporting the free legal services program.
This deliberate underfunding of CLS includes inadequate parental leave policies, stagnant pay rates, and salary caps for non-attorney staff regardless of experience of expertise. These conditions have pushed some CLS employees into dire straits economically, making it extremely difficult for them to do their jobs effectively. According to CLS worker Dafina Oruqi, for example, “CAMBA’s parental leave policy makes it clear that they do not care about their workers. When I had my first child, I had a post-partum hemorrhage and lost 1.5 liters of blood… the doctors thought that I was going to die. As a full-time employee at CAMBA, I had no choice but to apply for Food Stamps to support my family. In addition, it was a struggle to pay my rent.”
In May of last summer, the workers at CLS voted unanimously to form a union, and have been fighting for a just contract ever since. Throughout the contract negotiations, the workers have demanded fully-paid parental leave, including for fathers and non-biological parents, along with yearly pay scale increases for non-attorney support staff. These demands are essential to providing CLS clients with the kind of dignified, quality representation that they deserve.
After seeing their management’s unwillingness to negotiate on these basic issues of human dignity, the workers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike on March 15. On March 27, the workers showed their commitment by carrying out a successful one-day strike, hoping management would be more willing to negotiate. The final straw came on April 8, however, when management refused to budge on these issues for the last time and the workers voted 97% in favor of an indefinite strike.
According to union organizer Alexi Shalom, “This strike is significant not only for the workers of CLS, but for the entire CAMBA organization, since CLS only represents 40 out of the 2000 people who work for CAMBA, and the management is afraid the unionization movement will spread to other parts of CAMBA’s operations.” Shalom added, “This local’s first strike was for the right of poor and working-class clients to have criminal defense attorneys represent them with dignity and competency. This strike is the same but for people in eviction, deportation and foreclosure proceedings.” The CLS strike is the first ALAA strike in 25 years.