Organized to stand strong

After 40 lively days on strike, the Legal Services Staff Association (LSSA)/UAW Local 2320 claimed a victory after members ratified a contract that beat back management's worst demands for concessions, preserving benefits and adding job security assurances.

LSSA represents over 200 clerical workers, paralegals, process servers, social workers and staff attorneys at Legal Services NYC (LSNYC). Collectively, these workers provide civil legal services to low-income New Yorkers, from foreclosure and eviction prevention, to educational rights, immigration and domestic violence issues.

During the strike, LSSA members kept up a militant campaign that included not just picketing at offices, but press conferences featuring clients they've helped, marches on the workplaces and homes of LSNYC's wealthy board members, testimony at board meetings, picnics and other social gatherings, the use of social media and more. Through the struggle, LSSA kept its members active and involved, and won support from a range of unions and politicians.

On June 21--with the settlement still up in the air--Fernando Lebron, Nelson Mar, Soo Kyung Vitale and Ian Davie talked to Sarah Flores about how the strike was organized and the stakes in the ongoing struggle to defend quality free legal services in New York City.

Legal Services NYC staff walk the picket lineLegal Services NYC staff walk the picket line

MANAGEMENT'S DEMANDS have included lots of economic attacks on your standard of living that would make survival hard for aging workers, workers with families, etc. What do you think their long-term goal is for the workforce? What impact will this have on the constituents you serve?

Ian: What we were really worried about is our members being able to stay here with the organization, long term, and being able to retain experienced advocates.

Soo Kyung: I think that basically their idea is that poor people don't deserve experienced lawyers and case handlers because people say that under capitalism, "you get what you pay for," and free lawyers are not supposed to be that great.

But we don't think that way. Basically, a lot of our members have been in Legal Services for a long time and have made a career out of it. If we cannot retain all these experienced attorneys and legal service workers, eventually the people who need our services are going to be the ones who suffer.

Nelson: I think what's become clear over the last five weeks is that the board definitely just sees us as a commodity--that if they can replace us for someone cheaper. And they do see that younger attorneys are out there and can at times have the same energy and enthusiasm and fervor. But at the same time, they don't recognize that if they don't have benefits encouraging people to stay at the organization, then by their third or fourth year, they will start thinking, "Well, I need to go look somewhere else."

When I reflect back on my experience, I was still learning how to be an attorney by my third and fourth year, and if I wasn't certain that I wanted to make a career here at Legal Services, I would have been spending at least half my time looking for another job. And I definitely would not have honed the skills that I eventually did develop during that period, or have developed in the practice I've had over these last eight years since then.

Fernando: I've always taken the position that the objective here was to "test mettle"--our "mettle." The majority of the union here has never been on a strike, and there's that issue of fear, and it's a legitimate issue. I've always believed that this is about testing our mettle, because if we would have failed this time, then it would've been a downward slope.

Nelson: I think in some ways a lot of us were concerned that management was using the specter of austerity and the sequester--the anticipated cuts coming down the road--as a way to extract all of these "givebacks" from the membership.

When the budget numbers started rolling in--trickling in, really--it didn't really add up that all these givebacks were really necessary in order to maintain Legal Services on a sound financial footing. I think that was part of the impetus for a lot of people not to accept what management was offering as their final offer before we went out on strike.

DO YOU see the concessions that management is demanding as connected to what's happening to unions in the public sector and social services in general?

Nelson: I think that, without a doubt, management has probably felt somewhat emboldened by the significant attacks against public-sector workers and their unions--and, again, because at the federal level, they do have these looming cuts. I think this definitely gave them the sense that they could push this onto the union membership, and that the membership would just roll over and accept it. It was a huge miscalculation on their part.

Fernando: When you find out that they're admitting we may not be that far off concerning the $10 million surplus for a not-for-profit agency, there's where the bubble bursts. Because how could you expect us to believe that these cuts are necessary this year going into next?

Soo Kyung: One thing personally for me is that we heard a lot of the basic arguments, "Look at other similar organizations' benefits, or other unions or even non-union workers and their working conditions and, well, you guys are just much better off, so you should just take a lot of these concessions."

I think one of the reasons why our strike is great is because we have decided to fight back against that idea. If we keep accepting those arguments of, "Look at your neighbor, they're much more worse off than you are" we're all going to end up in poverty! Except, of course, for all the CEOs calling for these cuts.

Ian: That's right. That idea is a fallacy that results in a race to the bottom. This was a nearly unanimous strike vote, and I think most people simply didn't accept management's argument and as Soo Kyung said, people wanted to fight back against that prospect.

Nelson: In addition to that, there were less than a dozen people who crossed the picket line, and I think that says a lot about how unified we were and what people are taking away from this strike.

Soo Kyung: It was only six, and that's citywide.

Fernando: And bear in mind that we're an approximate membership of about 220 people, and the deciding vote to strike had less that 50 people that didn't decide to strike--the rest were in support of striking and moving forward with this. That says a lot.

FROM MY experience, having been to different picket lines, yours have been very vibrant and vocal. Could you talk a bit about how you structured yourself in preparation for the strike and what type of internal organizing was done the produced the participation rate you had and the cohesion seen on your picket lines?

Ian: Over the past few years, we've had discussions about how we're not pleased with the concessions [from the last contract]. Probably about a year ago, we decided to put together an activism committee. We really started as a grassroots organization. There was no committee leader, there were no person designated for this and that. We would have meetings, and as many as 50 people would show up, and we would say, "What are the areas we need to target?" and "Who were the people we need to target?" We thought about what were the issues that we need to educate people about.

That was one of the critical factors: education. Putting out one-pagers in the members' boxes, and in management boxes too--putting stuff up in all the shops about "The truth about the health care issue" and "The truth about the finances," "Why going on strike is possible." And we'd list things like we have a hardship fund that can help back people up when they'd need it.

It was just trying to hit it from as many angles as possible. The education angle; the fear factor we alluded to earlier about going on strike, especially in these times; and also the solidarity aspect about it--letting everybody know that we're really organized about it and here for each other.

I think that that activism committee was pretty huge in getting us in the mindset that we were to actually go on strike. The other thing that I would say is that behind the scenes, the bargaining team was also working very hard to get us all the information we needed to us, and preparing to set the tone for bargaining for when we would begin to go on strike.

Nelson: I think in some respects that old saying is true: "Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to move two steps forward." In a lot of respects, the last contract negotiation did not go very well. We wound up giving up significant things the membership wasn't happy with but at the time we weren't prepared.

I was actually on the bargaining team then and it became very clear to me the limitations of the collective bargaining process, the whole labor-management system, if it's not supported by the membership and in an organized effort then its not going to end very well for the membership.

So a year and a half ago, that call was put out to get organized--that we needed to prepare and that the battle drums were beating. We could hear it in the tone of the management, and people took it to heart. People began to give up free weekdays and weekends, people began to give up time off in solidarity to build connections with each other. Because we work very hard, it's actually not usual that we have time to socialize with our colleagues.

I've been a part of more than two or three dozen strikes, and I would have to say this has been one of the more cohesive strikes I've been a part of, and I think that says a lot.

Soo Kyung: I think the smaller things have also made a difference too. Last Thanksgiving, we organized a union member's potluck, and we got together in the shop, explicitly without management, and got to discussing all these issues--like the fact that we were working without a contract for almost a year by then. And then we took our pictures and posted them in the shop. It was nice but important.

Then we had a half-day strike in April--a job action where we all left the office and got together in Midtown, where we had our small demonstration, and then marched to our union hall, where our management and bargaining team were meeting that day. We were able to catch some of our management on their way out, and we chanted and told them that this is was what the strike will look like.

Fernando: This is the fifth strike I've participated in with this union. In the 1970s, not the one in '91 or '94. The elements, I would say, were the same. There was a core group willing to make sacrifices to begin the organizing. Then the core group grew and began to form committees that were needed.

The creativity that was used in this strike surprised me. Although there was some old stuff I've seen before, there was also some surprising things--a lot of it had to do with not thinking within the box. We have a food committee, a political action committee, activism committee--at one point, we even realized we needed to have a middle-managers committee, because they were clearly getting the wrong information.

Ian: It was about what will it take to get our membership out. I remember Nelson saying about a year ago, no matter what happens at the bargaining table this is going to have to be won on the streets--and that's true. You have to get the numbers out there, the people, and all the weeks and months of organizing is what got us here.

We all would feel silly at times, chanting and stuff, but I think one of the biggest indicators is that we didn't actually have designated marshals or chant leaders--in the end, people just stepped up because they knew it had to be done, and that played off each other very well.

Nelson: Also in the run up, I think there were also other influences, like Occupy, even if it was tangentially involved. I think people learned from those interactions and learned how to potentially build a movement. Hopefully, we can be an inspiration to others, and they can learn from some of the things we've done well and perhaps not what we didn't do so well, too.

WHAT SOCIAL aspects of your work do you see being connected to the union issues of your local? Why is this fight not simply for better working conditions, but for social justice on a broader scale?

Soo Kyung: This is a fight for our own benefits, but at the same time, this is not just for us. This is for the working people that we provide our services to. A lot of people are facing pay cuts, or they're losing their jobs, everything keeps going up except their paychecks--and for these reasons people are having a hard time making their payments. Difficulties cause them to lose their homes or face evictions, or their government benefits are cut.

There is no right to counsel for civil matters. Unlike criminal cases, in civil cases, if you don't have the money to afford an attorney, sorry, but you are most likely going to lose your home. That is where we step in and defend their rights, save their homes or defend their benefits, etc. So we want to keep doing this type of work and represent more people. But in order to do this work, we also need to be able to pay our bills.

Nelson: I think that in the work we do for our clients, most of us try to impart the need for them to speak up for themselves and to challenge what's going on wrong in their cases and in their lives--and for us not to do the same with our issues in our lives would be very contradictory. We want to practice what we preach.

I know that in the last 14 years up in the South Bronx, it's been very rare to see a picket line, very rare to see anyone out there on strike. My hope is that people were able to see us out there and that maybe our collective efforts helped raise the collective consciousness a little bit.

Ian: One thing that really worries us is that the board we have are multi-millionaires who work at large corporate-style firms. The overarching leadership is completely disconnected from us and our clients. Our chair has a home on the Brooklyn waterfront and a home in the Hamptons, and made $2.5 million in 2011 as a partner in a law firm downtown.

So in this respect, they seem to us as corporate overlords who don't come to our offices, don't care to meet our clients, they might go to a benefit and meet a client or two but there is this huge disconnect.

Soo Kyung: One thing that I've learned the during this strike is who actually controls these public services we provide. Our mission is to provide these services, but our leadership is supposed to do any of this work. It's more like tokenism. I honestly think we need to change the character of the board, so it's basically made up of people who actually have an interest in us and the clients we serve.

Fernando: One-third of the board is supposed to consist of client-eligible persons (for our services), and I believe that for whatever reasons, this client-based element of the board doesn't speak up for itself. I think there's a level of intimidation happening on the board, where the professionals put the non-professionals in a place of insecurity.

There's no doubt that the corporate mentality of this board is not fitted for free legal services, and anywhere in the country, and that needs to change. Part of that change in some way has to begin with empowering that group of people directly affected.

Ian: Our struggle to some degree mirrors our clients' struggle. Yes, it might be easier in that respect for us to fight for our working conditions given the work that we do, but for workers in other unions or other workplaces, you see the same things, corporate boards or bosses trying to say: "Well, you're worth a little bit less this time." And sure enough, the next time around, it'll be the same: "Now you're worth just a little bit less than last time."

What we saw on the picket lines was understanding and solidarity around this. The Sergeant's Benevolence Association, the Transport Workers Union and other unions and folks who aren't necessarily connected to social services came out to show us support. This helped because we didn't feel as isolated in our struggle, and this shows that other unions or workers shouldn't feel as isolated just because we serve different needs in society--it doesn't mean we aren't in the same struggle.

DO YOU think it's easier to get workers in the social services sector to rally behind a fight for their needs and working conditions, but also to preserve the services they offer? Does organizing members who've chosen to work in this field impact how successful you've been?

Nelson: It's certainly not easy to organize a strike in any industry, in my opinion. I would even argue that some of the non-profit workplaces are some of the worst, partly because management feeds off on their Christ-complex of wanting to sacrifice for the people they help, but some of the workers realize this and learn from that experience. This has helped us early on, and I think this kind of realization can happen in any workplace.

WHAT DO you think it will take to ultimately win your demands?

Nelson: Ultimately, in my opinion, I feel that this is about a class struggle. We certainly hope to have a fairer contract than what they're offering us, but it's also the day-to-day fight to push back against management which will always demand for us to work more for less, and for them to consistently make our working conditions as onerous as they need to be in order to eventually meet their next contract's demands. This is just one battle in what should always be seen as an ongoing struggle.

Ian: Even though we do expect and want to return to work, in our organizing we are already identifying where the areas are that can continue to change and be more effective--ultimately this is our workplace and our organization and we're the ones who run it and understand how it needs to be run and how vital these services are to people and we need think of it that way.

We've also had a lot of support from others around the city, other unions, academics, city council members, etc., this is also about learning and educating others in the process too, those that came out to support us as well as those who may be interested in learning how we did things in the lead up to our strike.

Fernando: The test for us now, to also keep in mind is how to keep our coworkers connected. Bear in mind this contract will only last for one year, and if people are not as informed and strong as they were this time around, these little gains we won can disappear a year from now. We must try to avoid falling back into complacency if we want to preserve what little gains we've won this time around.

Soo Kyung: The question for me is what does winning this strike mean? As Nelson mentioned, we may get a fairer contract, definitely one of the goals, but also for a lot of us, every single member who has participated in this fight can say that this has been an invaluable experience.

I myself have always been sympathetic to other worker's strikes and the general movement for improving workers' conditions, but I've also previously always considered myself too busy to participate any further than reading articles about them. Now, after having been on the picket lines, I was very moved by other people, other workers who've passed by, honking and telling us to stay strong.

One particular instance that stood out to me was this public bus driver coming down the boulevard in the opposite direction. He basically stopped the bus nearly in the middle of the road, got out of the bus and came over to bring us water and doughnuts and I almost started crying because that meant so much to us on the picket lines and that experience of solidarity is really powerful.

I certainly don't think that after that I'll support workers the way I used to--now I'll make sure to go out to their picket lines and support them personally as well. That solidarity that we learn and experience, that's what will help us win in the long run.