Ready to strike at MFY

January 27, 2015

Brian Sullivan, a member of the Legal Services Staff Association bargaining team, reports on his co-workers’ dynamic contract campaign and potential for a strike.

ON JANUARY 12, the staff of MFY Legal Services, Inc. (MFY) marched outside of the organization's downtown office, chanting, "On strike, shut it down! New York is a union town!" and "We're legal services for the poor, we're fired up, can't take it no more!"

MFY's staff is represented by the Legal Services Staff Association (LSSA), and the union had declared a one-day strike as part of its campaign for a new contract with MFY. The negotiations continued after January 12, and LSSA is scheduled to vote on its contract on January 30. If the members reject management's offer, the workers of MFY will go on strike on February 2--for the first time since 2003.

Founded in 1963, MFY is one of the first civil legal services organizations in the country. Its employee union, LSSA, is a unit of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers (NOLSW), Local 2320 of the United Auto Workers. LSSA is a wall-to-wall union, meaning it represents all employees of MFY, including social workers, administrative assistants, paralegals and attorneys.

Picketing for legal services in New York City
Picketing for legal services in New York City (Brian Sullivan)

The workers at MFY serve low-income New Yorkers facing a variety of legal problems, including tenants facing eviction, people with disabilities seeking public benefits, homeowners in foreclosure, and low-wage workers denied pay. This is a staff that works to alleviate some of the harshest blows dealt by poverty, austerity and the neoliberal reorganization of New York City.

LSSA's current contract campaign began last November. The union sat down with management and articulated a set of demands that would make the organization more family-friendly, ensure that the staff of the organization reflected the communities it serves, and incentivize experienced staff to stay at the organization long term.

Despite robust fiscal health, the organization's management countered with a series of draconian giveback demands. These included cuts to health care, job security and an effective pay cut. Management sought to reduce the health insurance coverage it provided to employees' children and to eliminate coverage for unmarried, same-sex domestic partners.

In a demand that can only be described as ghoulish, management sought to limit the accrual of sick days so that the organization would not have to provide for long-term employees who became terminally ill.

Rather than accept a contract that would ruin working conditions at MFY and undermine the services provided by the organization, LSSA chose to stand up and fight back.

THE UNION has used a variety of creative and militant actions to challenge management's attack. For example, during the holidays, rather than attending the office holiday party, union members made a donation to the LSSA strike fund in the name of MFY Executive Director Jeanette Zelhof.

After one negotiating session, the staff of the organization lined the hallway outside the room where bargaining was taking place and faced down management's negotiating team as they left. When the union's team walked out of the room, they were greeted with cheers.

In December, LSSA members from both MFY and Legal Services NYC (LSNYC) picketed outside the New York Times building, where MFY's board of directors was meeting.

These tactics were effective and produced some motion at the table, but MFY's management remains intransigently committed to undermining working conditions at the organization.

The question that union members have posed throughout negotiations is: Why is management doing this? MFY is fiscally healthy, and some of our demands seem like no-brainers for a so-called social justice organization. The answer to this question has to do with how human services are organized and administered in New York City.

Like other nonprofit legal services in New York, MFY's board of directors is made up largely of millionaire corporate attorneys whose lives are far removed from those of MFY's clients and staff.

While MFY's management is mostly made up of career legal services attorneys and nonprofit administrators and has significant influence in the conduct of these negotiations, they are ultimately answerable to the board, including Chair Robert I. Harwood, a named partner at the law firm Harwood Feffer.

At the bargaining table, management's negotiating team has made it clear that any final decisions about this contract need to be approved by the board, and that the board expects givebacks before it will agree to any of the union's demands. MFY management has also emphasized that it is in competition with other nonprofit providers for funding. It claims other organizations offer fewer benefits and worse pay.

While management's arguments here are overstated, there is no question that competition between different organizations can only lead to a race to the bottom. All workers in legal services share a common interest in raising our working standards. All our clients share that same interest.

IF THE workers at MFY vote to strike, it will be LSSA's second strike in recent years. In summer 2013, workers at LSNYC walked out to fight cutbacks. As Lucy Herschel reported at

Even greater solidarity and support is needed to defend quality legal services for all. The LSSA strike comes at a critical time for the labor movement and working people in general. Nationally, strike levels are at a record low...While not technically public workers, the attack on LSSA is part and parcel of the overall attack on the public sector and the very idea that low-income people deserve access to basic services and resources.

These observations are just as true about MFY's struggle now.

The difference between LSNYC in 2013 and MFY today is that now there is no question that MFY can afford LSSA's demands. Changes in civil legal services funding at the state and city level have led to an influx in cash. This influx resulted in massive hiring at MFY--35 percent of the staff of the organization started in October 2014 or later. This means that now is the time to stand up and fight for better conditions.

After years of frozen wages, municipal workers finally secured small raises last year. Over that time, the workers at MFY barely managed to keep pace with the cost of living. Yet for both sets of workers, it has become clear that the resources are out there, but we are not the ones getting them. We live in the richest city in the world, yet are made to feel guilty about asking that our basic needs be met. This is the fight that LSSA is waging at MFY.

Now, after three months of grueling negotiations, the issues in LSSA's contract fight have been narrowed. LSSA is demanding equity for MFY's lowest paid workers. Currently, four women are tasked with all of the administrative work of an office of 70. This on top of serving as receptionists in a busy office where nearly everyone who comes through our door or calls on the phone is in crisis, stressed out, and desperate for help.

There is no justification for paying this portion of the staff so much less than everyone else. LSSA is also demanding parental leave, something that does not currently exist at the organization. Management has offered to accept this demand, but only if the union agrees to givebacks that will undermine affirmative action in hiring.

Finally, the union is asking for fair raises. For many years, Legal Services was thought of as the Peace Corps of the legal world. Staff would come for a few short years, hone their skills on a client base that was considered unimportant, and move on to "real" jobs. Without the NOLSW and other similar unions, compensation in this industry would not be sufficient to support long-term commitment to the work. The clients of MFY deserve better than that.

The workers of LSSA will need the solidarity of other workers to win this fight. If LSSA strikes, management will claim that the staff is asking for too much, that they do not deserve the improved conditions they are trying to win.

But the final question posed by this contract fight is one that has been posed in countless labor struggles. Which side are you on? Are you with management, accepting that poor New Yorkers will receive ever fewer services--the side that has resigned itself to the diminishing quality of workers' lives and to a grinding and endless austerity? Or are you with labor, the side that demands better working conditions, fair pay and superior services to those in need?

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