Attorneys and Staff say they will stand together to ensure New Yorkers get the best legal representation amid Federal challenges to civil rights protections and legal services.
NEW YORK – Unionized attorneys and staff at the Legal Aid Society along with community allies took to the steps of City Hall, Thursday, June 1st at 1pm to demand Mayor De Blasio adequately fund the Society immediately, reversing impending funding cuts and ensuring quality representation for the most marginalized New Yorkers. These cuts, in turn, have left the attorneys and staff unable to settle their collective bargaining agreements with the Society for almost seven months.
The attorneys are represented by the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325 which represents over 1,000 attorneys across three practice areas. Despite tirelessly working for their clients, attorneys have been working since October 2016 under an expired contract, one of the only union contracts covering essential City services which remains unresolved during the Mayor’s tenure. The main obstacle to the settling of this contract between the Society and its staff has been the Mayoral Administration’s wavering stance on constitutionally mandated adequate budget allocations for the criminal practice. This funding cut is taking place the year after the City’s District Attorney Offices received a $22 million funding increase, showing an imbalance in funding priorities.
“Legal Aid attorneys and support staff provide the frontline of defense against the cycle of broken windows policing and mass deportation. By restoring full and adequate funding to the Society, the Mayor will be able to help realize his stated goal of ending the ‘tale of two cities’ in New York City,” said Deborah Wright, President of The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys – UAW Local 2325, “As attacks on immigrants and working-class people continue to come down from the federal level, Legal Aid staff and their clients need a strong ally in the City Administration to shield marginalized communities from these discriminatory policies.”
“Our attorneys are already paid less than prosecutors and are now facing a wage freeze and funding cuts from City Hall. New attorneys are drowning in debt and can’t afford to stay here fighting for their clients. Senior attorneys don’t have a real pension and can’t afford to retire,” said Bret Taylor, Secretary-Treasurer of The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys – UAW Local 2325.
Staff Attorney in the Brooklyn Criminal Defense Practice and Attorneys of Color at Legal Aid Representative Jane-Roberte Sampeur said, “Mayor De Blasio’s original campaign ran on promises of protection and support to communities of color by ending stop and frisk. Then he brought back broken windows perpetuating the devastation of mass incarceration. Again, he is running on the promise of protection to so many immigrant communities of color, with the promise of a ‘sanctuary city’. Yet, here we are as defenders for poor communities of color–many of whom are immigrants–being denied the funding to protect our communities. If we cannot attract and retain experienced attorneys to represent our communities, then the experienced lawyers will be working only for those who can pay and our communities will suffer.”
Julie Kushner, UAW Region 9A Director said, “Our members at the Legal Aid Society are on the frontlines of defending New York’s most vulnerable – including defending immigrants faced with deportation under President Trump’s racist policies, ensuring that those accused of a crime do not see their constitutional rights trampled on by prosecutors and the courts, defending families fighting to hold on to their homes at a time of unprecedented gentrification in all the boroughs of New York, and at a time when caring for the needy, the poor and our seniors are under attack, making sure they receive the benefits to which they are entitled. In some instances the City is constitutionally obligated to provide these services, and in others it has a moral obligation to fulfill the historical vision of the type of city New York has been and strives to be. Mayor de Blasio’s vision for New York cannot be realized if the City does not properly fund those doing the work day to day at vital institutions such as the Legal Aid Society.”
“I wholeheartedly stand with Legal Aid Attorneys in their fight for a fair contract. Now more than ever, we must fully fund legal services for the most vulnerable of our city. In light of Federal challenges to civil rights protections and pending cuts to a wide array of critical services, we need to do everything we can to stand up for all of our communities and defend their basic constitutional rights,” said Council Member Helen Rosenthal (Manhattan, District 6).
Community and low-wage worker organizations also offered support: “In New York City, communities of color are under attack from both racialized policing and the deportation machine, entwined systems that rob us of our safety and freedom” said Basma Eid, Lead Trainer with Enlace and the New York Worker Center Federation. “Organizations like the Legal Aid Society are one means of resistance to the policies that criminalize our communities. Together we can bring ourselves closer to our vision of a city without fear, a Freedom City. Workers at Legal Aid deserve a just contract and respect on the job, as do all workers across New York and beyond.”
Staff at the Legal Aid Society represent the majority of indigent New Yorkers in a host of legal matters free of cost including criminal defense, foreclosure prevention, juvenile rights, immigration, bankruptcy, among others. These lawyers have also been at the forefront of major civil rights litigation including Rockefeller Drug Law Reform among others. The attorneys hope to specifically highlight how their critical work intersects with De Blasio’s campaign goal of ending the “tale of two cities” and creating a more just city for marginalized communities.