More than 200 attorneys and staff at Legal Services NYC walked off their jobs yesterday after voting overwhelmingly to reject management offers for a new contract.

The organization has pledged to continue operations with just under 40 managers handling cases. However, Raun Rasmussen, Legal Services’ executive director, said before the vote that the intake of new cases would be cut "very significantly" in the event a strike was called.

Members of the Legal Services Staff Association have been working without a contract since July 2012. The union, a unit of UAW Local 2320, represents attorneys, paralegals, secretaries, social workers and other staff.

Two votes were held in the Great Hall at Cooper Union. In the first, only 26 people voted to accept a May 1 proposal, while 192 voted no.

Read the May 1 offer from management.

The second vote incorporated the initial offer plus supplemental terms submitted to the union on May 14 (NYLJ, May 15). There were 173 "no" votes and only 13 "yes" votes on that proposal.

"The message is ‘no, we’re not going to take this," Given the wide vote margins, Gibb Surette, president of the Legal Services Staff Association, said in an interview.

Read the union’s press release and fact sheet.

Nevertheless, Surette, a Legal Services staff attorney himself, said he and the other labor negotiators were ready to resume contract talks as soon as possible.

The union, which last voted to strike in 1993, has faulted management for a contract offer that increased healthcare contributions and lowered employer contributions to retirement accounts but did not give assurances that if future layoffs are necessary, managers would be the first to go in units deemed especially top heavy (NYLJ, May 6).

In a statement, Rasmussen said Legal Services management was "disappointed that the staff was unwilling to come to an agreement on how to close our budget gap while maintaining services for tens of thousands of New Yorkers. A strike is not good for our staff, our clients or their communities. We are very hopeful that we can return to the bargaining table quickly and resolve this impasse to restore programs like foreclosure prevention and immigration assistance for the New Yorkers who depend on us."

Read Rasmussen’s statement from yesterday.

Management has said the contract offer at issue was necessitated by a convergence of ballooning healthcare costs and sharp decreases in federal Legal Services Corporation funding—though the union says the organization’s "fiscal circumstances" are "disputed." Without taking the measures proposed in the contract offer, management said it would have to lay off up to 50 people by the end of 2014.

"We have attempted to deal with our budget gap by making limited changes to our health insurance program that will allow us to get competitive bids from other health insurance companies, thereby reducing costs in the future. But the union was not willing accept any changes," Rasmussen said in the statement.

According to management, it now costs the organization about $41,000 to provide health insurance to an employee and his or her family, which is $13,000 higher than similar organizations, like the Legal Aid Society.

Surette previously said staff was willing to make increased healthcare contributions, but wanted the elevated contributions to be uniform.

While both sides attempt to hammer out a new contract, it falls on 39 managers to represent the cases handled by about 100 striking attorneys and about 60 additional paralegals and social workers.

In the weeks leading up to yesterday’s vote, staffers wrote memos detailing their pending cases and then discussed those memos with their managers. Rasmussen said in an interview no offices would be closed, nor did the organization plan to hire temporary attorneys. While the strike would mean longer work hours for the managers and slower case management, Rasmussen said the quality of the legal representation would not decline.

The intake of new cases would be reduced, Rasmussen said, but he stopped short of saying the organization would take on no new cases. "It depends office by office, problem by problem," he said.

In interviews immediately after the votes, union members repeated the claim that accepting the contract offer would hinder the organization’s long-term ability to attract and retain talented, committed staff who would stay with the organization and offer experienced representation to clients.

"The big worry is the cuts’ effect on Legal Services NYC’s model," said Ian Davie, a senior staff attorney in the housing unit of the Legal Services NYC Bronx office. "The important thing is a sustainable model to do the work we do," he said. When Davie explained the possibility of a strike to his clients in the days before the vote, he said they were "incredibly supportive."

Likewise, Emma Shreefter, a paralegal at Staten Island Legal Services, explained her ‘no’ votes by saying, "This should be a career, not a stepping stone to the next job."

Brunilda Rivera, a legal assistant and secretary at Legal Services NYC-Bronx, said, "It would be very hypocritical for this group not to fight for a fair contract and our rights when five days a week, we devote ourselves to fighting for the rights and benefits of the poorest people in the community."

Rivera, a member of the union’s bargaining team, said she was expressing her personal opinion, not that of the union.

Employees are scheduled to picket outside Legal Services main headquarters and its borough offices this morning.