Lawyers and other Bronx Defenders employees are planning to unionize, potentially adding to the growing ranks of legal services nonprofits that have organized in recent years.
Workers at the public defense nonprofit, which represents low income people in New York, announced their plans on Friday to the organization’s management.
The Bronx Defenders is one of a handful of nonprofit organizations that contract with New York City to provide public defense services, and would be the third to unionize.
An “overwhelming majority” of approximately 270 union-eligible employees have signed pledge cards to join the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys—UAW Local 2325, according to Naima Drecker-Waxman, a program associate in the Bronx Defenders’ immigration practice. She and other organizers have called on management to recognize the union voluntarily rather than forcing a union vote.
“We think that the Bronx Defenders will live up to its progressive values as an organization,” Drecker-Waxman said.
The nonprofit’s executive director, Justine J. Olderman, said in a statement that she’ll meet in coming days with its leadership team and board to discuss the request for voluntary recognition.
“I look forward to working with our staff and ALAA to reach our shared goals,” Olderman said, noting that she’s “always been inspired by our staff’s deep commitment to making BxD the best possible public defender and workplace that it can be.”
The proposed bargaining unit includes public defenders, paralegals, investigators, administrative staff and other employees who hope to use the union as a way to negotiate higher salaries, improved access to mental health services, greater diversity among leadership, and lower caseloads.
“There is a pretty high turnover rate amongst attorneys, particularly attorneys of color,” said Imani Waweru, a staff attorney in the criminal defense practice. “In the two years I’ve been here, I know people who have been hired who have already left because of burnout.”
Waweru, who typically juggles a caseload of 80 to 90 clients at a time, said he has struggled with demands of the job, making ends meet in New York City, and carrying the weight of his client’s legal challenges. “It’s pretty tough,” he said, “when you take these individual issues and you multiply them by 90.”
Unionizing among legal services workers has increased in recent years, and workers at the Bronx Defenders said they have also been motivated to organize because of that trend.
The Los Angeles Public Defenders, the oldest public defense office in the country, unionized with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees in 2018. Attorneys at the Defender Association of Philadelphia, a publicly funded nonprofit that employs all of the city’s public defenders, voted to unionize with the UAW in February.
The largest, The Legal Aid Society, formed The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys in 1969. The Neighborhood Defender Service, based in New York’s Harlem neighborhood, joined last year.
“We want a strong labor movement that protects our clients in any job they’re in, because that’s the thing that gives people sustainable lives,” Drecker-Waxman said.
Since its founding, the ALAA has expanded to include a dozen legal nonprofits in the New York metropolitan region, including Federal Defenders of NY. It now has approximately 1,700 members, about a third of which joined within the past several years, according to ALAA organizer Alexi Shalom.
The most recent nonprofits to organize with the ALAA were the Children’s Law Center and the Safe Passage Project, which announced their plans to unionize in March. They followed staff members at the Center for Family Representation, who announced their union drive in January and joined the ALAA following an NLRB vote in February, according to Shalom.
Although the Bronx Defenders union effort began long before the coronavirus pandemic, organizers said the virus has brought employee concerns into sharp relief.
“We have administrative and facilities staff who are still being required to go into the office, and those people don’t always have access to PPE,” said Drecker-Waxman. “We feel the urgency of creating this union to advocate for each other and our needs because we can’t serve anybody if we’re sick.”