Strike Update, Feb. 22, 2015

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This update responds to a letter by MFY Legal Services’ (“MFY”) Executive Director, Jeanette Zelhof, addressed to the New York Law Journal (the “NYLJ”) and distributed by MFY to a listserv for New York tenant advocates on February 20, 2015.  While professing respect for MFY’s unionized staff, Zelhof dismisses the concerns that led us to strike as “rhetoric.”  Our previous statements and those of our allies outlining these concerns speak for themselves.  We take issue here primarily with Zelhof’s dishonest portrayal of Legal Services Staff Association 2320’s (“LSSA”) conduct during contract negotiations.  Contrary to Zelhof’s letter, the LSSA has done the utmost to expeditiously negotiate a fair contract with MFY management, both before and during the strike.  Yet MFY’s management has unnecessarily delayed negotiations by refusing to meet on weekends, failing to have fully authorized decision makers at the negotiation table, unilaterally cutting off bargaining sessions, failing to substantiate their demands, and demanding that LSSA’s bargaining team negotiate against itself.

MFY’s Leadership Has Unnecessarily and Recklessly Prolonged This Strike

LSSA voted to strike on January 30, 2015, seeking a contract that justly compensates MFY’s lowest paid employees, provides paid parental leave, and promotes retention of experienced staff.  In the two weeks following the strike vote, the two sides met several times without reaching a settlement.  On February 17, LSSA’s bargaining team met with management and a bargaining subcommittee of MFY’s board of directors, including board chair Robert I. Harwood, and board members Amelia T.R. Starr, David G. Keyko, and Bruce L. Stein.  LSSA hoped to reach a settlement and end the strike.  This was the first time that members of MFY’s board were present at the negotiating table, and the second time that Zelhof was present since negotiations began in November 2014.  LSSA’s bargaining team requested Zelhof and the board’s presence because in at least two negotiating sessions after the strike began, management’s negotiating team lacked authority to make comprehensive counteroffers and had to consult with the board.

Prior to the February 17 meeting, progress had been made in two of three areas that MFY’s staff has prioritized: paid parental leave and equitable pay for administrative support staff and paralegals.  Management still has not offered a contract that ensures retention of senior staff.  Management blames MFY’s staff for holding up a fair contract and harming the organization’s clients; in reality, management has needlessly prolonged the strike by insisting on chipping away at contractual rights that allow staff to develop professionally and by refusing to invest in experienced staff by making longer-term changes to its pay structure.

At the last bargaining session, Zelhof and the board members present ended negotiations by rejecting LSSA’s counteroffer out of hand.  The board members said that they would not attend the next negotiating session because they had made their final offer.  No future sessions were scheduled at that time.  Despite management’s intransigence, on February 19, LSSA sent an email stating that we were prepared to meet with management “at any time if decision makers are present.”  LSSA reiterated this commitment by email on February 20.  Zelhof was included on both emails.  Yet Zelhof’s NYLJ letter misleadingly suggests that the LSSA bargaining team “no longer wanted to meet with [management’s] negotiating team.”  It is alarming that Zelhof has chosen to deploy half-truths and disingenuous value judgments, which she passes off as facts, in an effort to sway public opinion on this labor dispute.

Management ultimately and impetuously ended negotiations on February 17, signaling that MFY’s staff should be grateful for what management has decided the staff deserve.  Management’s posturing is bewildering; they have previously admitted during bargaining that LSSA’s demand for cost of living pay increases for the staff would be affordable for the organization, yet they refuse to agree to such increases with no justification.  The pay increases that MFY’s staff now seek are meant to keep pace with projected cost of living increases over the term of the contract.  Out of consideration for the financial risks MFY was exposed to following the financial collapse in 2008, MFY staff had agreed in our most recent contract to accept cost of living increases that fell short of actual increases for New York City.  Now that MFY can afford it, LSSA is seeking to make up for this sacrifice.

This Strike is About the Sustainability of Quality Legal Services

On February 18, 2015, MFY posted on its website a statement claiming it has offered the union a contract that is fair and sustainable.  MFY’s staff want a contract that is fair and sustainable, but have a different vision of what that means.  We believe that fairness and sustainability is grounded in the organization’s people and the quality services we provide to clients; it is not exclusively about MFY’s bottom line.

In each of the past several years, MFY has had a high rate of staff turnover.  Since July 2014, roughly 14% of the unionized staff have left the organization.  The majority of the outgoing staff are experienced, and they are typically replaced by recent law school graduates.  Experienced and long-tenured attorneys are essential to the professional development of new attorneys and providing better services for MFY’s clients.  While management has stated that it is willing to accept this high level of turnover, MFY’s staff is not.

MFY’s website touts a one-time signing bonus as a key part of its “excellent proposal.”  However, MFY’s staff are not on strike for a one-time payment.  When we voted to strike, we knew that we would be sacrificing short-term compensation to demand serious longer-term improvements to MFY’s contract.  We remain on the picket line in severe winter weather conditions not in support of mere rhetoric as management has suggested, but to make MFY a better workplace.

If MFY is really concerned about being fiscally responsible, meeting its obligations to clients and funders, and striving to achieve a dignified and stable work environment, then it should not waste its resources hiring “scab” labor to perform union work or a public relations firm to protect its reputation, as it has done.

It is time for MFY to do what is fair and right. It is time for MFY to end this strike.