Queens Public Defenders Push to Unionize. Management Calls Them a ‘Mob.’

A wave of legal aid attorneys are joining the labor movement. But bosses say it’s bad for business and the unions just want to collect their dues.

Sam Mellins   ·   January 7, 2021
Queens Defenders staff rally over Zoom in advance of announcing union drive | ALAA

Published in partnership with THE CITY.

Like colleagues at other nonprofit legal defense groups in New York City and around the country, employees of Queens Defenders are looking to join a union.

But not if management can help it.

During a two-hours-plus video conference Monday, Queens Defenders co-founder and executive director Lori Zeno attempted to dissuade employees from unionizing, a recording obtained by New York Focus shows.

Zeno accused the union of being a “mob-like group” that uses “threats,” “coercion” and “manipulation” in its organizing efforts.

Last month, Queens Defenders employees announced their plan to organize under the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALAA), an affiliate of the United Auto Workers that represents workers at legal nonprofits. Ninety percent of eligible employees signed union authorization cards signaling their support, according to union representatives.

Zeno disputed the level of support claimed by union representatives. “They don’t have 90%. They’re full of shit,” she told New York Focus.

“Who does the union represent? Themselves, UAW,” she said. “It’s a business for them. They really don’t care about what’s underneath it. They get their dues.”

Management at Queens Defenders declined to voluntarily recognize the union — beginning a potentially months-long process that will culminate in an election administered by the National Labor Relations Board. 

Zeno told New York Focus she would accept the results of the election. “If they really want a union and they vote for a union, it is what it is. I’m not going to start punishing people,” she said.

Yet at Monday’s meeting, Zeno spoke without interruption for over two hours about the risks of unionization. No questions were solicited or asked, and no other management or staff spoke other than to make cursory housekeeping remarks.

Warning employees against “inviting in a third party” by unionizing, Zeno said that unions “often bring disruption and conflict. That’s just what unions do. They create an adversarial workplace.”

“The coercion and manipulation that has gone on has already started tearing us apart,” she added.

‘Out of the Union-Busting Playbook’

Queens Defenders has its roots in a for-profit law firm called Queens Law Associates, formed in 1996 as then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani responded to a Legal Aid strike by bidding out much of the city’s public defender work to other organizations. Queens Law Associates reincorporated as a nonprofit in 2009 and changed its name to Queens Defenders in early 2020. 

Even as a nonprofit, it retains the flavor of a family business: Zeno’s brother, Florida venture capitalist Don Uderlitz, is a Queens Defenders trustee, the group’s IRS filings show.

Two of Zeno’s children, Zoe Zeno and Zachary Zeno, are also employed by Queens Defenders, according to colleagues. Lori Zeno said that the trustees approved both hires, a decision from which her brother recused himself.

Following the Dec. 16 announcement of the union drive, Queens Defenders hired the law firm Clifton, Budd, & DeMaria to represent it in legal proceedings. That firm traces its record back to 1900s efforts to squelch a blooming labor movement and recently represented the New School against its graduate students’ union.

The firm’s website says that it “stand[s] ready to advise on lawful union-free campaigns as well as effectively defend employer interests” and provides its clients with “the ability to speak confidently to employees about the risks of unionization.”

Zeno appeared to be reading from a script during her presentation — once noting that she had “lost her spot,” and at another point saying, “I wasn’t supposed to go off script.” 

Her presentation was “straight out of the union-busting 101 playbook,” said Alexi Shalom, ALAA’s lead organizer on the campaign.

Zeno also claimed that organizers had misled employees regarding the significance of their signing union authorization cards. 

“You were told, ‘This isn’t a vote for the union, this is just to get the issues brought to the table,’” she said. “But then what happened? The very first thing that the union did was call for management to recognize you as a union.”

Zeno declined to refer New York Focus to employees who could confirm the allegation. Social worker Emily Duran told New York Focus that employees knew full well what they were committing to in signing the cards. “We were really clear in letting everyone know that it [signing cards] was a step towards having a union,” she said.

Under federal labor law, at least 30% of employees must sign union cards in order for an election to be held. If a majority of employees has signed cards, management can choose either to recognize the union or to ask the NLRB to hold an election.

Seeking Pay Transparency

The proposed union would include the roughly 70 attorneys and social workers employed by Queens Defenders, but not administrative and support staff.

As part of a national trend in public defense unionization, union membership among New York’s public defenders has been growing. Harlem-based Neighborhood Defender Services unionized in 2018, also over the opposition of management. In June 2020, Bronx Defenders voluntarily recognized a union after a majority of staff signed union cards. This morning, staff at the city’s Office of the Appellate Defender announced a union drive.

ALAA has delivered significant wins for its members. In 2019, the union was part of a coalition of legal aid organizations that successfully lobbied to ensure pay parity between public defenders, prosecutors, and other city attorneys during the first five years of employment. 

While Queens Defenders employees benefited from the pact, they hope to go further. 

“We don’t have a lot of transparency in terms of our pay scale,” said staff attorney Chris Van Zele. “Just knowing what the scale is and what we can expect, that there’s a policy in place that we can rely on,” he said, would be one advantage of unionizing.

Attorneys contend that unionizing will benefit the firm’s clients as well as staff, as court officials grapple with a mounting backlog of cases following pandemic shutdowns. 

“There’s going to be pressure from the courts to get cases moving and basically to get pleas done,” Van Zele said. A union would help attorneys resist pressure to take unwanted pleas, he said.

Risks and Retaliation

Zeno contends that her organization’s nonunion status is vital to its survival. Queens Defenders’ current contract with the Mayor’s Office expires in June, and the groups must periodically rebid to retain the work.

“We were put into existence as an alternate provider to the Legal Aid Society so that if Legal Aid went on strike, the system wouldn’t shut down,” she told New York Focus. She also described her group’s role as a deterrent against labor unrest: “There’s a reason why in the last 25 years, Legal Aid hasn’t gone on strike. That reason is because we exist.”

“They’re young, and they’re impressionable, they sort of go along with the mob mentality,” Zeno said of some union supporters among her staff. "They have to be realistic. I mean, this is a business."

In the meeting, Zeno told employees: “There is something that you’re risking if you vote for this union, and it would be catastrophic … and that is our relationship with the city, with our funders.”

Ethan Felder, a Queens union lawyer and Democratic district leader, said it is unlikely that unionization would put Queens Defenders’ contract at risk. “I don’t think that the City of New York would retaliate against workers for choosing to have a union represent them,” he said.

“That may have happened in the Giuliani era, but these are not the Giuliani times anymore when it comes to unions and labor in this town. We don’t have nearly the level of hostility towards workers and labor unions now that we did then.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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