Queens Public Defenders Win Unionization Vote

After months of conflict involving alleged intimidation and potentially illegal firings, workers at Queens Defenders voted overwhelmingly to unionize.

Sam Mellins   ·   March 11, 2021
Queens Defenders staff hold a digital rally in support of unionization | ALAA

Attorneys and social workers at the indigent defense law firm Queens Defenders have voted overwhelmingly to unionize as a chapter of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALAA), a union of legal nonprofit employees. As officials finished counting votes on Thursday, the count stood at forty-six in favor of unionization to twelve against, a nearly four-to-one margin in favor. Fourteen ballots were challenged—eleven by Queens Defenders management, two by National Labor Relations Board officials, and one by ALAA—and thus not counted as for or against unionization.

“We cannot express enough our respect for the brave Queens Defenders workers who fought through a scorched earth union busting campaign and emerged victorious. We call on management to bargain in good faith,” said Alexi Shalom, an organizer with ALAA. “We look forward to working closely with Queens Defenders management to achieve a fair contract.”

Employees say that being represented by ALAA will improve their own working conditions and Queens Defenders’ ability to retain talented employees.

“We’ll finally have a voice as workers. This will mean that we have protections and security that we’ve all been hoping to experience,” social worker Emily Duran told New York Focus. “We want to hold on to all of the talented staff that we have; we want to be able to keep all of the passionate social workers and attorneys who are with us.”

The union’s victory caps off a months-long campaign that has faced fierce opposition from Queens Defenders management since being publicly announced in December. Shortly after the union drive was announced, management hired law firm Clifton Budd and DeMaria, whose history of union-busting stretches back to the early 20th century, to lead opposition to the union.

In early January, Queens Defenders Executive Director Lori Zeno held an all-staff meeting at which she spoke for over two hours about the potential risks of unionization. In the course of the meeting, first reported by New York Focus, she said that union supporters were a “mob-like group” who were using “coercion” and “intimidation” in their push for a union. 

In a phone conversation with New York Focus shortly after the meeting, Zeno disputed the union’s claim that 90% of eligible employees had signed union membership cards. “They don’t have 90%,” she said at the time. “They’re full of shit.”

Conflict escalated in early February, when management fired two pro-union employees without notice, New York Focus reported at the time, in a move that union supporters described as deliberate intimidation. “Anna and I have been some of the most vocal people in support of the union,” fired social worker Betsy Vasquez said then, referring to her colleague Anna Avalone, who was also ousted. “Clearly my employer did not take kindly to that—because now I’m fired.” 

On February 17, multiple Queens elected officials held a joint press conference condemning the firings. Four days later, Borough President Donovan Richards issued a statement condemning the firings and calling for Avalone and Vasquez to be reinstated.

After the elected officials weighed in, Queens Defenders offered reinstatement to Avalone and Vasquez, but demanded that they accept a reduction in pay and hours, Shalom said. “It was not a serious job offer,” he added. Shalom told New York Focus that the union hopes to have Avalone and Vasquez reinstated in their previous positions with full back pay.

ALAA has become a significant force in New York’s labor scene in recent years, winning unionization campaigns at the New York Legal Assistance Group, the Bronx Defenders, the Neighborhood Defender Service, and the Office of the Appellate Defender. The union has also advocated for attorneys and defendants, pushing successfully for equal pay between New York City’s defenders and prosecutors and walking off the job to protest ICE arrests in New York City courthouses.

“Our successes come from our philosophy that our union should be radically and broadly democratic, and exist to serve the interests of our members and our client communities,” Shalom said.

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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