Empire Justice Center staff plan to form a union

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Empire Justice Center staff is hoping to unionize.

Founded in Rochester, the Empire Justice Center is a nonprofit center for public interest law providing free and low-cost legal services to Upstate New York low-income clients. Its practice areas include housing, public benefits, immigration, Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, domestic violence, civil rights, LGBTQ issues and crime victims support.

In addition to offices at the downtown Rochester Telesca Justice Center, EJC fields offices in Albany, Yonkers and White Plains.

Forty lawyers, paralegals and support staffers—a supermajority of the nonprofit’s 69 workers—informed Empire Justice Center management of their intention to join the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys-UAW Local 2325 on Jan. 22, UAW organizer Alexi Shalom says.

Among lawmakers voicing support for the union drive are drive are Rochester City Council members Stanley Martin, Kim Smith and Mary Lupien.

EJC lawyers are paid substantially less than peers practicing in other public-interest New York firms, Shalom says. Other issues spurring the union drive include a hand in decision making, and greater transparency in hiring and discipline and greater opportunities and structure for staff training and mentorship, the UAW’s Shalom says.

“Unionizing will allow us to have more input and influence over the policies and procedures that directly affect us and our work, and thus our ability to wholly show up for our clients. When we feel valued, the organization and our clients succeed,” EJC paralegal Maria Quagliana said in a statement.  

If management agrees to recognize the union, the bargaining unit would form simply by informing the National Labor Relations Board or its intent in process known as carding. If management does not agree, the fledgling union would have to hold an election.

The workers gave EJC management a 12:00 p.m. Jan. 29  deadline to respond to the union drive. As of noon Monday, they had not heard from the nonprofit’s management, Shalom says.   

If EJC lives up to its founding principles, he would expect it to welcome the union, Shalom adds.

“Empire Justice Center fully respects the rights of its’ employees to unionize,” says EJC president and CEO Kristin Brown. : Empire Justice Center also believes that it is important to ensure that all employees who would be included in the bargaining unit have a full and fair opportunity to express their opinion on whether to unionize, free from pressure or influence. The only way to ensure this occurs is through a democratic secret ballot election conducted by a neutral third party, the National Labor Relations Board.”

EJC doesn’t oppose the union, Brown says, but intends to remain neutral on the issue of whether its employees should unionize. 

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

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