Queens Defenders attorneys, social workers vote to unionize

queens defenders
Queens Defenders attorneys and social workers voted to unionize with ALAA — UAW Local 2325. (Photo courtesy of QD Union)

Attorneys and social workers at Queens Defenders, a nonprofit legal defense group, voted to unionize with the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALAA), a union representing workers at legal nonprofits, in a landslide, yet contentious election.

With a vote of 46 in favor and 12 opposed, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certified the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys — UAW Local 2325 chapter as the representative of professional staff at Queens Defenders on Thursday, March 11.

“We believe that although this was a turbulent election with media and political coverage, the workers who faced intense intimidation ultimately persevered, and we’re excited to welcome them,” Alexi Shalom, an organizer with ALAA, told QNS.

The vote comes after a tense two months of public defenders and social workers organizing to form a union at Queens Defenders, which for 25 years has served Queens residents who can’t afford attorneys.

In December, eligible workers signed union cards and said they had 90 percent support among them, according to the Queens Daily Eagle. But they were met with resistance from Queens Defenders’ management and Founder and Executive Director Lori Zeno, who wouldn’t voluntarily recognize the union and warned against it in a two-hour-long meeting, according to New York Focus.

The final vote showed a 79 percent support of the union. Eleven ballots were challenged by ALAA (three of which were due to employees’ termination during the election), one by Queens Defenders management and two by the NLRB, according to New York Focus.

The union drive’s conflicts then reached its tipping point when management fired two employees in February, as staff were casting their union votes. The employees alleged they were fired in retaliation for being vocal supporters of the union, and received support from multiple prominent Queens elected officials in their calls for reinstatement.

In a statement to QNS regarding the union vote, Queens Defenders’ management said they will work with the ALAA to “advance our organization’s mission to provide the highest-quality legal defense and comprehensive support services to the people of Queens.”

“Our number one priority as an organization has always been our clients,” Zeno stated. “I am pleased that each eligible staff member had the opportunity to vote in a secret ballot election and respect their decision to unionize. Queens Defenders remains committed to providing a supportive, inclusive workplace for all staff while elevating our work in the communities we so passionately serve. Our leadership team is ready, willing and able to expeditiously begin the bargaining process for the purpose of reaching an agreement.”

Shalom told QNS that they invite Zeno to “turn a new page” in order to improve working conditions for Queens Defenders’ staff — but they must rehire the employees they fired.

Shalom said that one of those employees was offered a part-time job without health benefits at Queens Defenders, but that it wasn’t ideal and they are now considering filing an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB if the workers aren’t rehired.

Additionally, ALAA reported that one Queens Defenders employee who submitted a notice of resignation last week was allegedly immediately fired for refusing to state their union vote — which goes against federal law.

“The continued violation of federal labor laws by management are extremely concerning for us,” Shalom said.

A Queens Defenders spokesperson declined to comment on the ALAA’s demands, citing their policy of not commenting on internal human resources matters.

The ALAA — UAW Local 2325 is now in the process of electing a bargaining committee and initiate steps toward proposing an initial agreement with Queens Defenders. ALAA — UAW Local 2325 has chapters at 18 nonprofits in New York City, and represent more than 2,200 members.

Several elected officials have celebrated the union victory, including Assemblywoman Jessica González-Rojas — who wrote a letter to Zeno urging the legal aid nonprofit to recognize the union in January — and Queens Borough President Donovan Richards.

“Victory! About time the hardworking Queens Defenders staff are recognized,” wrote Richards on a Facebook post. “Thank you Association of Legal Aid Attorneys – UAW 2325 for all your efforts. The future is bright in this proud union borough.”