Striking workers braved record breaking freezing temperatures for the past several weeks on a picket line outside their employers’ office in Tribeca. Motivated by stalled union contract negotiations, these workers decided to strike and take their demands to the street.
Surprisingly, the employer is MFY Legal Services and the freezing workers are lawyers and support staff serving the poor. Formed as a not for profit legal services organization in 1968, MFY can trace its roots back to 1963 when it functioned as part of the anti-poverty Mobilization for Youth project. Over the years, MFY has continued its mission of providing equal access to justice for those who otherwise cannot afford legal representation.
The work accomplished by MFY is laudable and courageous. A dedicated staff of lawyers and support staff, many making less salary than those in private employment, provide quality legal service to hundreds of New Yorkers each year. These workers care deeply about the people they represent and the mission they serve. Although faced with huge law school loans and the high cost of living in New York, these individuals choose public service so as to do meaningful and important things for others. They embody all that is good, noble and necessary about our legal system. They also represent justice in the most essential way; they provide equal access to it.
While there can be no doubt that the management of MFY is equally committed and dedicated to serving the poor, their refusal to negotiate contract terms acceptable to the workers is reprehensible. The issues at play do not seem insurmountable. Workers are looking for pay increases that keep pace with inflation. In other words, they seek a living wage. This will also ensure longevity so that as workers age and their families grow they are not forced to leave public service for living wages paid in the private sector. Also, there are certain operational flaws within the present MFY structure that make the provision of services unnecessarily difficult. For example, MFY decision makers do not include the staff in hiring decisions. As a result, too many attorneys are hired without the necessary support staff in place. Without proper support staffing, an office simply cannot function properly.
It is time that all of us support these workers in their efforts to obtain a living wage and longevity. It is crucially important to our system of justice that those who cannot afford legal representation are provided quality legal service. Otherwise the principles of justice and equality that we hold so dear as Americans can only be realized by the wealthy. Demand that MFY Executive Director Jeanetter Zelhof at firstname.lastname@example.org and Board Chair Robert L. Harwood at email@example.com negotiate a contract which provides a living wage and proper support staff so that New Yorkers who deserve legal services can be assured they will get the very best.