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CAMBA Legal Services attorneys, staff strike for 24 hours over union contract

Attorney Pooja Patel said union members purposely chose a one-day strike to minimize the impact on their clients while still holding CLS accountable regarding the contract.

Attorneys and support staff with CAMBA Legal Services

Attorneys and support staff with CAMBA Legal Services picketed Wednesday outside of their offices at 885 Flatbush Ave. in Brooklyn. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

Attorneys and support staff with CAMBA Legal Services are staging a 24-hour strike on Wednesday over contract negotiations that they say have dragged on for months with no real progress.

The newly unionized members of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys — UAW Local 2325 — say they’ve been asking CAMBA Legal Services to improve health care and family leave benefits as well as offer competitive pay for attorneys and a step-based salary system for support staff, but the organization has not come to the bargaining table with reasonable counter offers.

Attorney Pooja Patel said since she was hired at CLS in 2016, funding and attorney caseloads have grown but the support staff has remained the same, fostering frustration among workers and resulting in a high turnover rate. Patel said the organization started hiring new law graduates with no experience, but hasn’t created an adequate training program.

“Almost everyone who I worked with in 2016 has left for other organizations,” Patel, 30, said. “I’ve had cases passed on to me from other attorneys who have left and other attorneys who have left before that, and that’s doing a disservice to our clients.”

A select few decided to stay with CAMBA Legal Services, hoping to affect change from within. The group unionized in May and delivered its first contract draft to management six months ago.

“We gave management a copy of what we thought was a very reasonable draft to work off of and that was back in September and they have delayed, delayed and we’re not coming to an agreement on our essential issues,” Patel said. “They’ve outright refused to give our support staff a step [salary] system, which every other comparable unionized organization in this city has. A step scale is standard.”

CAMBA Legal Services, an offshoot of CAMBA Inc., represents low-income clients in Brooklyn and Staten Island on such cases as foreclosure, eviction, immigration and consumer fraud.

A spokeswoman for CAMBA said the organization has been negotiating with the union “in good faith” since the fall and expects to meet with members again on Wednesday.

“While we respect the input being provided by the union, we are looking forward to reaching an agreement so CAMBA Legal Services can return its focus to providing free legal representation to those in need,” the spokeswoman said. “Our community deserves our commitment.”

The group of 40 attorneys and support staff, as well as the Crown Heights Tenants Union and other supporters, is picketing outside several CLS offices in Brooklyn during the strike on Wednesday. This marks the second time that union members have protested CAMBA Legal Services over contract negotiations.

Patel said they purposely chose a one-day strike to minimize the impact on their clients while still holding CLS accountable regarding the contract.

“We thought our clients deserve attorneys and support staff who are well trained, have years of experience, who are not overworked and who reflect the diversity of the communities that we serve,” she said. “We are willing to do a longer, indefinite strike if necessary.”

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