Brooklyn Boro

Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) staff announce formation of wall-to-wall union

The BDS Union has amassed the support of a supermajority of all staff. The BDS Union expects swift recognition by BDS Management to begin the collective bargaining process.

June 30, 2021 By BDS Staff
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We, the staff members of Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), a non-profit public defender organization in Kings County, announce the formation of the BDS Union as a chapter of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALAA) — UAW Local 2325. An overwhelming, decisive majority of non-managerial workers across practice areas and roles has signed cards indicating support for unionization. We are now calling on BDS Management to immediately recognize our union, refrain from an anti-union campaign, and begin bargaining with us for a fair contract that addresses the needs of all staff. As BDS is an organization devoted to defending rights, we expect management to respect our right to collective bargaining and to recognize our union without delay.

As rank-and-file staff of BDS, we proudly serve our indigent clients in Brooklyn who are facing housing and education injustices, immigrant detention and deportation, criminalization and policing, family surveillance, and unjust termination or denial of benefits. We joined this office to holistically support our clients and our communities, to work together to defend their rights, and to combat inequity and injustice wherever we see it.

That shared vision of equity and justice for all people is why we are organizing across all of BDS – including paralegals, attorneys, client advocates, administrative staff, social workers, investigators, IT, and all other non-managerial staff – as a wall-to-wall union. As public defense workers who believe impacted communities should be the driving force behind change, we strive to create a workplace that practices the values we espouse in our work, centers workers’ voices and experiences, and challenges power imbalances. Too often at BDS, transparency in process and function is pushed aside for discretion; decisions about our office and our well-being are made without our input or consent; and hiring, retention, and management decisions are not adequately responsive to or supportive of the needs of each staff member, especially our Black, Latinx, Asian, LBGTQIA+, and other underrepresented communities at BDS.

“The better protected we are as employees, the better equipped we are to advocate for our clients. The people best situated to make sure our office is doing everything possible to meet our clients’ needs are those on the front lines of the work. The BDS union will ensure that we all have a seat at the decision-making table,” said Erin Sternlieb, Housing Specialist in the Civil Justice Practice

In 2016, BDS attorneys and social workers petitioned for union recognition. Management responded with an aggressive anti-union campaign and promises of a more democratic and supportive workplace; aided by the fact that the 2016 effort was not inclusive of all workers, management was ultimately able to erode sufficient union support to prevent the vote from succeeding. Now, five years later, we build off the groundwork of the 2016 campaign while recognizing its flaws. Just as every worker at BDS plays a vital role in the service we provide, every worker’s voice is vital in building a better BDS.

“The work we do at BDS is completely collaborative. Our advocacy would not be possible without the work of staff across practice areas and roles. Each one of BDS’s employees deserves the protection and voice a union will give us,” said Natalie Hession, Social Worker in the Criminal Defense Practice

BDS staff have made concerted efforts since 2016 to work with management to create a more inclusive, supportive and equitable workplace. But sadly, decisions continue to be made unilaterally and discretionarily, and staff still feel unsafe advocating for themselves and their colleagues. The past five years have confirmed that any progress will only be genuine and lasting if it is achieved with a union contract – the product of a truly democratic process, entailing actual, binding commitments to BDS employees. We are inspired by the successes of the many public defender offices in the city who have recently unionized. These offices have only gained from engaging with staff through a union, demonstrating that the insights of public defense workers are invaluable to the organizations they serve.

“For me, unionizing at BDS is an expression of the solidarity and respect I have for my coworkers and my organization. I work with people committed to giving marginalized communities in Brooklyn the best representation possible. My colleagues deserve commitments from management that will help us keep doing this work for years to come,” said Murtaza Husain, Staff Attorney in the Family Defense Practice

As one of the only non-unionized public defender offices in the five boroughs, we know that joining our sister offices across New York City as part of the ALAA will only strengthen our office, empowering us to both fight for our colleagues and to collaboratively advocate for our clients. We are excited to have a role in the next phase of public defense in New York City and to build a healthy, democratic workplace that supports all of us.

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  1. Annonymous

    This information is misleading and meant to strong arm BDS. The “super majority” is barely 60 percent and relies on cards signed by employees who have left the organization whose cards should be pulled. The organizers purposely excluded large numbers of employees from the organizing process and refused to answer questions. The article also fails to mention the large number of employees who will refuse to join.

    Asking for a vote is not anti union, it is management choosing to do what it has done for the past 25 years-act in the best interest of the organization. It is also their “right” to do so. A union of attorneys who represent indigent clients should respect that process rather than twist it into a negative. Or maybe ALAA will start telling us that polling a jury is anti verdict.

    Don’t let these strong arm tactics take down yet another organization. The press should be much more careful what they chose to publish. As the media did so long for Donald Trump, this article allows misleading statements to create alternative realities.

  2. Anonymous

    The statements in this article do not represent a “super majority’s ” view in the office. Murtaza Husain has not worked for BDS long enough to make these claims. The ALAA has used him as tool on their efforts to unionize BDS.

  3. Anonymous

    It seems that the employees who were interviewed for this article are fairly new employees at BDS. They were strategically targeted by the ALAA in order to unionize BDS. They do not represent the view of long lasting employees at BDS.