A Black man standing at in intersection in New York city looks over his shoulder with a serious expression on his face.
Image credit: Urban Sanden on Unsplash

Will the nonprofit workers providing critical legal support for New Yorkers who face the threat of eviction earn enough to afford their own housing? That question is at the center of a strike now in its third month.

It bears emphasis, perhaps, that this question should not be a question. But as Jon Pratt, who for decades led the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, has noted, the relationship between nonprofits and their workforce has long been “complicated.” The current struggle of the legal services workers employed at Mobilization for Justice (MFJ), who are part of the National Organizers of Legal Service Workers (NOLSW/UAW), speaks to the complexity of balancing one’s dedication to a job and maintaining a sustainable standard of living.

[Mobilization for Justice] workers on the lowest pay scale [earn] $53,000 before taxes…paying over 70 percent of their pre-tax income toward rent.

Over the past two months, MFJ workers and management have been in ongoing negotiations over a collective bargaining agreement (CBA). On February 23, 2024, the MFJ union voted down management’s final contract offer by an overwhelming 93 percent and has been on an indefinite strike ever since. While union members are united on a long list of demands, there are three central points:

  • First, the strike is about wages: MFJ workers have lost more than 10 percent of their wages to inflation. Living in New York City and its surrounding areas is unaffordable and has become unsustainable for union members. This is especially true for the lowest-paid workers, who are largely people of color from historically oppressed populations.
  • Second, the strike is about seeking sustainable working conditions. This means making sure that being a legal service worker is a sustainable job and not subject to high levels of burnout and worker turnover.
  • Third, the strike is about solidarity: fellow legal service workers who bargained beforehand have created an industry standard—these past gains must be maintained.

A Living Wage

New York City has ranked among the five most expensive cities in the world for the last five years. In November 2023, the average rent for a one-bedroom unit was $3,272, according to a NYC Comptroller’s Office report. By contrast, the starting wage for MFJ workers on the lowest pay scale is $53,000 before taxes. Workers on these scales are rent-burdened, paying over 70 percent of their pre-tax income toward rent, with little chance of getting an apartment close to many of the courts where they do their jobs.

The struggles that MFJ workers are going through are connected to the same issues their clients face.

MFJ management has continuously refused to offer equitable work-from-home flexibility to include the lowest-paid workers in our union, meaning those workers are expected to live at commutable distances to the city.

Making matters worse, MFJ offers only 2 percent salary increases per year. Unsustainable wages are why one of the union’s main demands is eliminating the lowest salary scale. The union also seeks an across-the-board pay increase, focusing on those with the lowest salaries, typically support staff and paralegals, who are largely people of color. These workers are the core of MFJ as they often provide the much-needed translation services and have cultural knowledge shared with a majority of clients.

The struggles that MFJ workers are going through are connected to the same issues their clients face. MFJ has four main practice areas (housing, immigration, economic justice, disability rights) and served over 15,000 clients last year alone. Out of the clients served, most cases were in the Bronx and Brooklyn through the municipal Universal Access to Legal Services Law, also known as the Right to Counsel, which ostensibly guarantees representation for low-income tenants in eviction proceedings.

A report by the Office of Civil Justice (OCJ) found that in the Bronx, where most cases are received, there were 4,000 executed evictions in 2023, followed by Brooklyn, with a total of 3,516. OCJ also reported that “84% of households represented in court by lawyers were able to remain in their homes, preserving tenancies and promoting the preservation of affordable housing,” which is no surprise to union members who do this work day in and day out and know its value.

The demand to raise wages across the board reflects the needs of low-income New Yorkers who depend on legal services each year and are affected by high turnover. A lack of competitive salaries and a sustainable work-life balance has contributed to alarming vacancies. MFJ management has reported that “28 staff members resigned in 2023 across all practice areas,” leaving 20 vacant positions at MFJ at the end of 2023—approximately 20 percent of our membership. These vacancies affect MFJ’s ability to serve more New Yorkers and prevent more evictions each year.

Anti-democratic Decision-Making

On the picket lines, union members are calling out all decision-makers responsible…upper management and board members alike.

As a nonprofit, when there is an increase in cost on the back end, the solution is not as easy as “passing the cost onto the consumer,” a frequent go-to solution in private companies. Instead, nonprofits largely rely on government contracts and grants, and donations, and it is the organization’s job to budget these funds correctly. However, managers at both nonprofits and private companies often undermine workers’ rights and power under the collective bargaining agreement by hiring temporary workers. And substandard decisions made by nonprofits’ upper management and board members have harmed workers in and outside of the union, both permanent and temporary.

For instance, MFJ fired a temporary employee with one day’s notice a few weeks before the union’s strike vote, when the temp worker—along with the union—made it known that MFJ had been violating a contract rule that mandated moving temporary workers into permanent positions if they worked for the company for more than seven months.

Hiring temp workers is a divisive tool that often causes unnecessary friction between workers. In many workplaces, the conditions are set to pit workers against each other.

But it does not have to be this way. The MFJ union continues to fight for temp workers to be given permanent positions at the organization. In one case, after management retaliated against a temp worker who exerted their rights, union members rallied and raised more than $9,000 to support the worker, and demanded that the worker be immediately rehired.

On the picket lines, union members are calling out all decision-makers responsible for the current employment circumstances—upper management and board members alike. In a nonprofit providing critical services to people on some of the worst days of their lives, it should go without saying that taking care of clients means taking care of the workers as well.

Across all practice areas—housing, immigration, disability rights, and more—the court systems are overwhelmed; it is left to legal services workers to fill in many of the gaps. Worker effort should be reflected in nonprofit compensation and workplace protections.

Solidarity Raises the Floor

Social justice organizations like MFJ pride themselves on their mission. MFJ, for instance, aims to create “a society in which there is equal justice for all.” But how does that mission apply to the 109 union workers they employ?

One issue in this conflict centers on management’s efforts to compel its workers to choose between their employer-provided health insurance plan, which was won in 2003 bargaining during a nine-week strike, or a reduction to their current paid-time-off caps.

As one worker states, “After seven weeks [now 10 weeks] of this strike, it is abundantly clear that management aims to restructure the relationship between the union and the organization fundamentally.…They want a weak union that will do what management wants at an ever-faster pace, with staff offered unequal working conditions while receiving lesser benefits and less security.”

Members have also pointed out that this strike could be a bellwether of what is to come in legal services citywide, as many other legal service worker contracts expire next summer.

As one union member tells us, “What happens to workers at MFJ portends what will happen to workers elsewhere, making the significance of this fight particularly pronounced.”

The struggle at one mid-sized New York City legal services employer may seem small. But it has broader implications. Our labor is connected to that of other workers, and our fight for a fair contract will impact what workers can fight for when their time to bargain comes up.