Cleveland city lawyers want to join Teamsters, citing years of low pay and job …
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CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Civil attorneys in the city of Cleveland's law department have petitioned to join the Teamsters and become the first municipal law department in Ohio to unionize.
But Mayor Frank Jackson's administration has hired a private law firm specializing in labor law to foil the movement, arguing that the city lawyers are legally bound to remain loyal to their public employer, and that joining a union would split their allegiance.
The two sides are in the midst of hearings before the State Employment Relations Board, which ultimately will decide whether the city lawyers should enjoy the same right to organize as other public employees or remain at-will civil servants.
Municipal attorneys have formed unions in other cities across the country, including San Francisco, Washington D.C., St. Paul, Minn. and Houston. But according to a spokesman for the Ohio Municipal League, Cleveland's law department would be the first of its kind in Ohio to become a collective bargaining unit.
Attorneys representing the city lawyers and Teamsters did not return calls for comment this week, and the city's attorney deferred to its client for a statement.
Maureen Harper, chief of communications for Jackson, affirmed in a written statement that the city will fight the effort to unionize.
"These are lawyers," she wrote. "You have to have a high level of trust and confidence in your lawyers that cannot be maintained if we go through this process."
The city attorneys first filed their petition with SERB in July to join Teamsters local 436 on behalf of 39 assistant city law directors.
Attorney George Faulkner, who is representing the attorneys and Teamsters, stated in a motion filed in September that the city lawyers have earned low, "stagnating wages" for years and historically have been the last in line for pay increases, especially during tight budgetary times.
An attorney who served the city for a decade makes about $50,000, Faulkner wrote, while nonprofessionals in other departments have been hired "off the street" at higher wages. As unclassified civil servants, the attorneys have no system of seniority to protect them in the event of layoffs and can be subject to discipline at the whims of city leaders without due process, he wrote.
According to city records, the average assistant law director's salary is about $60,000. The highest paid among them makes $79,000 a year.
"These public employees with years of service invested with the City are falling behind because they lack a collective voice in the workplace that virtually all other City employees have," Faulkner wrote.
Former City Law Director Subodh Chandra filed a brief on behalf of the lawyers in September, attesting to the effect that low salaries have on morale within the department. Chandra endorsed the movement to organize and said that ensuring fair compensation will help keep the "best and brightest" attorneys from fleeing the city for private sector jobs.
The city, which hired lawyers from the Cleveland firm Littler Mendolson, filed a motion to dismiss the organizers' request, arguing that the assistant law directors are not "public employees," who enjoy the right to organize under state law, but rather are "employees of a public official," who represent the legal interests of the city and must remain loyal to its law director and other interests.
Stephen Sferra, the city's hired lawyer, cites Ohio labor law prohibiting unions among workers whose positions are vested with the trust and confidence of their public employers. The motion points out that city lawyers frequently deal with information used during the city's collective bargaining process with other unions. And it adds that several of the civil attorneys also work as prosecutors in the city's Housing Court. Those roles classify the lawyers as "confidential employees" or "assistant prosecuting attorneys" -- both of which cannot join a bargaining unit, Sferra contended.
The assistant law directors are responsible for providing legal advice to the mayor, City Council and all city departments and commissions, he wrote. They handle litigation involving civil rights and police misconduct claims, negligence claims, contract and construction disputes, environmental issues and First-Amendment matters. They draft legislation and act as counsel to the city-owned utilities and the airport.
The lawyers typically specialize in one field but could be called upon to perform any legal duty, Sferra wrote.
The city lawyers countered that their responsibilities to the city do not render them ineligible for collective bargaining.
They are rank-and-file staff attorneys, who were never appointed to perform high-level fiduciary functions for Law Director, Barbara Langhenry, Faulkner contended. Langhenry must approve every action the lawyers take, and they have no authority to act on their own volition on cases. Each document they prepare --from a mortgage deed to a lawsuit settlement -- must be approved and signed by the law director.
None of the lawyers participates in collective bargaining with unions; the city historically hires outside counsel to perform that work, Faulkner wrote. And although one of the city lawyers prosecutes tax violations in Housing Court, he is not classified as one of the city's "assistant prosecutors."
Sean Connolly, president of the Municipal Attorneys Association of San Francisco, said in an interview Thursday that his collective bargaining unit has ensured decent salaries, benefits and job stability for its 400 members.
Before the union's inception in the early 1990s, city lawyers earned poor benefits and low wages without raises for nearly a decade and faced wholesale firings without severance pay with each new administration, he said.
"A city benefits when its employees are happy," Connolly said. "To make them happy you have to give them a wage they can live on and some security. That goes a long way toward making them more vested in the work they do."