Report Back on the Movement since Autumn 2015’s Strike with Some UCA Members
In the Spring/Summer of 2014, a new agency tried to lower the Romanian language rates by $5.00 per hour. The Romanian team, having worked together in the past, decided to support each other’s resistance by emailing each other as a group, forwarding each other copies of their email refusals to recruiters, and encouraging each other to hold out until the prevailing market rate was offered. They succeeded. A year later, at the same employer, Turkish and Russian language reviewers successfully raised their wages as well by approaching their managers collectively and showing current market rate offers from other agencies. Building on this success, four Romanian language contract attorneys decided to strike after their unsuccessful attempts to collectively bargain to raise the market rate through tactics such as a collectively drafted and economically sound letter to their managers.
After their attempts to negotiate for higher wages were rebuffed, they learned from National Lawyers Guild labor lawyers that New York law allows striking workers to collect unemployment benefits after 49 days of striking. Choosing a date just prior to the start of the next phase of the project, they took turns sending emails to their employer, copying everyone so no individual would be targeted and to emphasize the concerted and collective nature of their demands.
In response, their former employer recognized the strike, though the employer elected to continue with only the four Romanian language reviewers who were unwilling to participate in the strike. The striking Romanian team went on to successfully collectively bargain for higher wages at other projects. They openly copied each other on emails asking for higher wages and showed recruiters copies of higher offers from other agencies, taking advantage of the competitive bidding process. While the competitive bidding process has historically lowered reviewer wages, reviewers are learning now to use this process to their advantage as they fight back to raise wages.
Using this transparent and solidarity building technique, the Romanian team drove their market wages up as high as $15.00 more per hour. Some of the attorneys went on to work at higher rates. Although their former employer continued without them, the reviewers succeeded in causing economic harm to their former employer and changed the prevailing market rate for future projects at other agencies as offers have continued to come in at these higher rates.
Since then, United Contact Attorneys has communicated with contract attorneys in San Francisco, Washington DC, and Miami, sharing strategies with other contract attorneys who want to collectively bargain. Organizing themselves into groups and supporting each other, other foreign language contract attorneys have increased their collective bargaining efforts using similar strategies, upping the ante and raising the rates for the more commonly spoken Portuguese and Spanish in NY, DC and Miami. For Portuguese, the rates have gone up as much as $15.00 per hour, and rates have risen as much as $5.00 per hour for Spanish, and $15.00 per hour in Miami.
This is an important and inspiring story for English reviewers as Spanish rates have traditionally been even lower than English rates in Miami because of the plethora of Spanish-speaking lawyers in the area. If the Spanish speakers can collectively bargain their rates upwards in Miami, then English reviewers can do it too! It just takes community building, solidarity, and guts.
Reflections on the Experience as We GROW OUR MOVEMENT:
In retrospect, applying escalation strategies such as wearing pins to show solidarity would have bought the Romanian team more time to convince fellow colleagues to join the strike and could have avoided the use of the final bargaining chip of striking so early. It's also clear that contract attorneys need the support of the press to raise awareness, generate support for our cause, and shame managers for being so selfish when the law firms and agencies have such high profit margins on our heads. We need to be bold and recognize that the public is interested in supporting our efforts. Public attention puts pressure on the agencies to do what is right, pay us better wages, and improve our working conditions. Effective social change is waged in the court of public opinion. Please continue to organize with us, show resistance, and build solidarity as we change the industry to safeguard our futures!
Talking at Work
Earlier this year (2015), one of our contract attorneys was working on a project where management set forth a host of rules which included the instruction that there was to be no talking at work, regardless of whether or not the discussion was work-related. This, understandably, contributed to a climate of fear in the workplace. Some of the foreign-language contract attorneys on this project, who felt that they might have more leverage than others, approached management about this. Prior to the meeting with management, the attorneys agreed to leave the job if management was not amenable to doing away with the rule. During the meeting, management agreed that the contract attorneys would be allowed to talk at work within reasonable limits, but subsequent emails to the entire group of contract attorneys reminded them of the rules still included the restriction on talking while at work.
Shortly after these incidents, the UCA went public and appeared in the press, such as the Wall Street Journal. In one WSJ article, the restriction on talking was specifically called out by one of our members. Since this time, management at this agency has not repeated its request that workers not talk to one another while at work. It seems incredibly likely that this is a result of the concerted effort by the assertive contract attorneys at this agency combined with the public knowledge that there are attorneys organizing for better workplace conditions. Together, we can recapture our dignity and reduce the sense of fear we all face from time to time as temporary contract attorneys.