Lawyers at the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau, experienced practitioners of the persuasive arts in the courtroom, say they need a labor union to negotiate better pay and working conditions for them.
Union organizers have asked the National Labor Relations Board to hold a representation election among some 150 lawyers and legal assistants employed by the non-profit agency, which represents low-income clients.
An NLRB hearing on the petition by employees is to resume Oct. 1, after which an election date would be set.
In July, organizers asked Legal Aid to recognize the National Organization of Legal Services Workers as their bargaining agent and presented authorization cards from more than half the affected work force.
When management refused, the NLRB petition was filed asking for a vote.
"There's a long history of frustration about salaries and about staff input into decisions," said Lisa Horowitz, an attorney with the Princes George's County office who is on the union organizing committee.
"Last week, we saw the first pay increase in 2 1/2 years," and there is no plan for future salary increases, she said. The raises varied by job and seniority, she said.
Starting salaries for attorneys are as low as $21,000 a year, and starting paralegals get $12,000, according to other Legal Aid employees.
"I do not believe that a union would be helpful" because of the corporation's non-profit status, said Charles Dorsey, executive director.
Staff members already have a voice in decisions, he insisted. He said issues raised by the union group were not brought to his attention prior to the organizing effort.
But Ms. Horowitz countered, "We tried to work through channels on these concerns without success." A state agency report urging greater staff involvement in decisions has not been implemented to address many of the issues, she added.
At issue in the NLRB hearing is whether a dozen "managing attorneys" should be included in the proposed union unit. Management says they are supervisors who should be exempt, and union supporters say they are experienced, non-supervisory employees who should vote.
The organizing effort among staff began early this year. The National Organization of Legal Services Workers, which represents employees of Legal Aid and other public interest organizations in 30 states, provided technical help in the drive, Ms. Horowitz said.
Organizers originally hoped to include clerical workers in the unit but did not find sufficient support among those employees. Efforts to organize clericals and paralegals by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in 1972 and 1978 failed.
Management first objected to the inclusion of legal assistants, or paralegals, with lawyers in the proposed union group but later dropped that objection.
Dwight Loines, president of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, said the lengthy NLRB hearing on the eligibility of a small number of employees was exceptional. Despite the delay in getting an election date, the union effort continues to gather strength, he said.
"We've never lost an election," Mr. Loines said of his 10-year-old organization, which is affiliated with the United Auto Workers union.