A three-year legal battle between Maryland Legal Aid Bureau Inc. attorneys and their bosses is intensifying, paralyzing the operations of the agency that is supposed to help Maryland's disadvantaged resolve their legal disputes, attorneys in and outside of the group said yesterday.
The managers of the bureau said yesterday they will appeal an administrative law judge's finding that they violated labor laws. And while union negotiators tangle with management on that front, union members are waging an internal war: The head of the Baltimore offices of the National Labor Relations Board said he will decide by tomorrow the fate of a petition by some staff members for a vote on whether to get rid of the union.
"The advocates for the poor are fighting amongst themselves . . . and the dispute is paralyzing the organization," said Rick North, who runs a law clinic for the disadvantaged at the University of Maryland.
Joseph K. Pokempner, attorney for the managers at the bureau, said yesterday he would ask the five-member NLRB governing panel in Washington to overturn a finding that the managers committed unfair labor practices by unilaterally placing a limit on health insurance benefits, canceling three holidays and creating new managerial jobs.
In a ruling dated Feb. 22, Administrative Law Judge Stephen J. Gross ordered the bureau to remove the cap on health insurance payouts, give each of the 185 employees covered by the union three days' back pay for the missed holidays and negotiate about the new positions.
Mr. Pokempner said the managers had to put a $1 million lifetime cap on insurance payouts because one employee's child has cerebral palsy, and the insurer was balking at the family's $23,000-a-month medical costs.
And the bureau eliminated three floating holidays for 1992 because the bureau, which is funded by the government and by private donations, couldn't afford to allow employees to miss work that year, he said.
In addition, he said, the managers have tried to negotiate with the union for months, but the Maryland Legal Aid Workers Union, which is Local 2320 of the United Auto Workers, "has been extremely unreasonable."
In the meantime, about a third of the staff members have signed a petition asking the NLRB to hold another election so that they can decide whether to get rid of the union.
Louis D'Amico, NLRB director of the Baltimore region, said yesterday he will decide by Friday what to do about the decertification petition.
Jeffrey Taylor, a bureau attorney who is leading the decertification drive, said that although he supported the union at first, he believes the union now is focusing on minor issues, such as a few missed holidays, and has become divisive.
Many minority staff members feel excluded from the union, said Mr. Taylor, who is black.
But Louise Carwell, former president of the local and lead negotiator for the union, said that the decertification drive has been fomented by managers who have steadfastly refused to negotiate in good faith since the union was voted in three years ago. Ms. Carwell said that while none of the local's leaders are black, the benefits the union is fighting for, such as better health insurance, would benefit all members, regardless of their race.