Queens Public Defenders Push to Unionize. Management Calls Them a ‘Mob.’
Queens Defenders staff rally over Zoom in advance of announcing union drive | ALAA

Queens Public Defenders Push to Unionize. Management Calls Them a ‘Mob.’

A wave of legal aid attorneys are joining the labor movement. But bosses say it’s bad for business and the unions just want to collect their dues.

Published in partnership with THE CITY.

Like colleagues at other nonprofit legal defense groups in New York City and around the country, employees of Queens Defenders are looking to join a union.

But not if management can help it.

During a two-hours-plus video conference Monday, Queens Defenders co-founder and executive director Lori Zeno attempted to dissuade employees from unionizing, a recording obtained by New York Focus shows.

Zeno accused the union of being a “mob-like group” that uses “threats,” “coercion” and “manipulation” in its organizing efforts.

Last month, Queens Defenders employees announced their plan to organize under the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALAA), an affiliate of the United Auto Workers that represents workers at legal nonprofits. Ninety percent of eligible employees signed union authorization cards signaling their support, according to union representatives.

Zeno disputed the level of support claimed by union representatives. “They don’t have 90%. They’re full of shit,” she told New York Focus.

“Who does the union represent? Themselves, UAW,” she said. “It’s a business for them. They really don’t care about what’s underneath it. They get their dues.”

Management at Queens Defenders declined to voluntarily recognize the union — beginning a potentially months-long process that will culminate in an election administered by the National Labor Relations Board. 

Zeno told New York Focus she would accept the results of the election. “If they really want a union and they vote for a union, it is what it is. I’m not going to start punishing people,” she said.

Yet at Monday’s meeting, Zeno spoke without interruption for over two hours about the risks of unionization. No questions were solicited or asked, and no other management or staff spoke other than to make cursory housekeeping remarks.

Warning employees against “inviting in a third party” by unionizing, Zeno said that unions “often bring disruption and conflict. That’s just what unions do. They create an adversarial workplace.”

“The coercion and manipulation that has gone on has already started tearing us apart,” she added.

‘Out of the Union-Busting Playbook’

Queens Defenders has its roots in a for-profit law firm called Queens Law Associates, formed in 1996 as then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani responded to a Legal Aid strike by bidding out much of the city’s public defender work to other organizations. Queens Law Associates reincorporated as a nonprofit in 2009 and changed its name to Queens Defenders in early 2020. 

Even as a nonprofit, it retains the flavor of a family business: Zeno’s brother, Florida venture capitalist Don Uderlitz, is a Queens Defenders trustee, the group’s IRS filings show.

Two of Zeno’s children, Zoe Zeno and Zachary Zeno, are also employed by Queens Defenders, according to colleagues. Lori Zeno said that the trustees approved both hires, a decision from which her brother recused himself.

Following the Dec. 16 announcement of the union drive, Queens Defenders hired the law firm Clifton, Budd, & DeMaria to represent it in legal proceedings. That firm traces its record back to 1900s efforts to squelch a blooming labor movement and recently represented the New School against its graduate students’ union.

The firm’s website says that it “stand[s] ready to advise on lawful union-free campaigns as well as effectively defend employer interests” and provides its clients with “the ability to speak confidently to employees about the risks of unionization.”

Zeno appeared to be reading from a script during her presentation — once noting that she had “lost her spot,” and at another point saying, “I wasn’t supposed to go off script.” 

Her presentation was “straight out of the union-busting 101 playbook,” said Alexi Shalom, ALAA’s lead organizer on the campaign.

Zeno also claimed that organizers had misled employees regarding the significance of their signing union authorization cards. 

“You were told, ‘This isn’t a vote for the union, this is just to get the issues brought to the table,’” she said. “But then what happened? The very first thing that the union did was call for management to recognize you as a union.”

Zeno declined to refer New York Focus to employees who could confirm the allegation. Social worker Emily Duran told New York Focus that employees knew full well what they were committing to in signing the cards. “We were really clear in letting everyone know that it [signing cards] was a step towards having a union,” she said.

Under federal labor law, at least 30% of employees must sign union cards in order for an election to be held. If a majority of employees has signed cards, management can choose either to recognize the union or to ask the NLRB to hold an election.

Seeking Pay Transparency

The proposed union would include the roughly 70 attorneys and social workers employed by Queens Defenders, but not administrative and support staff.

As part of a national trend in public defense unionization, union membership among New York’s public defenders has been growing. Harlem-based Neighborhood Defender Services unionized in 2018, also over the opposition of management. In June 2020, Bronx Defenders voluntarily recognized a union after a majority of staff signed union cards. This morning, staff at the city’s Office of the Appellate Defender announced a union drive.

ALAA has delivered significant wins for its members. In 2019, the union was part of a coalition of legal aid organizations that successfully lobbied to ensure pay parity between public defenders, prosecutors, and other city attorneys during the first five years of employment. 

While Queens Defenders employees benefited from the pact, they hope to go further. 

“We don’t have a lot of transparency in terms of our pay scale,” said staff attorney Chris Van Zele. “Just knowing what the scale is and what we can expect, that there’s a policy in place that we can rely on,” he said, would be one advantage of unionizing.

Attorneys contend that unionizing will benefit the firm’s clients as well as staff, as court officials grapple with a mounting backlog of cases following pandemic shutdowns. 

“There’s going to be pressure from the courts to get cases moving and basically to get pleas done,” Van Zele said. A union would help attorneys resist pressure to take unwanted pleas, he said.

Risks and Retaliation

Zeno contends that her organization’s nonunion status is vital to its survival. Queens Defenders’ current contract with the Mayor’s Office expires in June, and the groups must periodically rebid to retain the work.

“We were put into existence as an alternate provider to the Legal Aid Society so that if Legal Aid went on strike, the system wouldn’t shut down,” she told New York Focus. She also described her group’s role as a deterrent against labor unrest: “There’s a reason why in the last 25 years, Legal Aid hasn’t gone on strike. That reason is because we exist.”

“They’re young, and they’re impressionable, they sort of go along with the mob mentality,” Zeno said of some union supporters among her staff. “They have to be realistic. I mean, this is a business.”

In the meeting, Zeno told employees: “There is something that you’re risking if you vote for this union, and it would be catastrophic … and that is our relationship with the city, with our funders.”

Ethan Felder, a Queens union lawyer and Democratic district leader, said it is unlikely that unionization would put Queens Defenders’ contract at risk. “I don’t think that the City of New York would retaliate against workers for choosing to have a union represent them,” he said.

“That may have happened in the Giuliani era, but these are not the Giuliani times anymore when it comes to unions and labor in this town. We don’t have nearly the level of hostility towards workers and labor unions now that we did then.”

Albany Just Blew it on Climate, Again
Albany Just Blew it on Climate, Again
Only big, strong, mean grassroots campaigns can turn this around ...

By

Wage Theft Got Worse During Covid. A Stalled Bill Could Give Workers Leverage To Fight Back
Wage Theft Got Worse During Covid. A Stalled Bill Could Give Workers Leverage To Fight Back
Cuomo pledged to deal with rampant wage theft this year, then failed to deliver. Now, a bill to recover stolen wages is unlikely to pass the legislature....

By

Inside New York’s Grueling Parole Application Process
Inside New York’s Grueling Parole Application Process
As legislators consider reforms to New York’s parole system, former prison officials and incarcerated people describe the barriers to parole release....

By

Progressives Mobilize to Block Cuomo’s Tough-on-Crime Pick For Highest NY Court
Progressives Mobilize to Block Cuomo’s Tough-on-Crime Pick For Highest NY Court
Madeline Singas, a close Cuomo ally, has been a prominent opponent of criminal justice reforms and has taken a punitive approach as Nassau County DA, defenders say....

By

How a Tenant Revolt Sank NYCHA’s Biggest Overhaul Plan in Years
How a Tenant Revolt Sank NYCHA’s Biggest Overhaul Plan in Years
With a week left in the legislative session, New York lawmakers shelved a plan that aimed to revamp 25,000 NYCHA apartments....

By

Anticipating Pushback From Finance, Enviros Move to Regulate Energy-Intensive Crypto Mining
Anticipating Pushback From Finance, Enviros Move to Regulate Energy-Intensive Crypto Mining
Founded by a major Cuomo donor, Renaissance Technologies is set to become a stakeholder in upstate mining operation that touched off backlash against Bitcoin....

By

How New York State Let Covid-19 Run Rampant in Prisons
How New York State Let Covid-19 Run Rampant in Prisons
First, the state failed to protect people in prison from the virus. Then, it obscured the full scope of the crisis, advocates charge....

By

Inside the chemical lobby’s unusual campaign to protect the fire retardant business
Inside the chemical lobby’s unusual campaign to protect the fire retardant business
Chemical industry lobbyists are aggressively fighting a bill that would ban the use of toxic flame retardants—including by placing stories in local news outlets with quotes from a tenant organizer w...

By

A Manhattan DA Candidate Touts Her Leadership of a Conviction Review Unit. Why Did It Exonerate So Few People?
A Manhattan DA Candidate Touts Her Leadership of a Conviction Review Unit. Why Did It Exonerate So Few People?
Under Tali Farhadian Weinstein’s leadership, Brooklyn’s unit exonerated just three people — a far lower rate than in previous years....

By

Could Public Ownership Save the New York Power System?
Could Public Ownership Save the New York Power System?
New York’s profit-driven power system leads to higher costs, more blackouts, and more fossil fuels, activists say....

By

The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act Gets A Slow Start
The Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act Gets A Slow Start
Two years after New York enacted a high-profile law to reduce prison sentences for domestic violence survivors, few survivors have seen much benefit....

By and

Two years after passing a landmark climate law, New York has no plan to fund it
Two years after passing a landmark climate law, New York has no plan to fund it
Governor Cuomo just approved the largest budget in New York history — and it has virtually no new funding to help meet the goals in New York's landmark climate law....

By

Why Is New York Still Taxing Unemployment Benefits?
Why Is New York Still Taxing Unemployment Benefits?
Unemployed New Yorkers are receiving surprise tax bills. Republican legislators joined with progressive Democrats to move to waive taxes on benefits, following the lead of most other states and the fe...

By

Gas plant in Newburgh tests limits of NY’s landmark climate law
Gas plant in Newburgh tests limits of NY’s landmark climate law
Can New York meet its emissions goals if it green-lights more fossil fuel infrastructure? A proposal to rebuild a fracked-gas plant will set the precedent....

By

Health Care Costs for Retired City Workers Could Dramatically Increase Under City Plan
Health Care Costs for Retired City Workers Could Dramatically Increase Under City Plan
A quarter million retired city workers could be left with bigger health insurance bills and fewer doctor choices under a city plan to change their health insurance....

By

A New Threat to New York’s Clean Energy Goals: Bitcoin Mining
A New Threat to New York’s Clean Energy Goals: Bitcoin Mining
A Finger Lakes power plant plans to ramp up energy-intensive Bitcoin mining. If the state allows it to proceed, environmentalists warn dozens of fossil-fueled plants could follow....

By

Thousands of New Yorkers are in Prison for Life. These D.A. Candidates Want to Change That
Thousands of New Yorkers are in Prison for Life. These D.A. Candidates Want to Change That
Manhattan D.A. candidates vow to reduce lengthy sentences—but sharp differences between their approaches remain...

By

What Made It Into The Budget – And What Was Left Out
What Made It Into The Budget – And What Was Left Out
The major provisions of New York's 2021 budget....

By , and

Homelessness Priorities Won’t Make the State Budget, Lawmakers and Advocates Say
Homelessness Priorities Won’t Make the State Budget, Lawmakers and Advocates Say
“A year from now, this money will still be in the hands of Governor Cuomo, unused - and that’s exactly what he wants.”...

By

“A byzantine and high-bar system”: Governor pushes to saddle undocumented workers fund with documentation requirements
“A byzantine and high-bar system”: Governor pushes to saddle undocumented workers fund with documentation requirements
State lawmakers and workers' rights advocates warned that burdensome proof-of-employment requirements may mean the funds go unspent....

By

Will New York’s Rent Relief Program Address The Problems that Hobbled The Last One?
Will New York’s Rent Relief Program Address The Problems that Hobbled The Last One?
Governor Andrew Cuomo is pushing to impose stringent requirements, according to lawmakers and tenant advocates, that could delay and decrease aid....

By

Where are the Safe Injection Facilities Cuomo Promised for New York?
Where are the Safe Injection Facilities Cuomo Promised for New York?
He committed three years ago to supporting safe injection sites for drug users — then reversed course, activists say. Now, they see a new chance to pressure the embattled governor....

By

Legislature Seeks to End “Arbitrary Limit” on Medicaid Spending
Legislature Seeks to End “Arbitrary Limit” on Medicaid Spending
A 2011 rule prevents New York from adequately funding Medicaid, advocates say. This year’s budget could see it repealed. ...

By

Will Rental Vouchers to Prevent Homelessness Make the State Budget?
Will Rental Vouchers to Prevent Homelessness Make the State Budget?
The legislature is pushing for a statewide rental assistance program that advocates say would be one the largest efforts to combat homelessness in recent memory....

By

New York’s biggest climate problem—and opportunity
New York’s biggest climate problem—and opportunity
Buildings may be New York’s top source of emissions. The state should follow the city’s lead in cleaning them up....

By

In an Upstate Jail, Incarcerated People Struggle to Access Promised Addiction Treatment
In an Upstate Jail, Incarcerated People Struggle to Access Promised Addiction Treatment
In 2019, Broome County promised an addiction treatment program in its jail. Two years later, the program is a “farce,” one advocate said. ...

By

Records Reveal New York’s Growing Mountain of Water Debt
Records Reveal New York’s Growing Mountain of Water Debt
Advocates are pushing the legislature to extend and strengthen a moratorium on water shutoffs set to expire at the end of the month....

By

Legislative Leadership to Propose $7 Billion in New Taxes, Sources Say
Legislative Leadership to Propose $7 Billion in New Taxes, Sources Say
Tax-the-rich advocates critiqued the figure as too low, and also said the Assembly is significantly behind the Senate on key progressive spending priorities....

By

Queens Public Defenders Win Unionization Vote
Queens Public Defenders Win Unionization Vote
After months of conflict involving alleged intimidation and potentially illegal firings, workers at Queens Defenders voted overwhelmingly to unionize....

By

“It Damages Democracy:” Watchdogs, Reporters, Slam “Non-Functional” Board of Elections Campaign Finance Website
“It Damages Democracy:” Watchdogs, Reporters, Slam “Non-Functional” Board of Elections Campaign Finance Website
Flaws in an updated website make it extremely difficult to track who is funding campaigns, journalists and watchdogs say, but the BOE insists that “the site is fully functioning.” ...

By

Will New York allow incarcerated people to access treatment for drug addiction?
Will New York allow incarcerated people to access treatment for drug addiction?
"People in prison deserve healthcare, and this is healthcare.” Legislators push to offer treatment for drug addiction in jails and prisons...

By

“Mired in Incrementalism”: Climate Action Council Proceedings Alarm Climate Advocates
“Mired in Incrementalism”: Climate Action Council Proceedings Alarm Climate Advocates
Under New York's climate law, the Climate Action Council is tasked with devising a plan to zero out emissions. Environmentalists on the Council say it's not on track....

By

In Manhattan D.A. Race, Momentum Builds to Decriminalize Sex Work
In Manhattan D.A. Race, Momentum Builds to Decriminalize Sex Work
In a striking sign of activists' success, most candidates running in the June election for DA say they would not prosecute cases involving consensual sex work....

By

“We Need to Hold Him Accountable”: After Sexual Harassment Allegations, Legislators Search for Ways to Respond
“We Need to Hold Him Accountable”: After Sexual Harassment Allegations, Legislators Search for Ways to Respond
With the state ethics commission widely seen as controlled by the governor, legislators are looking for other ways to investigate the allegations....

By

Top state lawmakers oppose Cuomo’s push to override NYC’s landmark climate law
Top state lawmakers oppose Cuomo’s push to override NYC’s landmark climate law
A new analysis finds that the governor’s proposal would “completely undermine” New York City’s climate law, setting the stage for a clash with the newly emboldened legislature....

By

As State Support Dwindles, New York’s Overdose Crisis is Only Getting Worse
As State Support Dwindles, New York’s Overdose Crisis is Only Getting Worse
State withholds have left harm reduction providers undersupplied, and informal overdose prevention networks are struggling to fill the gap....

By

Queens Defenders Fires Two Pro-Union Employees
Queens Defenders Fires Two Pro-Union Employees
Amid an ongoing union election at the Queens indigent defense law firm, two outspoken union supporters were fired without warning....

By

“It’s a life or death situation out here”: a brutal winter for unsheltered New Yorkers
“It’s a life or death situation out here”: a brutal winter for unsheltered New Yorkers
“We sleep together like chickens”: Street homeless New Yorkers describe the struggle to endure the pandemic-era winter....

By

Will Manhattan’s Next D.A. Break Ranks With Tough-on-Crime Colleagues?
Will Manhattan’s Next D.A. Break Ranks With Tough-on-Crime Colleagues?
Three candidates in the June election say they would not join the association of state DAs, which has fought measures such as bail reform....

By

“What am I to do?” An oral history of mothering children in online school
“What am I to do?” An oral history of mothering children in online school
“I’m the security guard, a mother, a father, a teacher, I’m everything." Parents and children reflect on a year of remote learning and its impact on their finances, mental health, and family....

By

Subscribe to our Newsletter!

Be the first to hear about our stories - and get a nugget of NY history each week!