Bronx Defenders union authorizes potential strike

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The union representing Bronx Defenders attorneys and staff announced it has authorized a potential strike beginning the week of July 22 if bargaining demands for higher pay and other benefits aimed at preventing attrition are not accepted.

With 93% participation, 93% of union members voted on June 27 to authorize the bargaining committee to call a strike if necessary. The Unfair Labor Practice strike, if called, would disrupt service to clients in every court in the borough — housing, civil and criminal — as well as federal immigration court. 

About 20,000 Bronxites per year are served by the nonprofit Bronx Defenders, which provides legal representation and other holistic services. The Bronx Defenders Union-UAW Local 2325 represents approximately 260 members in all roles within the organization, including attorneys, paralegals, social workers and other non-attorney staff.  

Attorneys at the Bronx Defenders are the lowest paid public defenders in New York City, according to Samantha Espada, a staff attorney in criminal defense who grew up in the Bronx and Westchester and currently lives in the borough. Espada serves on the union’s bargaining committee.

Union members “actively want to reach a deal” to avoid a strike, Espada told the Bronx Times — but they accuse management of bargaining in bad faith, adding that the full executive management team was not present at negotiation meetings until a strike date was already announced. 

Over six months of negotiations, “management has not met their end of the deal,” Alexandria Jackman, an immigration attorney with the Bronx Defenders, said in an interview with the Bronx Times. 

The union’s primary push is for better pay. Jackman said that although public defenders generally feel a greater sense of purpose beyond the money, high attrition is a natural consequence when an attorney can do “literally the exact same job” elsewhere for a higher salary.

Attrition levels have become “overwhelming,” said Espada, leaving staff “continuously overworked” under heavy caseloads.

The union has not specified a dollar amount or percentage salary increase, but Jackman and Espada said that some kind of raise is necessary in order to recruit and retain staff. According to Espada, the union for which she is a delegate has lost about 60% of its bargaining unit just since the last contract was finalized in 2022. 

Hybrid work has become another sticking point tied to salary. According to Jackman, the management team wants all staff to work in the office every day but has not agreed to salary increases to help cover child care, transportation and other logistical needs.

Jackman said she was also upset by management’s proposal to eliminate funds for professional development. In the “dynamic legal world” of her field of immigration law, ongoing education is a necessity, she said.

The union is also calling for a one-year contract, which would bring renewal timing into alignment with similar organizations for greater bargaining power. 

The Bronx Times reached out to the Bronx Defenders and did not receive a detailed response on the record but “Bronx Defenders is committed to reaching a fair contract for everyone, and we look forward to an amicable resolution to this negotiation,” said Wesley Caines, the interim executive director of Bronx Defenders, in a statement. 

‘Haven’t gotten an honest answer’

The Bronx Defenders Union is relatively new and has only been through one prior contract negotiation in 2022. Jackman and Espada were not employed by the Bronx Defenders then, but although the last talks were said to be difficult, a strike was “nowhere near” a possibility, according to Jackman. 

This time around, management is not only refusing to meet new demands but is asking for “givebacks” from the prior contract, according to Espada. 

Espada and Jackman said management has cited financial challenges as a reason for denying the union’s requests — but has not produced records to prove a shortfall. 

The bargaining committee has asked “over and over again to show us the books” but has thus far seen only “partial information,” Espada said. 

Without clear evidence of financial constraints — or another explanation — Espada said union members are unclear as to why management has not met their contract demands. 

“It’s hard to fully assess what the picture is because we haven’t gotten an honest answer,” she said. 

Negotiations have been ongoing for six months and are “extremely difficult,” according to Espada, who said she always wanted to be a public defender and serve her home borough. While she said her dedication to the profession and her clients remains strong, the negotiation process has taken its toll. 

Jackman said if working conditions don’t soon improve, “I’d have to consider other options for work” — but she added, “I really hope it doesn’t come to that.” 

Despite the difficult contract talks, Jackman said she wants to remain with the Bronx Defenders. She said the organization has a “really great community at the office, and I love the community that we serve.”

Until July 22, Espada said the committee will continue talks with management in hopes of reaching a deal. 

“We want to avert a strike at all costs,” she said.

Reach Emily Swanson at or (646) 717-0015. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes