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Employees at Curran, Berger & Kludt move to unionize with UAW Local 2322

By R. Nicholas

On December 7th, 2020, UAW Local 2322 released a press statement on behalf of the paralegals and admin staff at Northampton immigration law firm Curran, Berger & Kludt (CBK). According to the press release, workers reached out to the firm’s partners on Friday, December 4, 2020, announcing their intent to form a union, requesting voluntary recognition. “A vast majority of the employees in the proposed bargaining unit signed recognition cards showing their interest in forming a union,” states the document, cards which have since been submitted to the National Labor Relations Review Board (NLRB).

“We do not believe a drawn-out election process is in any of our interests,” wrote the workers. “We are eager to come together and help make this an even more sustainable and empowering workplace for all of us.”

The Shoestring spoke to two paralegals currently employed at CBK and involved in the bargaining unit, Maisie Kaiser and Jake Vogt, as well as Elizabeth Webb, an organizer at UAW 2322, about how the firm has responded over the last month, the current state of bargaining, and recent tactics implemented by the partners at CBK (Joseph Curran, Dan Berger, and Megan Kludt).

On how organizing began at CBK, Kaiser explained that small discussions about potential unionization started before the company went remote due to the pandemic. “These conversations had started to die down a little at that point, but then things started to get pretty bad in terms of caseloads, having too many cases to keep track of and having to work overtime,” she said. “Our top three priorities are caseloads, time off, and compensation.”

Both paralegals noted the difficulty in taking paid time off (PTO) due to the time sensitive nature of the work. “You can get time off when you need it,” said Kaiser, “but we go into PTO debt, so a lot of people are in negative PTO and it’s really hard for people who have chronic health conditions or people who have kids or really any sort of circumstance that causes you to miss work.”

“The caseload makes that complicated too,” explained Vogt, “because we do time sensitive work and our clients have deadlines, it’s one thing to say you have paid time off but if you have a million things that all have to happen before the end of the month, you effectively can’t use it.”

“My hope is that the union will provide a level of transparency to our jobs that we do not currently have,” said Ella Connolly, another paralegal involved in current organizing. “For example: What can I expect to make in my current role in the future? Is there a standard entry-level salary or is it based on years of experience and educational background? When this information is not provided it makes it hard for employees to realistically plan a long-term career at CBK.”

According to the union’s press release, “the request for voluntary union recognition … expressed a desire to establish a more democratic decision-making process, as well as to improve employee longevity, workload sustainability, and job security.” When discussing pay, the paralegals raised concerns about the inconsistency and lack of transparency regarding raise schedules within the firm and a desire for a more structured system. Vogt, a newer hire who has only been with the firm for six months, said that there was a period of time where he was paid more than another paralegal who had been at the firm for two years. While this pay discrepancy was not done intentionally, it reflects the lack of a secure raise system, with pay increases instead being up to the whim of the employers on a case by case basis.

“At first we were just met with silence,” said Webb, regarding the partners’ initial response. “We filed a petition with the NLRB, and sent a letter to the attorneys making it clear that we wanted voluntary recognition, and that we had filed a petition with a majority and were ready for a union election.” But soon, she said, the attorneys began sending emails to the staff disparaging the union and using common union-busting talking points, like reminding workers that they would have to pay dues and that unionizing would risk jeopardizing the firm’s “familial relationship.”

“We didn’t expect the response that we’re getting, but we were certainly prepared for it and you can see that in how this continues to play out,” said Kaiser. “I think we were all under the impression that because of the politics espoused by the partners publicly, we kind of thought that there’s a pretty good chance they might just choose to recognize us. That’s not at all what we got, but I’m really glad that we laid the groundwork that we did and made sure that we knew the process and knew the ways that this could happen. Since we ended up facing a great deal more resistance than we thought, it’s really shown us just how important it is that we have this solid community amongst each other.”

Another thing that the CBK partners have claimed regarding the employee pay raise schedule is that raises are currently frozen because of the union. Usually, the firm has a yearly review, where a raise expectation is fairly standard. “Since the petition has been filed we’ve heard a few times from partners that ‘we won’t be able to give raises because it would be an unfair labor practice and breaking the law’,” said Webb. “But of course we know that unions don’t file unfair labor practices over things that they agree with. So they’re using the tactics of classic union busting to twist the narrative, but it’s not working!”

“There have been a lot of times where we have to say ‘no, we know the rules on this’ or ‘we know how this is supposed to go’,” Webb continued. “I think they’re not quite aware of how together we are and how clear our communication is amongst each other. I think they’re starting to get that idea but there’s definitely a lot of personal talk of ‘you’re hurting the attorney’s feelings’.” On this note, the paralegals mentioned a lengthy email sent out by one of the partners on December 28th directly asking the workers to withdraw the petition. Webb noted that this email may have been in violation of the City of Northampton’s 2012 “Right to Organize” resolution (Section 2B), which clearly states that employers must “respect that the question to unionize or not is for employees to decide and agree not to express an opinion either pro or con on the merits of unionization”.

When contacted for comment, managing partner Megan Kludt explained that the partners only recently learned about this resolution when an employee contacted the partners “expressing disappointment that we were not remaining completely neutral”. “The National Labor Relations Act, which is the law in this case, clearly allows CBK to express our opinions on this matter and provide information to employees about what type of organization is seeking to represent them,” Kludt stated in an email to The Shoestring. “As far as we know, we are the first private immigration law firm to face this type of issue and we want to make sure each staff member can make an informed choice if this proceeds to an election and other ethical questions are resolved,” she continued.

“At the NLRB level, the employer is essentially making two arguments against the union,” said Webb. “They are making an obscure argument that there is some kind of conflict of interest due to CBK clients being employers of other unionized employees. It has no precedent and frankly doesn’t make any sense. They are also claiming that paralegals are confidential employees, but this has no bearing either and the NLRB has already previously decided paralegals are not confidential employees.”

“One of the things we decided was to pretty quickly put our names to this, at least most of the people in support of the union,” said Kaiser. “This was a response to one of the office-wide emails that the managing partner, Megan Kludt, sent out. We responded to her concerns about why a union would be bad for us, each one of us who was comfortable responded to that in a thread with a short message just saying ‘I’m in support of the union because of x, y, and z and think this will be a really good thing’ and signed our name. I hope that that went a long way towards showing that this is something we’re doing because we really think it’s going to improve our workplace, the work we do for our clients, and the relationships we have with each other. We want to get across that the union is not some ominous third party, it’s actually the people that you already work with, trust and care about. We got a lot of people to participate in that action and we did notice the management’s tone soften a little bit after that.”

In response, Kludt stated that the desire from CBK staff to organize came as a surprise but expressed that the partners respected the rights of the employees to seek unionization, while saying that they believed the best way to make the decision would be through a secret ballot election overseen by the NLRB. “This will allow more time for all of our staff (and management) to have the opportunity to become better informed about what it means to be represented by a union and how a union might impact the CBK work environment,” said Kludt. “CBK is a small law firm and we are proud of our history of working with our employees directly. We do not know of any similar law firms who have undergone such a change so we are also actively exploring how the change might affect our responsibilities to some of our clients, both ethically and professionally. We do not believe the UAW is best for the firm, but we respect the right of our staff to choose freely whether they want to be represented by a union. If the union is certified, we will honor the decision of our employees.”

While Kludt stated that it was the partners’ belief that the names provided to them represented less than sixty percent of eligible employees, the paralegals we spoke to placed the number closer to seventy percent.

Another concern raised by the organizing committee was the law firm’s hiring of John Maitland, an employment lawyer who the workers noted is the protégé of Peter B. Robb, the General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017. Robb was involved in filing unfair labor practices on behalf of the Reagan administration regarding the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization which was when Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers in the 1980s.

In response to a question about this, Kludt firmly stated that the firm is and has been “completely dedicated to protecting immigrants in the Valley and nationally during the Trump Administration. When you say our attorney, John Maitland, ‘has ties’, I think that means they both were at the same firm. If a lawyer formerly employed at John’s firm is now serving in Washington, we don’t see that as compromising our work.”

“We don’t need the law to tell us that CBK workers have a union,” said Webb. “They’re a union because they say they are, and they have majority support and they’ve created a collective and a democracy in their workplace. And I think that has really shown through in a lot of ways in this drive because they’re not just relying on the law to tell them they’re a union. We need recognition to legally bargain, but their solidarity runs deeper than that.”

“Building a safer world—for our clients and ourselves—means not only confronting the symptoms of anti-immigrant hate-mongering, but addressing the root causes themselves,” states the workers’ press release. “Everyday people should have a say over the decisions that affect their lives. Democracy does not only belong in politics—it belongs in the workplace too. Forming a union at CBK is a concrete step toward normalizing those ideals everywhere.”

R. Nicholas is a contributing editor to The Shoestring.

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