The staff of Lambda Legal is tired but not done.
In December 2017, while the nation’s leading LGBTQ legal organization was battling the first onslaught of rollbacks from the Trump administration, its staffers were tangled up in their own crisis. Cuts to staff benefits, overworking, low salaries, and discontent with leadership pushed workers to unionize.
This Monday—nearly two full years after that initial push—that union announced it had finally secured its first contract with management.
“This contract is security,” the union said in a statement. “It is knowing that Lambda Legal will be there for us so that we can continue to be there for those who need our help. It is the increased strength and efficacy of an organization—an organization that we and so many others believe in—when staff are guaranteed a seat at the table.”
The deal ends a grueling 16 months for the bargaining unit, which accused the organization of bringing in a union-busting law firm to stall on negotiations.
The group, credited with game-changing victories for queer Americans in the courts, has been in turmoil since 2017, when staff voted 42 to 8 to unionize. A deep dive into the fallout from The Huffington Post last year revealed that the organization had shed 50% of its staff since the installment of then-CEO Rachel Tiven—and that the organization had cut many of its employee benefits, including some trans-affirming health care that the organization was publicly suing other companies for denying to their employees.
Former CEO Rachel Tiven at a 2018 Lambda Legal award ceremony.
“You could talk to one person at Lambda, and they would say I always could get time off and be supported, and you would talk to another, and they would have a completely different experience,” a member of the bargaining unit who wished to remain anonymous tells NewNowNext.
Attorneys also lamented Tiven’s legal vision for the organization, which emphasized flashy brand-building national cases at the expense of state and municipal fights that advanced immigration and parenting rights, The Huffington Post reported.
Richard Saenz, a senior attorney at Lambda’s national headquarters in New York, describes that time as deeply difficult.
“I have such deep respect for the organization and my colleagues that it was hard to see us dealing with a change in leadership and wanting to be able to focus on the important work that we do everyday,” Saenz tells NewNowNext.
Since then, staffers say morale has improved, even without a contract. Tiven resigned a year ago, replaced by interim CEO Richard Burns, who has been praised internally.
Richard Burns, Lambda Legal's interim CEO.
“I personally think that there has been a positive shift over the past year, including the leadership,” Saenz adds.
“A year ago or two years ago there was a crisis,” says one employee, whose senior position makes him non-union (and who agreed to speak to NewNowNext on the condition of anonymity.) “I think the crisis is over. … There have been huge improvements over the last year, and a large number of significant grievances have been improved.”
In a statement, Burns celebrated the new contract, emphasizing that staff are the organization’s “most valuable asset.”
“This contract was negotiated in good faith and addresses priority improvements for staff while maintaining a fiscally responsible approach that allows the aggressive pursuit of our mission,” he said.
Still, the last two years have taken a toll, say employees, and not just because many are working 50- to 60-hour weeks against a presidential administration that is consistently hostile to LGBTQ people.
“I mean, there is definitely a sense of fatigue, especially for people who have been here a long time,” says one member of the bargaining unit, who also opened up to NewNowNext on the condition of anonymity. “I can’t pretend that people are really thrilled with where their salaries are now. … It’s hard because the bar is on the floor. It’s like, we raised it a little bit."
New Yorkers at an October 2018 protest in support of transgender rights.
The new contract requires that the lowest paid staff in New York City make at least $50,000 annually, which is more than $1,323 shy of what Business Insider recently estimated a single person in the boroughs spends just on basic necessities each year. Minimum attorney salaries working in NYC go up to $120,565 for project directors. Lambda Legal employees concede that it sounds like a lot of money; however, it’s actually only about half of the going rate most law firms in NYC offer for comparable positions.
Employees say the real sticking point is lower-level salaries, which some say don’t keep pace with the cost of living in major cities while staff surpass 40-hour work weeks to constant attacks on the LGBTQ community.
One staffer told NewNowNext they do side work to supplement a full-time Lambda salary—and that this is actually a common practice among staff.
“I know people who have done babysitting work,” the worker tells NewNowNext. That need for extra income won’t change under the new contract, the source says.
Burns tells NewNowNext that the group did a salary review in 2017 to bring it in line with similar non-profits.
"In addition to the union negotiations, in fall 2018 Lambda Legal’s management also worked to restore benefit cuts that had been implemented by the previous leadership, and to further enhance health care coverage for the Lambda Legal team," he says. "As a result of reaching a collective bargaining agreement, salaries and benefits for staff will be reviewed as part of the bargaining process with the union.”
What the contract does lock in is the reinstatement of slashed health care and retirement benefits, particularly when it comes to transgender health care.
“It took our negotiation to make sure that happened,” the member of the bargaining unit says.
The organization has also instituted a system for tracking overtime hours.
“People are willing to make significant sacrifices on their time for [Lambda Legal’s] mission,” says the non-union employee. “Considering the assaults the Trump administration is making on LGBTQ people, everyone needs to stay on guard. These are not normal times.”
Now, these extra hours won’t be done for free.
This story has been updated with comments from Lambda Legal interim CEO Richard Burns.