It’s a tough month for Mike Bloomberg. First his vaunted stop-and-frisk program is gutted and, despite his protestations that it was necessary, serious crime has dropped. And now a key component of his old company that he worked so hard to keep inhospitable to organized labor may be unionizing.

At least he has a few billion dollars to keep him from getting too sad.

But in the meantime, the process of setting up a union continues at Bloomberg Law. Can lawyers really unionize? What might this mean for the profession as a whole?

Peter Elkind at Fortune learned of the effort last week:

Fearful of layoffs and unhappy with work conditions, employees at a unit of Bloomberg LP, the former New York City mayor’s private data-and-media giant, have launched a campaign to unionize, Fortune has learned.

The drive, to join Local 32035 of the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild, involves about a hundred salaried data analysts at Bloomberg’s large campus in Skillman, N.J. They work for the company’s struggling Bloomberg Law division. If successful, it would be the first time any group of Bloomberg employees has voted to join a union.

The Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild enters the tale as the result of Bloomberg’s acquisition of BNA, which had a long-standing relationship with the union. Bloomberg Law produces a legal research tool akin to LexisNexis and Westlaw, and the employees at Skillman perform data-entry tasks related to that tool. This means that roughly half the employees involved are attorneys gathering legal research and placing it in Bloomberg’s data service.

Attorney Tom McGlaughlin serves as the unofficial Norma Rae of BLAW, acting as the public face of the organization drive. Only a couple weeks into the effort, McGlaughlin reports that he has collected the signed authorization cards from nearly 30% of employees, the threshold required under federal labor law to trigger a unionization vote.

Not that it’s been easy:

In a Feb. 26 email sent to BLAW “content operations” employees through the Bloomberg terminal and obtained by Fortune, BLAW Content Operations Manager Neil O’Grady discouraged workers from joining the union. Wrote O’Grady, “… We want you to know where we stand: given our unique culture, we don’t think having a union here makes sense for the company or our employees, and we hope that you will carefully consider all the facts before deciding whether or not to sign a union card.”

O’Grady issued warnings about signing a union-authorization card, comparing it to “signing a power of attorney — you are giving the union the right to represent you and act on your behalf … it can bind the signer to certain obligations and responsibilities to the union,” and “commit an employee to pay initiation fees, union dues, assessments and other obligations.”

Added O’Grady: “We value our working relationship with our employees and our ability to work together on issues, rather than through an outside organization.”

Yeah, because Bloomberg has a different outside organization in mind to manage its working relationship with its employees. O’Grady’s email was written with a superhuman level of unintentional irony, coming at the precise moment that Bloomberg hired KPMG consultants to come in and do The Bobs routine from Office Space and tell Bloomberg how to cut costs (read: whom to send packing). So much for the “unique” relationship between the company and its employees.

It’s also misinformation, given that an authorization card only authorizes a vote for a union, not approval. An employee can authorize the vote and still vote against the union; it’s far from a “power of attorney.”

And that’s something that an attorney would know. When we reached McGlaughlin for comment, he said that he’s received about equal support for the union from attorneys and non-lawyers, but that the attorneys have the advantage of knowing their legal rights, which translates into the lawyers showing a little less fear when confronted with the subtle and not-so-subtle efforts of supervisors to convince them to reject the union.

McGlaughlin also explained what we all already know: the market for attorneys is brutal. But he sees the union as an opportunity to help lawyers recapture some control over their jobs. “We’re at a point in this profession where we need to be looking out for each other,” he said, which is thought-provoking because it highlights how often lawyers refuse to look out for each other.

Indeed, like most white-collar workers, lawyers traditionally embrace an atomized relationship with employers in exchange for their “professional” status. As noted by Edward McClelland over at Salon:

Meanwhile, I knew college graduates who earned $9.50 an hour as editorial assistants, or worked in bookstores for even less. None seemed interested in forming a union. So I asked [retired labor leader "Oil Can Eddie"] Sadlowski why white-collar workers had never embraced the labor movement as avidly as blue-collar workers.

“The white-collar worker has kind of a Bob Cratchit attitude,” he explained. “He feels he’s a half-step below the boss. The boss says, ‘Call me Harry.’ He feels he’s made it. You go to a shoe store, they got six managers. They call everybody a manager, but they pay ’em all shit.”

Lawyers are encouraged to look out for their own careers — the dominant employment model of Biglaw is literally a pyramid scheme — and work as “colleagues” with their employers, but at the end of the day, this one-on-one relationship just makes it that much easier to take any given lawyer for granted.

Sure, some lawyers can’t unionize under current statutes. A quirk of the system is that “supervisors” can’t unionize, and Biglaw associates supervise enough secretaries, paralegals, and younger associates to qualify as supervisors. Is this bogus? Kind of, because we know good and well that a Biglaw associate isn’t really in a position to fire or even discipline the people they allegedly supervise. But it is what it is.

More interesting is the question of contract attorneys. Christine Clarke of Beranbaum Menken LLP raised this point recently in an article at The Life of the Law:

Contract lawyering used to be, essentially, legal temping. You could do some per diem work for a law firm without having to sign away your entire life, and the law firm could outsource some of their more low-level legal work to people without having to hire a new full-time person at full-time salary. These days, however, contract lawyers are becoming more and more permanent fixtures. There simply aren’t enough fancy Big Law gigs to go around, or even fancy small law or public interest law gigs. And contract lawyers are more necessary than ever, with the growing demands of ever more onerous document discovery….

…. Contract workers would then appear to be perfect candidates for unionization — they’re paid substantially less than other lawyers for equally (if not more) necessary work, they’re essentially invisible and are likely trying desperately to pay off six-digit student loans. While there may have been a time when contract lawyers were too short-term and transient to unionize, these days many contract workers remain for years on automatically renewing three-month contracts, or simply forgo a contract entirely and receive annual W2s, just like full-time employees.

You can’t say contract lawyers are supervisors, after all. And you can definitely say that they represent the class of lawyers that need to be looking out for each other.

The efforts of Tom McGlaughlin and his colleagues may immediately impact only Bloomberg Law, but breaking the long-standing taboo lawyers have against organized labor could revolutionize the contract attorney industry that’s rapidly becoming the home to lawyers young and old.

Perhaps it is time for members of this profession to be looking out for each other.

Employees at Bloomberg LP are attempting to unionize [Forbes]
SHOULD LAWYERS UNIONIZE? [The Life of the Law]
The “middle class” myth: Here’s why wages are really so low today [Salon]


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