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SIX LAWYERS, PARALEGALS JOIN TEAMSTERS

Meet attorney Maria Sotolongo, a staff lawyer at Legal Services for the Elderly and a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Ms. Sotolongo was one of six staff lawyers and paralegals at the Buffalo based not-for-profit agency who voted unanimously to join Teamsters Local 264. The election last week faces certification by the National Labor Relations Board.

"We're hoping it will protect us from conflicts with funding sources and other conflicts of interest," she said.

Funded by government and individual contributions, Legal Services for the Elderly counsels clients in Erie, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties.

The election marks the first time attorneys have joined Local 264, organizer Scott Chismar said. The more than 5,000-member union based in Buffalo chiefly represents blue-collar occupations like grocery and dairy workers.

"It was pretty much like a normal campaign -- I had to remind myself that these are lawyers," he said.

Local 264 is trying to shore up membership in traditional strongholds while recruiting professionals outside its industrial base, Chismar said. The union represents Erie County Sheriff's Deputies and non-teaching staff at Lakeshore School District.

"And now, lawyers," Chismar said.

"It's not something that's going to happen overnight, but I think a lot of white- and gray-collar people will be new members," he added.

But while the organizing campaign is a first for the Teamsters, it's not unusual for public benefit lawyers to carry union cards.

Nationally, 4.6 percent of lawyers -- excluding the self-employed -- belong to labor unions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of the represented lawyers probably work in government and not-for-profit agencies, economist Jay Meisenheimer said.

As a group, professional workers have a relatively high rate of union membership, according to the Labor Department. Of 16.7 million professional workers -- such as engineers, teachers and nurses -- 20.2 percent were unionized in 1997, Meisenheimer said. The overall rate of union membership in the work force was about half that.

Although union campaigns among lawyers aren't everyday occurrences, they're not unprecedented, said Rhonda Aliouat, regional attorney at the National Labor Relations Board in Buffalo. Professionals may organize as easily as non-professional workers, she said.

Public benefit lawyers at other area agencies, including Neighborhood Legal Service and Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo Inc., already have union representation, Ms. Sotolongo said.

The staff at Legal Services for the Elderly seek a contract that will insulate them from the political conflicts with their government underwriters, she said.

"We're not doing this for money," Ms. Sotolongo said.

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