Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Cutbacks in Legal Services to the Poor Angers Union

A note to readers: Sorry for the recent gap in news, but this one-man operation has been bogged down in beginning semester activities at Ole Miss, where he teaches. Such occasional gaps probably mean a once-a-week check by readers at "Labor South" probably suffices for now, but that'll change. By the way, I'm working with a high-tech expert who'll be helping me to enhance this blog and its offerings very soon.

Despite all, I've been exploring the Southern highways and byways for labor news.

One story close to home I've been following for the past week or two and plan to write about in an upcoming column deals with major cutbacks facing the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, which provides needed aide to the poor in a 39-county area across North Mississippi. After four hours of testimony from unemployed workers and other money-strapped Mississippians who had ridden buses into the agency's Oxford headquarters to testify Saturday, August 22, NMRLS's 25-member board voted for a 17-to-19-percent pay cut for all employees with a layoff of five or more staff members.

"Legal Services needs more people, not less," pleaded James Mitchell, an unemployed worker from West Point, Mississippi. "We're in bad shape in West Point."

"It's like we're living in a Third World in some of these small towns in Mississippi," said Terry Buffington, also of West Point. "People without lights for two and three months. If you make this move, you're taking us back to the Sixties."

The "move" taken by NMRLS also includes elimination of its housing unit--which helped people facing eviction from their homes--and a dramatic shift in duties at the agency's five satellite offices, now staffed by 10 lawyers. Under the changes called for by executive director Ben Thomas Cole II, five of these lawyers will now do only "Hot Line" telephone work instead of litigation and courtroom work. Layoffs could rise to as many as a dozen staff members depending on how negotiations with Local 2320 of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, United Auto Workers, turn out.

These staff members could include vital paralegals who help clients with applications for Social Security, and other "bread and butter" needs.

"I was extremely disappointed in the board," said local president Nebra Porter. "They didn't seem to care about the clients."

Cole and board members argued that the cuts and changes are necessary to get NMRLS out of the red in its budget. The agency is facing a $620,000 shortfall due to recent shifts in its funding through state Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) funds. Porter argues that an outside, forensic audit is needed to find where a past, one-time $700,000 boost in IOLTA funds went, and where cuts can be made without hurting clients. The board rejected this option at its Saturday, August 22, meeting.

Elaine Lantz, Dallas, Texas-based regional organizer with the union, said the Mississippi Legislature needs to do a better job funding the agency.

As I said with my earlier posting on the labor priest Father Jeremy Tobin, I'll be filing a full column on this issue in the next week or so. In fact, this breaking story will have to be filed before the Tobin piece.

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