Leaders of the striking D.C. Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association worked through the weekend attempting to persuade key dissident members to accept a city proposal for a raise after Mayor Marion Barry personally interceded in the negotiations.
The lawyers, who represent indigent defendants in Superior Court but have not taken any new cases since Sept. 6, are scheduled to vote today on a proposal to return to work Wednesday in exchange for a pay rate of $35 an hour.
The lawyers now are paid $30 an hour for court appearances and $20 for work out of court, under terms of the city's Criminal Justice Act that haven't changed in 13 years.
A tentative agreement to end the strike was reached with city officials Friday after City Council member Wilhelmina J. Rolark, head of the judiciary committee, and Council Chairman David A. Clarke agreed to take immediate steps to push through legislation raising the pay rate to $35.
The mayor has also pledged to reprogram $4.1 million in the coming fiscal year budget to fund the raise after demanding that the striking lawyers return to work Wednesday.
Strike leaders predicted a stormy session when the lawyers meet today to consider the proposal. Officers of the association, which represents more than 100 attorneys, have agreed to accept the terms, but many lawyers reportedly are holding out for wages higher than those proposed.
The association previously had voted to demand pay rates of $55 an hour for court appearances and $45 an hour for work in the office. Some members believe their bargaining position has strengthened considerably over the past two weeks, but Clarke and Rolark, who have agreed to propose the higher rates later, said the higher wages would be impossible to achieve for the time being.
Association officers "are afraid that if you get tough with city officials they won't give us anything at all," said dissident member Davis Couch. "This is the first offer the city has made. And since they don't have any attorneys at the court" to represent newly indigent defendants, "I figure we can get more just by hanging tough."
One key opposition leader, strike committee chairwoman Joanne Slaight, changed her position over the weekend. Slaight, who had spearheaded efforts to press for the $55/$45 rates, said she will now support the Rolark-Clarke deal.
"It's just not worth going for more right now," Slaight said yesterday. "We're just going to have to push them on the bills they've agreed to sponsor in the future."
Slaight had opposed the tentative agreement because the legislation does not include future raises.
Couch said he will continue to oppose the agreement because he fears those concerns may never be addressed.
"However you do it, I think that everyone agrees that the lawyers always will be so politically impotent that getting a raise will require an extreme act, like going out on strike," Couch said.
"There's a faction of people who've come in at the last minute," said association vice president Karen Dixkoskoff. "They're people standing up for themselves and releasing rage at the way we've been treated for the last 13 years. They think if we can get this much in nine days, just think what we can get in 10 or 12.
"We're going to explain to them that for a number of reasons, we just can't do any better than what we already have."
Rolark said Friday that if the lawyers approve the package today, she will immediately convene a special session of the judiciary committee to consider the $35 bill. If the measure is passed by the committee, Clarke promised to move to waive rules so that the full council could take up the measure Tuesday.
Public Defender Service director Frank Carter last week predicted that court operations will "reach a crisis point" early this week if steps to end the strike are not taken immediately.
The agency, a semi-autonomous office with a board of directors appointed by the mayor and local and federal chief judges, has been actively recruiting attorneys from law firms to represent indigent defendents during the strike but not enough attorneys have volunteered, Carter said.
On Friday, three Public Defender Service attorneys were forced to accept 32 newly arrested indigent defendants as clients, triple the number of cases the agency normally accepts each day. Arraignments involving three defendents had to be postponed because no attorneys were available to represent them.
Thursday night, Mayor Barry became personally involved in the negotiations when he called association leaders and met with Dixkoskoff, association president Ralph Perrotta and association secretary Greg Addison over dinner.
Barry told them he would fund the $35 pay rate if the leaders convince the membership to accept the proposal and return to work Wednesday. Barry confirmed his promise in a letter to Rolark Friday.
Rolark told the lawyers she would refuse to present the bill to the committee if the proposal is voted down, the lawyers said.
"I'm going to do my best to see that it's passed," Perrotta said yesterday. "The negotiations from the beginning have been around the bill. We've committed ourselves personally to get behind the proposal and persuade the others to accept it."
Since the lawyers walked out, they have received growing support from the D.C. Bar and other local lawyer groups.
As a further element of the tentative agreement reached last week, the bar's board of governors voted to form a committee to oversee efforts to pass legislation for the $55/$45 rates, Dixkoskoff said.