September/October 2022 Issue
August 30, 2022

NYSUT Legal: Working hard for all members

Source: NYSUT United
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Milham and Donnellan
Caption: Deborah Milham (left), senior counsel at the OGC at the union’s Latham headquarters, and Ariana Donnellan, senior counsel at the New York City OGC.

NYSUT’s Office of General Counsel employs more than two dozen attorneys who vigorously defend the rights of union members and also advance the causes of labor and public education through state and federal litigation.

To learn more about this important and valuable union benefit, NYSUT United sat down with Deborah Milham, senior counsel at the OGC at the union’s Latham headquarters, and Ariana Donnellan, senior counsel at the New York City OGC.

Q: What brought you to NYSUT?

DM: I was looking for a summer job after completing my first year of law school. I didn’t know much about unions or the labor movement at the time. After clerking in the OGC for two years I was hooked. I became a strong unionist, enamored with NYSUT — its mission, its members and its staff.

AD: I always had an interest in advocating for educators since I grew up in a household of teachers who often raised workplace issues around the dinner table. Labor-side school law was the perfect harmonization of both my personal interests and my educational background.

Q: We know NYSUT lawyers handle discipline cases. What else do you do?

AD: Representing members in disciplinary proceedings is just one facet of our work.

We champion individual members’ rights to work free of discriminatory practices by filing charges or complaints with agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or state Division of Human Rights. Recently, we have engaged in a significant amount of advocacy on behalf of the United Federation of Teachers and its nursemembers in several cases in which they have been severely short staffed on shifts they were required to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have also filed unfair labor practice charges before the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of school-based employees at charter schools facing dismal work conditions.

DM: We bring and also defend cases involving tenure, layoff, seniority and retirement rights under the Education Law. We do take great pride in representing all of our members and enforcing their rights. Everyone is entitled to due process. No one should lose their livelihood without zealous representation.

Q: How does the work you do improve conditions for NYSUT members and public education?

DM: We fight every day to enforce and protect our members’ employment and constitutional rights by making sure the law is being applied correctly and fairly. We bring cases that impact students and public education both directly and indirectly. For example, we have brought forward cases to enforce tenure laws, oppose the tax cap, remove corrupt school board members and ensure art and music classes are provided.

AD: Our advocacy helps to strengthen local unions through member retention and by staving off frivolous claims which serve to weaken unions. At times, we provide support to NYSUT labor relations specialists and help local unions negotiate contracts that both protect and guarantee the terms and conditions of NYSUT members’ employment. In protecting the rights of high-quality teachers, we help to ensure that good teachers remain employed, which is to the benefit of students statewide.

Q: How do current events impact your work?

DM: Current events very much impact the work we do. Whether we are defending the rights of unions to exist, navigating a global pandemic and new work requirements for our members, or figuring out the applicability of the latest Supreme Court decision, we are constantly having to pivot from what we thought was on our to-do list for the day or week in order to tackle whatever immediate challenge has presented itself to our members, our locals and NYSUT to give real-time legal advice.

AD: In recent years, OGC has spent a considerable amount of time addressing issues and cases (i.e. litigation and arbitration) relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the pandemic first started, we were asked to research and opine on issues related to school closures and subsequent school reopening plans, including the negotiability of some of those issues.

NYC OGC has also been asked to evaluate claims on behalf of the UFT relating to members who were unilaterally removed from payroll on the mere suspicion that they did not receive COVID-19 vaccinations pursuant to relevant mandates.

Q: How much do members pay to use NYSUT attorneys?

DM: Regardless of how long the case takes, how many appeals are necessary, expert witnesses, transcripts, our travel, etc., the member never receives a bill.

Deborah Milham has been an attorney with NYSUT’s OGC for 24 years. Ariana Donnellan has served in the New York City OGC for 14 years.

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