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Philadelphia’s public defenders decide to unionize

The attorneys represent roughly 70 percent of all Philadelphians arrested for criminal charges or probation violations.

The Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, at 1301 Filbert St. in Philadelphia.
The Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice, at 1301 Filbert St. in Philadelphia.Read moreFile Photograph

Philadelphia’s public defenders, the lawyers who represent roughly 70% of all Philadelphians arrested on criminal charges or probation violations, have decided to unionize.

A majority of the 200 lawyers in the proposed bargaining unit support the effort, according to the newly formed Defenders Union. On Monday, workers delivered a petition to their employer, a public nonprofit called the Defender Association of Philadelphia, asking for voluntary recognition of their union.

“We believe that by collectively improving our workplace, we will better serve our clients,” the petition reads.

If management chooses not to voluntarily recognize the union, the workers will have to go through a formal election process through the National Labor Relations Board.

Their effort to unionize is the latest in a series of new organizing at workplaces in Philadelphia and comes amid a resurgence of labor activity even as union membership has fallen to historic lows around the country.

While service worker unions in Philadelphia such as Unite Here and 32BJ SEIU have embarked on vast organizing campaigns, seeking to organize major employers, such as the Marriott, and across sectors, such as the parking industry, there’s been a flurry of smaller campaigns in workplaces that employ young, college-educated workers doing some kind of public service work. Last summer, 70 workers at six low-income health centers voted to unionize. Last month, so did 90 journalists and other media professionals at public media station WHYY.

The concerns of these workers are broadly the same: They hope a union will help afford them the wages, benefits, and professional development to build a sustainable career. They want more of a say in how the organization is run. And, they say, they want to be able to serve their clients, or their readers, better.

» READ MORE: From 2015: New chief of Defender Association of Philadelphia known for taking different approach

The Defenders Union, represented by the United Auto Workers, declined to comment further Monday, but WHYY’s Ryan Briggs reports that lawyers’ concerns “range from unresponsive managers and unpredictable scheduling to concerns about staff turnover,” as well as “a long-running pay disparity with counterparts at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office” that the association has sought to fix.

Public defenders around the country have spoken up about being underpaid and overworked, saying that it hurts the profession because it allows people of only a certain economic background to become public defenders.

John Gross, spokesperson for the Defender Association, said in a statement that the group “fully supports the right of workers to unionize.”

“We have just received the petition requesting union recognition, we look forward to reviewing it and having additional discussions with our attorneys about how to work toward our shared goals,” the statement said.

The Defender Association is helmed by Keir Bradford-Grey, who took the top job in 2015 after leaving her role as chief defender of Montgomery County.

The union bid also comes at a time when public interest lawyers in Philadelphia are sharing their salaries anonymously in a spreadsheet, following a trend of workers — from baristas to museum curators — doing the same.