A majority of Philadelphia’s 200 public defenders voted to unionize Monday, making the Defenders Association the latest in a slew of new unionized workplaces in the city.
The vote, which took place two months after the lawyers announced their intent to unionize, was 142-65.
“The Defenders Union was borne out of a strong desire for transparency and for a greater voice in the decision-making processes that guide our practice,” the union said in a statement. “Now with the power of collective bargaining, we will improve our workplace, promote criminal justice reform, and strengthen our client representation.”
The public defenders, who represent roughly 70% of all Philadelphians arrested on criminal charges or probation violations, will be part of the United Auto Workers, a union that also represents the public-interest lawyers employed by Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.
In a statement, Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey congratulated the new union.
“We look forward to working in partnership with the union to advance our shared mission to provide high-quality legal defense and support to Philadelphia’s most vulnerable citizens,” she said.
Initially, when the lawyers announced their intent to unionize, the Defenders Association, the public nonprofit that runs the public defender’s office, declined to voluntarily recognize the union. Last month, a group of employees calling themselves the “Union Facts Committee” held a meeting to “provide all Defender employees with facts about the United Auto Workers," according to an email sent by a lawyer to the entire staff.
The talk, according to the email, would include information about the union’s finances, spending, and “numerous complaints filed by unionized employees against United Auto Workers.” It also included information about the federal investigation into corruption at the UAW.
“It is our intention to provide you with an alternative to address your concerns that will not cost you or your family a dime," the email said.
Attempts to reach these employees were unsuccessful.
One of the first tasks that the union is expected to undertake is negotiating with management over its first contract.
The public defenders are the latest in a series of successful new organizing campaigns at public service-oriented workplaces in Philadelphia that come amid a resurgence of labor activity even as union membership has fallen to historic lows around the country. 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 audience, better.
The concerns of the city’s public defenders range from "unresponsive managers and unpredictable scheduling to concerns about staff turnover,” according to a WHYY report. Around the country, public defenders 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.