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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Minnesota public defenders avert strike

Union leaders and management reached a tentative deal late Friday night.

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Minnesota’s public defenders and their support staff have reached a tentative agreement with the state’s Board of Public Defense, averting a strike that could have paralyzed criminal proceedings around the state. 

Teamsters Local 320 officials said Saturday that they’d reached a tentative agreement with the Board shortly before midnight on Friday. The deal includes a 3.5% pay increase back-dated to July of 2021, and an additional 3% increase in July of 2022. 

Annual increases provided for in the deal are also slightly higher than the “last, best and final” offer made by the Board of Public Defense, which employs Minnesota’s public defenders. State Public Defender Bill Ward told lawmakers in January that that offer would result in a $3.3 million deficit over two years while seeking greater funding for the Board out of a $9.25 billion state General Fund surplus. 

A social media post by the union extolled the agreement, but agreed that the Board was “severely underfunded.” Low pay and high attrition rates were central to the union’s vote to strike last week, with several attorneys and support staff pointing to the fact that they are paid substantially less than other public employees with similar experience and handle caseloads well above the national standard of 400 cases per defender per year. 

“While this agreement marks an important win for Minnesota public defenders,” public defender Ginny Barron said in the post, “we know there’s more work to be done in the state. We’ve done our job in fighting for this contract, and now the Governor and State Legislature must do theirs and fully fund the Public Defense.” 

State Representative Jamie Becker-Finn, a Democrat from the northeast Twin Cities metro who chairs the Minnesota House’s Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, has introduced a bill to do just that, increasing the Board’s funding by $50 million to hire the approximately 150 attorneys needed to meet the national standard. 

Should that or a similar measure pass, the union and board would enter mediation to negotiate further salary increases, but the union’s members would not be allowed to strike if those negotiations stall out. Union members said after their vote to authorize a strike that the right to strike in such an event was a sticking point in earlier negotiations. 

The agreement, which will need to be ratified by the union’s membership in two weeks, falls close on the heels of a Friday advisory from Minnesota’s Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility warning against a strike. The office said that while it took no position on the strike, attorneys would not be exempted from their obligations to their clients should they opt to walk away from work. 

“No matter your employment status, you still have obligations under the [Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct] to protect your clients’ interests,” the board’s advisory read.

A strike, had it come, would have been the state’s first and one of the first large-scale labor actions by public defenders in U.S. history. Unionization of public defenders nationwide is spotty, and the last major documented work stoppage by public defenders took place on a single day in 1995, when a majority of Ventura County, California’s 38 public defenders walked off the job, demanding pay raises for both them and the county’s 95 prosecutors. 

Categories / Employment, Government, Law

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