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Minnesota public defenders, support staff, taking strike vote

By staff |
February 13, 2022
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Minneapolis, MN - Public defense workers in Minnesota are ready to strike. The negotiating committees of both the lawyer bargaining unit and the support staff bargaining unit voted unanimously to reject a “last best final offer” from management. That unanimous vote carries with it a recommendation to strike if better terms are not reached. The membership of Teamsters Local 320 will begin voting on the offer next week, with ballots counted March 7.

At issue are wages and working conditions. Public defense workers in Minnesota are both underpaid and overworked. Pay parity with those who work in prosecutors’ offices has been at issue for over 20 years. Their pay is about 70% the rate of prosecutors.

Statewide staffing levels are more than 200 people short of what is required to provide adequate representation for their clients. Public defense workers report those short staffing levels result in work weeks of more than 60 hours without overtime pay. Some are working full-time hours for part-time pay. Public defense workers are also trying to get some relief from the strict stance some managers have taken against working from home, despite over two years of doing so with no problems.

Darcy Sherman, a lawyer and union steward based in Hennepin County, reports that morale is lower than she’s ever seen it and many of her colleagues are ready to quit. She says “a cost-of-living adjustment in the low single digits just doesn’t cut it when inflation is over 7% and I make several thousand dollars per month less than an equally experienced prosecutor. We have been waiting over 20 years for parity and if we have to shut down the courts to get people to notice, so be it. People are just fed up.”

Public defense in Minnesota is entirely funded by the legislature. It has never been fully funded and, until this year, there has never been a request for full funding. Public defenders represent between 85 and 95 percent of criminal and juvenile defendants in Minnesota. Virtually all those persons are poor and a large percentage are of oppressed nationalities.

Inadequate funding, low pay and overwork have consequences. African Americans make up 7% of Minnesota’s population but 36% of the prison population and about 22% of those under other types of supervision. Native Americans make up 1% of the population but 9% of the prison population and about 8% of those under other types of supervision.