Philly’s public defenders move to unionize with UAW

Attorneys at the Defender Association of Philadelphia say unionization will help them better serve clients in criminal court.

Defender Association of Philadelphia office building

File photo: The building at 1441 Sansom Street is home to the Defender Association of Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A majority of the attorneys at the Defender Association of Philadelphia have announced their intent to unionize in partnership with the United Automobile Workers, a manufacturing workers union that also represents legal aid groups.

The publicly funded nonprofit employs all of the city’s approximately 240 public defenders, lawyers that represent about 70% of all individuals arrested for criminal offenses or probation violations in Philadelphia. The proposed bargaining unit would include about 200 of those attorneys.

“We have all chosen this work because we are passionate about protecting the Constitutional rights of our clients and giving them a voice in a system that otherwise does not,” reads a union petition submitted Monday afternoon to Defender Association management. “We believe that by collectively improving our workplace, we will better serve our clients.”

Although the office receives nearly all of its roughly $46 million budget directly from City Hall, the organization operates independently, and its staff is not employed by the city, leaving workers without the protections enjoyed by many municipal employees.

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The lawyers who signed union cards asked office administrators to voluntarily recognize a new collective bargaining unit called “Defenders Union,” which would represent most of the legal staff at the office. Founded in 1934, it is the largest organization of its kind in Pennsylvania and handles some 47,000 cases annually.

In Philadelphia, the Defender Association operates as a legally distinct entity from the municipal government to avoid conflicts of interest in criminal cases. The public defense office is one of the oldest of its kind in the U.S.

If the union push succeeds, the Philadelphia defenders would join public defenders in cities like New York and Los Angeles that have already unionized. The auto workers union also represents attorneys at Community Legal Services, a separate Philadelphia nonprofit with a mission to provide legal aid in civil matters.

A press release states that the organizing effort is consistent with the Defender Association’s mission of advocating for reforms to the city’s criminal justice system.

“The Defenders Union asserts that the mission of the office can only be fully realized through recognition of workers’ rights, in the tradition of all social justice movements,” it reads. “A collective bargaining agreement will create more transparency and consistent expectations for workers so we can build our careers at the Defender


The statement says employees seek “a greater voice in the decision-making processes” and open “more opportunities for professional growth and development.”

Office sources said the push to collectively organize stemmed from a variety of concerns. These range from unresponsive managers and unpredictable scheduling to concerns about staff turnover. The office has moved to narrow a long-running pay disparity with counterparts at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

An 11-year veteran of the office sued the Defender Association in May over workplace grievances. The former public defender had asked to be moved off cases involving juvenile sex offenders after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder linked to her work on these cases. The suit alleges she was later terminated as a result.

Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey, the office’s top administrator, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, an outspoken union advocate, indicated that he would be supportive of the proposed union –– but couldn’t comment on how it might affect the city’s future budgeting process with the nonprofit.

“Mayor Kenney is a strong supporter of workers’ rights to unionize if that is what they determine is needed in their workplace. This sentiment extends to the Defender Association of Philadelphia,” said Kenney spokesperson Lauren Cox. “Since the Defender Association is an external employer, it wouldn’t be appropriate for the City to comment on the potential budgetary impact of unionization. However, the administration is willing to be at the table for any discussions during the process—as we have with other employers like the Community College of Philadelphia—to ensure a resolution that is agreeable for all parties.”

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Dec. 4, 2019, with a comment from Mayor Jim Kenney.

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