Minnesota: Public defense lawyers and support staff resist intimidation, ready to strike
Minneapolis, MN – Just one day before public defense lawyers and support staff in Minnesota enter what could be a final mediation session before striking, their employer, the state of Minnesota, has begun a campaign to bust the union and weaken the resolve of the workers. Last week Minnesota public defense lawyers and support staff voted overwhelmingly to reject a substandard final offer and authorize a strike. That vote triggered a ten-day cooling off period before an actual strike could begin.
The workers, who are members of Teamsters Local 320, are set to engage in mediation tomorrow, March 18, which is required during the cooling off period. Settlement seems unlikely and workers are well organized for the fight. At issue are pay parity with prosecutors, overwhelming caseloads, and remote work.
Their employer knows that its position is weak given the resolve of the workers, public support and solidarity with other unions. So the employer has entered into a campaign of intimidation and workplace harassment to head off the strike.
Managers have been denying vacation requests, refused to allow workers to take their children to medical appointments and tried to force workers into providing details about strike plans. While disappointed about how they are being treated, workers are becoming hardened in their resolve to get a fair contract that addresses their demands.
As many of the workers are lawyers, there have been discussions about the ethical concerns of going on strike. They have concluded that they can strike since it is specifically permitted under state law and their district chief public defenders are the ones actually appointed to provide representation. The chiefs decide at will which lawyer will represent any particular client.
In a heavy-handed move, the Minnesota Office of Lawyer Professional Responsibility, which is overseen by the Minnesota Supreme Court, issued an advisory early this morning indicating that striking by lawyers is unethical. The OLPR is headed by Susan Humiston, who is currently under scrutiny for workplace bullying. She seems to have thought she could bully public defense workers. That’s not how things worked out, however.
Public defense lawyers quickly went to work scrutinizing the OLPR advisory and realized it was significantly flawed and did not accurately reflect the law. According to Veronica Surges, a public defense lawyer, “we quickly saw the advisory for what it was. It was an attempt to stop us from standing up for ourselves. It was a legally-flawed thinly-veiled effort to dissuade a strike. If anything, the advisory has strengthened our resolve to fight.”
Public defense workers provide representation for approximately 90% of people charged with crimes in Minnesota. A significant number of their clients are oppressed nationalities. Darcy Sherman, also a public defense lawyer, says, “We are fighting for ourselves and our clients. We are convinced we will win this and we won’t back down in the face of intimidation by our employer.”