Minnesota public defenders, support staff authorize strike for 1st time ever

Minnesota public defenders represented by Teamsters Local 320 voted to authorize a strike Thursday for the first time in state history after rejecting the Minnesota Board of Public Defense’s “last, best and final offer” for a new contract.

A contract for more than 700 public defense attorneys, investigators and support staff represented by Teamsters Local 320 expired in June 2021, and they have been unable to reach an agreement with the BoPD in the meantime. They are seeking a remedy for what they call “extreme caseloads, high turnover, low employee morale and pay inequities.”

“I do not want to see this turn into a strike,” Fifth Judicial District Assistant Public Defender Ginny Barron said in a statement. “By voting to reject the Board’s last best and final offer, we are sending a clear message that we want to get back to the mediation table and work out a contract that will benefit both the clients who must blindly depend on us and the public servants who help them.”

BoPD employees are eyeing the state’s projected $9.25 billion surplus as a potential fount for shoring up funding for public defenders, who they say represent more than 80% of Minnesota’s criminal defendants.

The union also cited a survey taken in January among BoPD employees in which 70% of attorneys said Board leadership had “created working conditions that make it hard or impossible to meet state ethical standards.” They also claimed the current state of the public defender system disadvantages defendants in marginalized populations, especially impoverished clients and people of color.

The BoPD issued the following statement regarding the strike authorization:

“Earlier today members of Teamsters Local 320 voted to authorize a strike. While it is disappointing to hear this news, we know that everyone on both sides of the bargaining table have the interests of the clients at heart. The board is ready to continue negotiating in good faith, and we remain hopeful that an agreement can be reached so that we may continue to provide excellent criminal defense services to our clients. While we share the belief that Public Defenders statewide are underpaid, and that we are understaffed, the Board of Public Defense is constrained in its negotiations by the resources provided by the state to provide these constitutionally mandated services across Minnesota.”

A strike would not take effect for at least 10 days due to the mandatory cooling-off period.