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Minnesota public defenders likely to authorize historic strike Thursday

Votes from more than 700 public defenders will be counted Thursday. A strike could come 10 days later, though both sides hope to avoid it.

MINNEAPOLIS — Minneapolis teachers aren't the only ones who might be on strike this month. 

On Thursday, the union representing public defenders and support staff across the state of Minnesota, will announce the results of a vote to authorize a strike.

Bargaining teams from Teamsters Local 320, which represents more than 700 defense attorneys and support staff, unanimously recommended a vote to authorize a strike following the last offer from the Minnesota Board of Public Defense. If authorized, the union and Board of Public Defense would have 10 days to negotiate to avoid an historic strike.

"They've never had a strike here in Minnesota, and we don't want to have a strike in Minnesota," said Brian Aldes, Secretary/Treasurer Teamsters Local 320, which represents more than 700 defense attorney and staff across the state of Minnesota. "We want the public defense system to continue to provide the services to the communities that they represent."

Though a strike itself is still far from certain, many expect that the union will officially put it on the table once votes are tallied on Thursday afternoon.

"I won't be surprised," said state representative Jamie Becker-Finn, who is chair of the House Judiciary Finance Committee and an assistant Hennepin County Prosecutor. "I think that this is a system and these are workers who have really been pushed to the edge in multiple ways over the last two years. We've got sort of a structural problem and then more of an immediate problem."

Becker-Finn was among legislators who listened to public defenders detail their struggles during a recent committee hearing.

"We are exhausted," Brenda Lightbody said in the hearing. "The pandemic and the backlog have illuminated problems brewing for years."

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"My clients, our most vulnerable citizens," said Cara Gilbert. "Primarily children of color bear the brunt and the real cost." 

"The Board of Public Defense has a retention and recruitment problem resulting from low pay and working conditions that are directly impacting our clients," said Ginny Barron.

State Public Defender, William Ward says the Minnesota Board of Public Defense still offered to raise salaries by more than 10% for more than 85% of attorneys and staff during it's last offer to the union, but he also agreed that staffing and salaries are underfunded.

"We have fought for additional money to move the salary structure higher and to hire much needed staff," Ward wrote in a statement to KARE11. "However, the Board is constrained in its budget – and in negotiations – by what is allocated from the legislature."

Ward says it will take 149 more attorneys plus 112 more support staff just to bring Minnesota to the national standard for public defender case loads.

Becker-Finn is pushing legislation that would use $50M dollars from the state surplus to fix that, and fully fund public defense for the first time.

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"Unlike the vast majority of things in our state budget, it is constitutionally required that we do this and we have failed to do it... forever," she said.

While the legislative work is critical, the union says economics are just part of the problem that led to the vote.

"Things like remote work, that's non-economic, that doesn't have anything to do with the legislature," said Gus Froemke, communications director for the union. "Capping hours for part-time attorneys that has nothing to do with the legislature."

"You know, we're going through a period of the great resignation and through a lack of leadership," Aldes said. "The Board of Public defense isn't doing anything to retain it's current workforce."

Kent Erdahl: "To those at home, what kind of an impact would it have if there is a public defenders strike?" 

Rep. Becker-Finn: "The impact would be incredible. The thing I always bring up for folks is that we all know somebody, a family member, a friend, who at some point in their life has had to deal with the criminal justice system, and a lot of those people rely on public defenders. It would be incredibly disruptive to the courts and everybody sort of across the board."

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