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 $40 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.

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
Association.”

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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. Although the office has moved to narrow a long-running pay disparity with counterparts at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes criminal cases, Defender Association budget documents noted an $18,000-a-year salary gap between five-year veterans of the two offices.

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.

A spokesperson for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, an outspoken union supporter, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.