Image via Shutterstock Image via Shutterstock

Union membership in Pennsylvania is growing, even as it’s declining nationwide.

Public defenders in Philadelphia announced earlier this week they intend to unionize, and are calling on management at the Defenders Association of Philadelphia to voluntarily recognize their effort. The publicly funded nonprofit employs roughly 240 public defenders who handle about 70 percent of the city’s criminal cases.

The majority of those attorneys support the effort, the newly formed Defenders Union said on Monday when representatives delivered a petition to their employers at the Defenders Association of Philadelphia. 

“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,” union organizers wrote. “We believe that by collectively improving our workplace, we will better serve our clients.”

Organizers also wrote that forming a union would improve attorneys’ trial practice and client representation, and strengthen their ability to advocate on behalf of their clients. They also said they “seek a greater voice in the decision-making processes” that guide their jobs. 

The proposed union would be formed in partnership with the United Automobile Workers, a manufacturing workers union that also represents workers in other industries.

Neither the Defenders Union nor the Defender Association of Philadelphia responded to requests for comment, but John Gross, spokesperson for the Defender Association, said in a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer that the group “fully supports the right of workers to unionize.”

“We have just received the petition requesting union recognition, we look forward to reviewing it and having additional discussions with our attorneys about how to work toward our shared goals,” the statement read.

Created in 1934, the Defender Association of Philadelphia represents clients in adult and juvenile state courts, at civil and criminal mental health hearings, and serves as advocates for children with open dependent petitions. 

The organization handles about 47,000 cases per year, NPR-affiliate WHYY reported, and while it receives most of its budget from City Hall, it operates independently. Defender Association workers are not city employees; in other words, they are not afforded the same workplace protections that city workers have. 

The Defenders Union is concerned about unresponsive managers, unpredictable scheduling, and staff turnover, according to WHYY. Attorneys also expressed concern about a “long-running pay disparity” with their peers at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. 

A spokesperson for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney told WHYY that the mayor 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.”

Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym and City Councilwoman-elect Kendra Brooks also took to Twitter to express their support for the Defenders Union. 

The effort to unionize Philadelphia’s public defenders is just the latest example of the resurgence in labor activity in the nation’s sixth largest city. 

In October, journalists at WHYY in Philadelphia voted to unionize their workplace, a vote that came just three months after workers at Public Health Management Corp., a company that operates six health centers serving low-income patients, also voted to form a union. 

This show of labor strength in Pennsylvania isn’t isolated to Philadelphia; union membership in the entire state actually grew in 2018, even though nationwide membership decreased, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2018, 12.6 percent of Pennsylvania workers were members of a union in 2018, up from 12 percent in 2017. Nationwide, only 10.5 percent of workers were union members, a decrease of 0.2 percentage points from 2017.

If the Defenders Union’s efforts are successful, Philadelphia’s public defenders would join their counterparts in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Portland, who have successfully formed unions.