Public defenders with the Louisville Metro Public Defender’s Office voted to unionize 32-5 earlier this year. Their story is a microcosm of a national phenomenon: the year 2022, the year of American labor.
Public defenders represent indigent clients, those who cannot afford a lawyer and are constitutionally entitled to one when facing criminal proceedings. Public defenders nationwide face tremendous obstacles, and the Louisville office bears the brunt of these challenges in a bustling metropolitan area with a constant demand for their services.
Their reasons for unionizing are plentiful and palpable to anyone who knows their situation. I had the great fortune of speaking to these organizers and activists, and what was revealed to me would shock anyone with a semblance of a conscience.
The starting salary for a public defender at the Louisville office is $45,000, among the lowest in the country. The national average is $66,193. In a city such as San Francisco, the average is $131,000. Though the Louisville-Jefferson County Public Defender Corporation has an annual budget of $9.2 billion, it has only filled 53 of its 78 available positions. With such a meager entry-level salary, plus an average caseload of 200 to 350 cases per attorney, it’s no wonder why both retention and recruiting are suffering.
The Courier-Journal covered a press release by the union charging management with the following “adverse conditions”:
- An “unmanageable case load that prevents attorneys from giving clients due attention.”
- A “high turnover rate that often churns clients through a revolving door of attorneys before the case is resolved.”
- A “severe lack of transparency in terms of how decisions that have significant and rippling effects on clients’ livelihoods and the attorneys’ own safety are made.”
The union has reason to believe that management has retaliated against union members—a blatant violation of United States labor law. The union filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in late March alleging management outsourced work formerly handled by a union member to a subcontractor to retaliate against and discourage union activity, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting says.
In April 2020, the American Bar Association reported that unionization among public defenders is seeing an increase nationwide. Larger cities such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and others see offices becoming organized; this data, comically, runs counter to a claim by the Louisville Metro PD’s management that there are unethical implications to public defenders unionizing. Louisville Metro Chief Public Defender Leo Smith wrote to The Courier-Journal that “a case addressing serious ethical issues posed by the unionization of lawyers and the adverse impact it can have on the professional representation of indigent clients is currently pending before the Supreme Court of Kentucky.”
Unionization is happening across a plethora of sectors within the national economy. One cannot resist the feeling that we’re living through a historic era of unprecedented labor organization. Even more captivating is the belief that future generations may look at what these attorneys have done and see them as a model for imitation. The sectors of industry that traditionally have not unionized are now unionizing.
The distinction between blue-collar and white-collar workers is narrowing. This fundamental realization is coming to pass: that there are the owners, and then there’s labor. There are those that set the wages/salaries, make the investment decisions, control the work, set the hours, set the dress code, and hold livelihoods in their hands; and then there are those that rely on those decisions, those that do not reap the benefits of their creativity, their artistry, and their output, but instead yield the outgrowth of those energies to the unelected, unaccountable owners.
The anti-democracy of such a system is so palpable to anyone who lives with it that it resists further explanation. I may attempt to describe such conditions, but those who live in them are all too familiar with them.
We have a choice. There are the owners, and then there’s labor.
Whose side are we on?