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Workers at Md. public defender’s office vote to unionize

Pretrial
Bill Oxford/unsplash.com.

Workers at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender (OPD) have voted to unionize.

In balloting that took place between Nov. 15 and Dec. 1, the employees voted to certify AFSCME Maryland Council 3, the public employee union, as their exclusive bargaining representative.

The votes were tallied by the Maryland Labor Relations Board on Tuesday afternoon.

One bargaining unit will consist of administrative and support staff, and another bargaining unit will consist of intake staff, investigators, social workers and attorneys. Those two bargaining units span the entire state and cover over 600 workers at the public defender’s office.

For the unit representing intake staff, social workers, investigators and attorneys, workers voted 233-8 in favor of joining the union. The vote to join the union by the unit representing administrative and support staff was 45-1.

“For too long, we’ve been discounted, disrespected and undervalued. Decisions have been made that draw dividing lines between us and ultimately affect the work we are able to do for our clients,” said Kalia Woods, an administrative aide with the Prince George’s County OPD office. “We have sent a message with this vote that we are standing together to say ‘not anymore.”

This success comes after more than two years of organizing efforts by these workers. They formed the Maryland Defenders Union in 2020, citing inadequate staffing levels, record high turnover rates, and unreasonable workloads and caseloads for deciding to unionize.

“Staff are leaving because there aren’t enough resources to do our jobs adequately and ethically, because of oppressive workloads and caseloads that never get more manageable and because we have been ignored when calling out for change,” said Marci Tarrant Johnson, a public defender in the Baltimore City OPD office and president of the Maryland Defenders Union.

Natasha Dartigue took over as the Maryland public defender on July 1, taking over from Paul DeWolfe, who held the job for 13 years and had worked at the agency since 1980.

In the 2022 General Assembly session, lawmakers passed a bill from state Sen. Pam Beidle (D-Anne Arundel) and Del. Shaneka Henson (D-Anne Arundel) to expand collective bargaining rights to OPD employees, including changing the designation of attorneys in the office from special appointee status to merit status.

“I’ve been at OPD for over 11 years, fighting for more just systems and outcomes for our clients every day. I’ve seen our collective voices finally be heard in a way that our individual voices simply are not,” said Angie Chou, a social worker with the Prince George’s County OPD office. “Now that we’ve won the right to negotiate our wages and working conditions, we’re able to accomplish even more. We’re going to continue to fight for the resources we need to positively impact all of us at OPD, our clients and their communities.”

The workers at the Office of the Public Defender will join the 30,000 Maryland state and higher education employees who have collective bargaining rights in their agencies and workplaces.

“Together, we will continue to organize for the pay, respect and better working conditions every state worker deserves,” said Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3.