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Public defenders seek collective bargaining rights

  • Ron Patenaude and D.J. Cronin, union organizers, during a rally to support Public Defenders in Mass. Gazette Photo/Carol Lollis



For the Recorder
Thursday, March 08, 2018

Public defenders and union organizers are pushing for a bill that would give Committee for Public Counsel Services employees collective bargaining rights like other state employees.

Outside of Northampton District Court at 15 Gothic St. Tuesday morning, organizers of SEIU Local 888 D.J. Cronin and Ron Patenaude held signs that said “Give us a Voice!” and “Support H.1426.” Other demonstrations were held Tuesday outside the Boston Municipal Court and Fall River District Court.

Jaime Rogers, a Northampton public defender from the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said he could not attend, and other city attorneys were in court all morning, but he supports the bill.

The starting salary for a public defender in Massachusetts is about $40,000, Cronin said. Rogers said he started out at less than that, around $38,000 or $39,000.

In addition to low pay, Cronin and Rogers said many public defenders have high student loans to pay off. Many have a second job to make ends meet, they said.

Rogers was hired as a public defender in 2012, shortly after he finished law school. Luckily, Rogers said, he did not have any debt carried over from undergraduate and graduate schools, and said he qualifies for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program through the federal government.

“Many of my colleagues had to get a second job,” Rogers said.

He added that many public defenders realize that court officers, probation officers and everyone else who works in the courthouse makes more than public defenders.

“We have an extremely high turnover because of our low pay,” Rogers said, adding that the turnover can affect the attorney-client relationship.

He said many leave to work as a public defender in another state where they can make twice as much in the same line of work.

“We’ve seen some raises in pay,” Rogers said. “But they’re terribly sporadic.”

While employees are grateful for the wage increases, Rogers said they never know when a raise will be put in place and how much it will be. Rogers said it makes planning for the future difficult.

Rogers said many state employees have the right to collectively bargain. Cronin said the bill, which would allow public defenders to unionize, has a lot of support on Beacon Hill from both Republicans and Democrats.

The bill was referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means in July. Cronin said the campaign efforts are to shed light on the bill and urge lawmakers to get the process moving.

Cronin said the current campaign has been going on for six years, but public defenders’ efforts to unionize have been going on for much longer.

According to the Boston Globe, public defenders tried to organize in 1979 and 1993, but “were rejected by the state labor relations department because of what they say is an oversight in the collective bargaining statute that gives public employees the right to unionize.”