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Public defenders’ bid for union rights again falls short

“DeLeo wants to keep us powerless and begging for money every year,” said Ben Evans, a Fall River public defender.Christine Hochkeppel for the Boston Globe

For six years, public defenders have been asking Massachusetts lawmakers to add five key words to the state’s collective bargaining statute.

Those words — Committee for Public Counsel Services — would allow the roughly 750 lawyers, investigators, social service advocates, and administrative staff in the state agency commonly referred to as CPCS to form a union, as most state employees can.

But for the third consecutive legislative session — the latest of which ended last week — a bill that would address the issue did not make it to a vote.

It’s not clear what’s holding it back. The bill has wide support, with more than two-thirds of legislators in both the House and the Senate signed on as cosponsors, and no vocal opposition.

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It was sent to the House Committee on Ways and Means last July, and no action has been taken since. Jeffrey Sanchez, the committee chair, did not respond to requests for comment.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo did not address why the bill has continually stalled, noting only, through a spokeswoman, “We’re aware of it and we’re examining it.”

The state has allocated $65.5 million to CPCS for fiscal year 2019, up 11 percent from the year before, but more money will not resolve the issue, CPCS workers say.

“DeLeo wants to keep us powerless and begging for money every year,” said Ben Evans, a Fall River public defender.

What CPCS employees really need, Evans said, is a union contract that would include automatic cost-of-living increases. More important, unionizing would give them a voice, as well as a mechanism to turn their experiences on the front lines into policies that could better serve their clients, many of whom are indigent and suffer from mental illness or drug addiction.

Having a union would also provide a clear career path, they say, which would reduce turnover and provide more committed, cohesive service to their clients.

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“It’s really a minor change that could have a great effect for all the people that work for this agency,” said Jennifer Coliflores, a public defender in Worcester. “We spend a lot of our time fighting for the rights of clients and standing up for them in court. And we need to do the same thing for ourselves.”

Public defenders in other states have unionized, including Legal Aid attorneys in New York City and county employees in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle.

Massachusetts public defenders are among the lowest-paid in the country. Some live with their parents or work second jobs as they attempt to pay off steep law school loans. The median pay nationwide for entry-level public defenders is $58,300, according to the National Association for Law Placement. In Massachusetts, public defenders start at $47,500. A 2014 report by the Massachusetts Bar Association said public defenders in Massachusetts are paid less than in any other state, ranking just below West Virginia when cost of living is accounted for.

Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, did not respond to requests for comment on the unionization campaign.

Public defenders have tried to organize a number of times over the years but were rejected by the state labor relations department because there is no language in the collective bargaining statute that gives them the right to unionize. They tried, and failed, to organize under a private sector collective bargaining statute. Changing the law seems to be their best hope.

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The fact that Massachusetts public defenders aren’t mentioned in the statute is simply an oversight, union organizers say, most likely because attorneys weren’t thought of as prospective union members when the law was created in 1973.

“There’s been a lot of talk about criminal justice reform and making the system fair. This is one of the cornerstones of getting that picture completed,” said Rand Wilson, chief of staff for Service Employees International Union Local 888, which is working with CPCS employees. “The people that they serve are not highly regarded. And the attorneys get the same treatment.”

Other attorneys employed by the state are unionized, such as staff members of the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Correction, and the Department of Transitional Assistance.

Lawyers and financial investigators at the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers, a quasi-public agency that investigates complaints about lawyers, organized earlier this year.

Prosecutors, like public defenders, are not included in the state collective bargaining statute and don’t have union rights.

Evans, the Fall River public defender, noted that the agency has tripled in size in the 13 years he has worked there, making the right to organize even more urgent. If the Legislature doesn’t act in informal sessions during the remainder of the year, public defenders may try a ballot initiative, or appeal the labor department’s earlier decisions.

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Low pay causes many attorneys to abandon public service work for private firms, Evans said. Even those who leave for a public defender job in Rhode Island, just over the border from Fall River, get an automatic $10,000 pay bump, he noted.

But it’s not just about the pay, he said. “It’s about having the same rights as other workers for state agencies. . . . It should be a no-brainer.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.