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Justice in a Union

On collective power and transforming the criminal justice system

Abraham Lincoln, who began his adult life as a self-taught country lawyer, once said of the profession that “the leading rule for the lawyer, as for the man of every other calling, is diligence.” The kind of dogged commitment that one of our most famed leaders considered an essential quality in a lawyer also lends itself well to the labor movement. Unions and rank-and-file workers have a long history of refusing to give up (even when they know they’re licked), and the entire movement is far stronger for this bullheaded tenacity. Lawyers may not be the first group that comes to mind when discussing union drives and workers’ rights, but lest we forget, not all legal workers are created equal.

For every high-powered, highly paid legal eagle swanning through the courtroom in Gucci loafers, there are many others balancing massive caseloads and fighting hard for their marginalized clients for little pay and less prestige. Public defenders do much of the heavy lifting around the “justice” part of our so-called criminal justice system, so it is unsurprising that many of them have lately elected to organize. Whether they’re working at a law firm, a nonprofit, or a civil rights organization, these legal workers deserve the same protections as other union members. On top of that, they need an extra dose of solidarity, for they’re fighting a war on two fronts: firstly, against their untenable working conditions, and secondly, against the overwhelming cruelty of our nation’s criminal justice system.

“Public defenders are poorly paid, they have excessive caseloads, work under generally poor working conditions, and often feel a lack of influence on real criminal justice reform,” Carla Katz, an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, told The Legal Intelligencer in February. “These are attorneys that are defending constitutional rights and ensuring everybody gets a vigorous defense. Unionizing brings not only the things like better wages, reductions in caseload, but those things bring stability not just to the public defenders, but also to their offices and the community.” These unions offer an excellent example of the simple truth that (most) unions exist to lift people up, and to contribute to the public good—whether that’s by helping to ensure public health and safety, allowing people to live with dignity and engage in their communities, participating directly in mass politics, and so on. Understandably, there are a lot of nasty stereotypes about lawyers, but the legal workers involved in this kind of work are trying to get—and keep—people free.

Public defenders do much of the heavy lifting around the “justice” part of our so-called criminal justice system.

Public defender unions aren’t a novel phenomenon—New York’s Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALAA) union, affiliated with the United Autoworkers (UAW), was founded in 1969—but there has been a recent wave of new organizing in the sector that in some cases ties directly into the broader struggle for criminal justice reform. It’s surely no coincidence that as a massive reckoning over police brutality, mass incarceration, institutional racism, and the systemic devaluation of black lives claims the spotlight, workers who might not otherwise be gung-ho about a union drive have been inspired to take the leap. Lawyers being lawyers, though, they often want to ask a few questions first.  

Nikhil Ramnaney and his coworkers at the Los Angeles County Public Defender’s Office, the oldest and largest indigent defense law firm in the nation, were on the cutting edge of this recent organizing wave, unionizing back in 2018. But, as he admits, it was something of an uphill battle due to what he described as internalized managerial propaganda around unions protecting “bad employees” or being irrelevant in the modern era, as well as general ignorance about how a union could help his coworkers.

“As lawyers and fierce advocates and relatively high-paid professionals, many attorneys did not simply see the need for a union,” explains Ramnaney, who is now the president of their union, AFSCME Local 148. “Additionally, lawyers—infamously—are difficult to argue with. When working with labor partners, a lot of our members were suspicious of information and rights that labor organizers said we had. Lawyers really needed to see examples or hear from other lawyers (and see the source of those rights and analysis) to get over their cynical first impressions.”

However difficult they might be, these discussions have been unfolding across the country, and their scattered fruit is ripening into a bona fide movement. I’m based in Philadelphia, where not one, but three nearby public defender unions have sprung up in the past fifteen months (four, if we count the staff at the nonprofit Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who unionized with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) in May—after all, D.C. is only a few hours’ drive).

In May 2019 attorneys in Lancaster County joined the Teamsters and in December the Defender Association of Philadelphia announced that they were linking up with the UAW.  They finally won recognition following an NLRB election in February 2020. Just last week, staff attorneys at the Delaware County Public Defenders office followed suit, voting 33-3 to join the UAW as well. As the Philly Defenders Union, whose members recently took part in a nationwide public defenders’ march for Black lives, noted in their petition for recognition, “We are attorneys united in our goal to provide the highest level of client-centered and community-based advocacy to our clients, many of whom are the most marginalized individuals in Philadelphia. We believe that by collectively improving our workplace, we will better serve our clients.”

Since attorneys hold social and economic status as privileged, white-collar professionals with high wages (compared to many other union members, at least), bread and butter economic issues are often less important to them than improving working conditions and enacting changes in service of their mission. “A lawyers’ union of public defenders is driven by more than our interest in better pay or benefits, but by the promise of using the union to help achieve justice for our clients and for larger progressive criminal justice goals,” says Ramnaney. “Our broader goals include reducing the footprint of the criminal legal system and instead shift resources into community-based resources and institutions that can address the root causes of contact with the current system: substance abuse, mental health, generational and community trauma, and lack of economic opportunity.”

Those goals align with the mission of another new union campaign, one that deals even more directly with those who have been harmed by the criminal justice system and further subjugated by this country’s cruel system of cash bail. On August 14, workers at The Bail Project, the country’s largest bail fund, took to Twitter to announce their intention to form a union with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAWAW). As they explained in a statement, “We hope unionization will give TBP staff more say in who we can bail out, how we collaborate with local partners, how we support movement organizers, and how we dismantle pretrial detention. The national uprising against police killings and racial terror has made this accountability even more urgent.”

The workers also noted that the ongoing mass movement for Black liberation helped TBP generate over $15 million in fundraising in the span of a few weeks, and staff were uncomfortable concentrating such a massive amount of resources solely in management’s hands. While a majority of the people who signed union cards are Black, Indigenous, or people of color, and many of them have been formerly incarcerated, every chief officer position, as well as 70 percent of TBP’s governing board is white. As the workers wrote, “We believe that empowering TBP’s workers through a union will benefit everyone who works at TBP by improving accountability to the communities that experience the devastation of cash bail directly.” 

There is quite a bit of overlap between these two camps, sometimes to an almost familial degree. The Bail Project grew out of the Bronx Freedom Fund, an initiative founded in 2007 by the Bronx Defenders, a nonprofit organization that offers bail assistance and pretrial support to people in New York City. Both were founded by lawyer and current TBP CEO Robin Steinberg. On May 29, staff at Bronx Defenders announced their intention to unionize, and on June 10, management voluntarily recognized the UAW Local 2325-ALAA as the collective bargaining representative of its workers. While they have a complicated history with the UAW—a rather cryptic line from the Bronx Defenders’ union acknowledges that the office’s “founding in 1997 undermined bargaining efforts by the union we now seek to join”—they are now reunited under labor’s big tent.

Even as already employed legal workers in various sectors work toward greater accountability, the profession itself is still set up to shut out the perspectives of those who have the most intimate knowledge of its horrors. That is where groups like the Formerly Incarcerated Law Students Advocacy Association (FILSAA) at CUNY Law come in. Founded by a formerly incarcerated first-year-student who is now well on his way to becoming a public defender, the organization seeks to create a path from prison to the legal profession so that those most directly affected by criminal law can also participate in it.

FILSAA offers resources and support to encourage currently and formerly incarcerated folks to consider law school, and the organization is there to help former jailhouse lawyers manage the transition to a more conventional setting once they get there. “The whole [legal] system is tuned to those who’ve grown up in this elite academic environment,”  says FILSAA co-chair Colby Williams. “The jargon, the library, the online platforms, when to ask for help and whom to ask— it’s easy to take it all for granted when everyone you know has a graduate degree, but if you haven’t even been able to leave your bedroom without a guard unlocking the door for the past several years, law school takes some getting used to.”

In addition, FILSAA also works with organizations and coalitions like Unlock the Bar! and the National Justice-Impacted Bar Association (NJIBA) to figure out ways to remove discriminatory questions from Bar applications, including the mandatory “Character and Fitness” reviews that can dash the chances of marginalized applicants in favor of maintaining the profession’s entrenched elitism. They’re pushing back against the same elitist norms, political conservatism, and disdain for civil liberties that led the National Lawyers Guild to become the first progressive bar association back in 1937 (when, in another twist of history, they provided legal counsel for the fledgling UAW). Those activist ideals still inform the work of the NLG’s current membership, whose lime-green legal observer hats have become a staple at protests against police brutality and state violence.

“We believe the injustice system cannot be ‘just’ as long as its end is also its means of killing meaningful criticism; by disproportionately locking up people of color, poor people, people different than those who have controlled power and property since our country was founded, the system insulates itself against change, since these communities can no longer participate in the law’s creation and interpretation,” Colby Williams explains. “A criminal record historically prevented one from obtaining a professional license, including a license to practice law. It still does in some states. However, now that several state Bar Associations see the value in admitting folks with valuable perspectives on the many issues our society faces, the door is opening for formerly incarcerated people to gain access to legal institutions. These doors should have always been open to members of the communities they represent.”

“We are really excited by the opportunity to use our labor union to advance the cause of our clients and larger broader progressive goals that will benefit all working people.”

The Black Public Defender Association (BPDA) agrees. The organization is a membership section of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, the nation’s oldest and largest public defense nonprofit, and was the brainchild of Patrice James of Still She Rises, a defense office dedicated to serving mothers. The BPDA is now committed to building a nationwide network of skilled Black public defenders who identify with and are committed to the populations they serve.

“Black defenders work on the front lines and then go home to communities and loved ones who are personally impacted by the inequities of the system,” explains a spokesperson for the BPDA in an email. “For black defenders, in our clients we see our loved ones and ourselves.  When defenders are able to separate themselves from the lived experiences of clients, it allows for the dehumanization and ordinary injustice in less zealous representation to begin.”

Ultimately, criminal justice reform, and the overarching goal of many in the movement to abolish police and prisons altogether, is not going to happen overnight. But by building collective power and solid foundations of solidarity, and orienting their struggle around the goals of justice, community accountability, and liberation, these legal workers are doing their part to push the movement forward.

“BPDA is committed to dismantling racism in the criminal legal system,” their spokesperson says. “Black defenders are uniquely positioned to help in the fight to end mass criminalization alongside grassroots organizers and those who are directly impacted. We hope to use our expertise and knowledge of systems to accelerate the end to mass incarceration and racism in the criminal legal system.”

“We are really excited by the opportunity to use our labor union to advance the cause of our clients and larger broader progressive goals that will benefit all working people,” Nikhil Ramnaney tells me. “We want our clients, our communities, and those engaged in the broader struggle to know we are allies in the movement and will zealously advocate against our racist system of mass incarceration.”