MN public defenders reach tentative deal to avert strike

Veterans' legal issues are heard
Hennepin County public defender Kellie Charles represents Air Force veteran William Bean during a court hearing in St. Paul, Minn. in 2010. Minnesota public defenders threatened to strike March 22, 2022 over pay and caseloads. A tentative deal was reportedly reached after long bargaining Friday.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Minnesota public defenders said they have reached a deal with the Minnesota Board of Public Defense, averting a walkout that could have brought the state's court system to a standstill.

The union was set to go on strike as early as Tuesday.

They said they were fed up with high caseloads and lower pay than other legal sectors. In a statement, the Teamsters Local 320, which represents Minnesota’s public defenders, said the tentative agreement “includes cost of living adjustments through 2023, significant overhead costs for part-time public defenders and salary reopen language.”

Gus Froemke, spokesperson for Teamsters Local 320, said more needed to be done to address long-term systemic issues, including "how we start to resolve the unequal and inequitable caseloads and caseload management.

“But the biggest thing going forward is securing additional money from the state of Minnesota for public defense," Froemke said.

Both sides have agreed to push the Minnesota Legislature to provide more funding for public defenders and reopen negotiations if that funding is approved.

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In a statement in response to the agreement, the Minnesota Board of Public Defense said it was pleased a tentative agreement had been reached. It also agreed with the union that public defenders are underpaid and that the board is understaffed.

“The Board is also committed to continuing to pursue the resources necessary to compensate attorneys and staff in a similar manner as other public sector employees,” the statement read.

Public defenders represent those accused of crimes but who generally are unable to afford legal representation. The statement said African Americans especially are disproportionately more likely to need public defenders than the state’s population would suggest.

The union represents 470 public defenders and 200 support staffers. A vote on the contract will happen within two weeks. The union said agreement was reached on the first day of mediation following the vote authorizing a strike and a long bargaining session Friday.

Previously Minnesota public defenders reject state contract offer, OK strike