Employees at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to unionize, the culmination of a more than two-year organizing effort that required a change in state law.
One unit consisting of administrative and support staff voted 45-1 to make the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Maryland Council 3 its exclusive bargaining representative. Meanwhile, another unit covering assistant public defenders, intake staff, social workers and investigators voted 233-8 in favor of a union.
“This is a big win for OPD workers who have been fighting to have their voices heard and respected in their workplaces. Now, they join AFSCME members across the state who enjoy the benefits of their collective bargaining agreements,” said Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, which represents almost 30,000 state government and higher education employees, in a statement.
“Together, we will continue to organize for the pay, respect and better working conditions every state worker deserves,” he added.
The Maryland Defenders Union formed in 2020 seeking improvements in workload, pay and retention and represents more than 600 employees across the state. They will now be covered under an existing master agreement between AFSCME Maryland Council 3 and the state and have the ability to bargain at the agency level.
The Maryland General Assembly passed a bill earlier this year and then overrode a veto from Gov. Larry Hogan that gave public defenders the ability and power to collectively bargain. Employees cast secret ballots from Nov. 15 through Dec. 1.
The Maryland State Labor Relations Board, an independent agency that plans and oversees union elections, prepared and counted mail ballots from about 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Fifty-eight ballots were considered void, largely because the independent agency could not identify the voter, said Erica Lell Snipes, executive director of the Maryland State Labor Relations Board. Meanwhile, there were a smaller number of ballots that were challenged but did not affect the outcomes.
The effort comes as various workers across the region — at places from the Maryland Institute College of Art to the Apple Store in Towson — have moved to unionize.
Seventy-one percent of Americans now approve of labor unions — the highest figure since 1965, according to Gallup’s 2022 Work and Education survey.
In a statement, Maryland Public Defender Natasha Dartigue said increased salaries, adequate staffing and better working environments have been and remain a high priority for her administration.
Dartigue became the state’s top public defender on July 1 upon the retirement of Paul DeWolfe.
She said the office’s success in providing representation to the large number of disenfranchised and marginalized people that it serves requires an increase in money for the agency as well as the support of its dedicated employees.
“I will work collaboratively with union leadership to further this collective mission,” Dartigue said. “I look forward to exchanging ideas and engaging in meaningful dialogue that identifies solutions, enhances employee morale and facilitates team work.”