Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why Do Attorneys Need to Organize?

The question is sometimes raised as to why attorneys need unions. After all, in private practice, we would be at-will. We would like to address the question of attorney unionization, and welcome you (and any non-AG public sector lawyers with a perspective) to join in the discussion through comments.

We believe that working for an elected official (as an attorney or a "legal assistant") is different than working for a private law firm for the following reasons:
  • The public sector lawyer is ultimately accountable to the Minnesota taxpayers, while the private sector lawyer is accountable to the private paying client.
  • The public sector lawyer works for an elected boss. That boss must campaign every four years, and the staff might have a new boss every four years. It is undeniable that partisan politics plays a central role in the atmosphere in the office, and can weigh heavily in the decision making in the office. The private sector lawyer likely maintains the same boss or bosses over a much longer term. While there are certainly "politics" to every job, the private sector does not experience the outside political pressures that public sector law firms experience.
  • An at-will public sector lawyer must decide whether to put her job at risk and say no to the elected official's request, if she or he does not think the request is supported by the law. A great example can be found in comments made recently by Mike Hatch at a CLE entitled "What to do when the Attorney General comes calling" Mr. Hatch admitted that a lawsuit his office filed against a company was generated out of his personal grudge. At least in the private sector, a lawyer can decline to represent a client who litigates on a grudge.
  • Many private sector attorneys are paid a lot more than the public sector attorneys. At some of the medium and larger sized firms in the twin cities, the new associates fresh out of law school earn 20% more than the most experienced staff in the public sector, and more than the Attorney General herself. People who work in the public sector obviously don't do it for the money. Aside from the satisfaction of serving the citizens, public sector employees should be able to enjoy some benefits, such as paid holidays, decent health care, and yes, job security.
  • Public sector attorney organizing is fairly common. In fact, just about all other public sector law firms in Minnesota and in the federal system, the line staff are protected by unions or civil service (or both). Hennepin County and Ramsey County Attorneys Offices are both unionized. Dakota County staff are protected. St. Louis County staff recently organized. Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul City Attorney's Offices are unionized. The federal US Attorney's Office staff have job protection through a civil service type of system. Why is the Attorney General's Office the only large public law office with no form of job protection for the line staff?

This isn't about Lori Swanson, it isn't about Mike Hatch and it's not even about everyone in the office. In fact, we believe that there are a finite amount of AG staff who should be unclassified. But this movement is about the bulk of the staff; the people who represent our state's agencies, boards, departments. The people who have specialized knowledge in their respective fields and must be relied upon for advice based on the law, not an agenda or a grudge.

This is about fairness, common sense, and what is best for the citizens of Minnesota. This is about securing future stability in an office that has been decimated over the past 9 years by the loss of a staggering number of experienced staff; losses that have accelerated over the last several months. The drain on the office is not merely noticeable, it is alarming. Staff are isolated, overworked, underpaid and there is no objective merit salary increase or cost of living adjustment system in place. We have no voice, and no way to constructively communicate frustrations without fear of losing our jobs, or our current position or assignment.

There IS a difference between working in the private and public sectors. A big difference. There is no reason that the Attorney General needs 300 plus at-will employees. It makes sense for the line staff to have job security, and a mechanism for communication. We hope that we can achieve this goal, and get the office back on track to concentrate on what it does best: working for the citizens of Minnesota.

Friday, January 18, 2008


Many of us found sealed envelopes in our office mail boxes today. Inside we found new anti-union propaganda from the "Typewriter." The new lit piece (which we will post on our blog shortly) belittled and mocked a Union Organizer job posting. The propagandist scornfully highlighted passages in the job description and added typewritten comments about her selections. The anonymous memo sarcastically asked us, "HAVE YOU RECEIVED YOUR "HOUSE VISIT" YET? DO YOU LIKE BEING "SCOUTED" AND "TARGETED?" IS THE PROFIT FROM YOUR DUES REALLY THIS IMPORTANT?"


We will continue our house visits this weekend. OFF the taxpayers' dime. Meanwhile the Swanson loyalty pledge petition continues to be (boldly) circulated during business hours.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Reasons to Unionize

Several union teams made house visits this weekend, hoping to talk to AAGs about joining the organizing effort. Thank you to all whom we visited for making time to talk with us. Thank you for signing, thank you for sharing your support, thank you for your feedback and thank you for explaining your concerns. Learning from this weekend, we have decided to get back to the basics and post our reasons for wanting to organize. This list is a work in progress and in no particular order. Please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas. As always, you can post anonymously.

  • Job security will allow us to focus on fulfilling the statutory obligations of the attorney general to the best of our abilities. This obligation should not be minimized or compromised by the politics of the AG.
  • The citizens of Minnesota are better served by stable, experienced workforce. Turnover is to be expected in a normal work environment, but the entire depth of experience and knowledge at the attorney general's office should not have the potential to be flushed out every time the office changes hands. There are about 300 "at will" employees in the office.
  • Staff salaries should be consistent and transparent. Heck, it might be helpful to the AG if the pay scale process was set in stone. Currently, the AG can be hurt politically if s/he raises the staff salaries (even slightly) and often waits until odd times of the year or until after an election year to give raises or bonuses.
  • Communication, communication, communication. Why do staff arrive (or depart) with little or no fanfare? Why doesn't the office post transfer opportunities? What is going on in the office? We are kept in silos and often have no idea what other divisions, much less the office as a whole, is doing.
  • You could say no OR yes to envelope stuffing parties, door knocking outings and lawn signs (and internal petitions) because you want to, not because you are driven by fear to do so.
  • Job security. Hey, this isn't about a bureaucratic free ride--we expect to work hard and we want to do the best job we can for the State. But there should be a process for termination or demotion, etc. As noted in other posts, at present an AG termination comes as a coldcock to the AAG or legal assistant (and from what we gather, quite often to the manager who does the termination as well.) We'd like a process in place to explain "problems" before they reach the point of termination and give the staff person a chance to improve or consider a change in venue.
  • If staff had done this 20 years ago, we wouldn't be playing these games now. Let's make changes now so that future AG staff (and Attorneys General!) can enjoy the benefits.
  • A healthy workplace yields happy, productive staff.
A note: Many of you have expressed support for our efforts, but are too afraid to sign a card. We acknowledge the climate of fear in the office, and this demonstrates why we need to organize! We need to be able to do our best to serve the public without having to constantly worry about being fired. The movement to organize is about all of us, about the future of the office and--most importantly--about the public good. There is strength in numbers! We are very close to reaching critical mass. Please, put your personal fears aside, join us and let's make this happen!