Colorado Public Defenders Join May Day Rally

A group of people in colorful t-shirts watch a woman with short blonde hair in jeans speak on the steps of the Colorado capitol.
Public defender Kayleigh TenBarge, above, spoke on behalf of the Defenders Union of Colorado. / Photo by Clara Geoghegan for Law Week Colorado.

Members of Colorado’s public defenders’ union showed up for a May Day rally at the Colorado Capital alongside other public sector local unions. 

The May 1 “Reclaim May Day” rally was organized by Communication Workers of America 7799, the local CWA coalition that includes five public worker unions in Colorado. Defenders Union of Colorado, or DUC, was formed in September 2022 by attorneys and staff of the state’s public defender offices and is under CWA 7799. 

The rally attracted a small crowd in front of the capitol as the Colorado General Assembly heads into its final week of this session. Representatives from 20 unions in Colorado spoke at the rally including Kayleigh TenBarge who is CWA 7799’s vice president, a member of DUC and a public defender. 

“I joined my union, not because I hate my job. In fact, I love my job,” said TenBarge. 

She added that she fully understood the work would be hard when she became a public defender, but didn’t expect impossibly high caseloads, frequent turnover and low wages to be obstacles. “What I did not sign up for was providing the most vulnerable members of our community with constitutionally insufficient representation,” said TenBarge. 

TenBarge said she sees DUC as a way to change larger issues at the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender and the state criminal justice system. “There are better days on the horizon. Together, we’re tougher, we’re smarter, we’re stronger and we really do have the power to change the status quo.” 

CWA 7799 was founded in 2020 by employees of the University of Colorado system. It quickly grew to include other public sector worker unions including those with UC Health, Denver Health, Denver Public Library and the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender. 

Jade Kelly, president and one of the founding members of CWA 7799, explained that as public sector workers, CWA 7799 unions have additional barriers when it comes to collective bargaining. 

“We are actually excluded from some of the protections in the Colorado Labor Peace Act,” explained Kelly who noted none of the unions have been recognized by the National Labor Relations Board or their employers. 

One way the public sector unions have adapted to this challenge, Kelly explained, is by forming wall-to-wall unions, or unions that include all non-management workers and can create a critical mass to spark change. 

At DUC, the union has members in each of the 22 statewide locations for the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender as well as its centralized support office. The Office of the Colorado State Public Defender has 577 attorneys and 419 staff (investigators, paralegals, social workers and administrative assistants). 

The union was officially announced Sept. 1, 2022, and has eight initiatives including establishing workload caps, increasing wages and creating additional skill-based pay bumps for bilingual workers.  

May Day, also called International Workers’ Day, commemorates the May 1, 1886, general strike by Chicago workers pushing for an eight-hour work day. After a bomb detonated during the strike that killed seven police officers, four labor rights advocates were convicted and executed on shaky grounds. The Haymarket affair led to the creation of May Day as a holiday for labor rights organizations. While most in the U.S. celebrate September’s Labor Day instead of May Day, the holiday is observed internationally. 

One of the hopes of the rally, Kelly said, was underlining the history of the U.S. labor movement and the impact unions have had. 

“This is something that is a worldwide day of solidarity,” said Kelly. “[and] to celebrate past wins to mourn the people that have lost.” She added that during the COVID-19 pandemic, several CWA 7799 members died after contracting the virus on the job. 

Kelly said that the rally also coincided with a victory for CWA 7799 at the state legislature. On April 29, a majority of the state House of Representatives approved Senate Bill 23-111 which grants organizing protections for public sector workers in Colorado. The bill is scheduled for Senate consideration of House amendments May 2 but Kelly said she expects the bill to be signed into law this session. 

Kelly said that after a similar bill failed last year, the support of SB23-111 by lawmakers is especially significant as is its wide range of coverage for public sector workers. The bill would apply to county and municipality workers, school districts employees, public higher education workers, public defenders and others and would establish the right for those workers to discuss workplace issues, engage in concerted activity, participate in political processes and unionize, among other things. 

“I think it changes a lot,” said Kelly. “People are terrified to join a union, they don’t want to be labeled as a troublemaker, especially when you can get fired for no reason at all.” She said that under the bill, public sector workers who believe they were terminated for participating in a union or in violation of other protections would be able file a report with the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

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