Arguing for the rights of California Court Interpreters
By Marianne Pripps
On June 30th, I received a call late at night informing me of what I had been dreading for some time. As a Court Interpreter Pro Tem (CIPT), I was going on strike the next morning for four days. I knew then that something had gone wrong during the last negotiation session our union conducted, and my heart sank in dismay. The next morning, I scrambled to get ready and report to the chosen venue but was not able to make it for logistical reasons. I then spent the rest of the morning contacting colleagues in sister organizations such as NCTA and ATA to ask for their support and solidarity. Why did this have to happen?
I have been a full-time court interpreter since 1993, when I first gained my state certification. For most of those years I was classified as an independent contractor with no rights or protections at work. I worked on a day-to-day basis with no benefits of any kind and no pay increases for a decade. Although such circumstances can certainly come with the territory of being an independent contractor, the difference was that I had no control over what I did; the courts did. Without my input and expertise, this was a situation that was simply unacceptable to me. Then in 2003 California legislation made interpreters employees of the court (in effect, the state) and granted us collective bargaining rights.
Contract negotiations started in earnest over a year ago. California was divided into four negotiating regions for purposes of simplicity and leverage. Region 1 (Los Angeles) was the first and remains the region that consistently makes the most progress. The other regions, in contrast—including Northern California—have suffered from a lack of seriousness and desire on the part of the courts’ representatives as to the basic fundamentals of interpreters’ rights.
From the beginning, these representatives of the courts have sought to undermine the law, subsequently refusing to concede anything beyond the most basic of employee benefits. As a union, we were faced with the animosity of some members of the court administrations who have never liked having interpreters in their midst, for reasons that are entirely unclear to me.
But we are fighting back. We feel that team interpreting and a raise in pay, as well as seniority and other job perks, are absolutely necessary to retain, recruit, and motivate skilled professionals to perform a job that is, at best, very challenging and at worst, extremely stressful. Our expertise, after all, plays an important part in ensuring a person’s due process under the law.
During the strike, we as interpreters were able to realize several things. For the past two years, we had been somewhat demoralized by the lack of incentives we had to remain employees. This changed when we saw how hard our union and colleagues had been working, united for the common good of our profession. The strike brought us together in a kind of solidarity never before achieved, and demonstrated to the court administrations the importance of our profession.
It is also true that the strike was effective only as an informational tool; it did not bring the courts to a complete halt. We were disappointed that many of our OTS (Other Than Spanish) colleagues crossed the picket lines, and even some interpreter employees did so as well. However, our spirits were lifted by the support that the legal community gave us, where court bilingual staff members refused to interpret—imperiling their own bilingual pay—and attorneys refused to use the services of non-certified interpreters.
As I write, Region 1 has ratified a contract and we are elated for our Southern California colleagues. Our strike may have had clear resonance in that area because the agreement came within a week after the end of our action. In the Northern California and San Diego regions, the situation is quite different, as both regions will enter mediation. In our own area, we may yet have to resort to further action. We hope that this does not come to pass but we are ready and willing to do so. We will need the help and support of all of our colleagues, sister organizations, and corporate members because, in the end, fair and respectful treatment and working conditions for all interpreters benefit everyone.
In my view, people should have the right to choose to be an independent contractor, along with its attendant risks; I did it for many years. But people should also have the right to be a full or part-time employee, with all its ensuing benefits, rights, and privileges. Ultimately, how interpreters stick together and fight for what is fair and just is what will decide the advancement of a noble profession.