Gov't unions gain upper hand over taxpayers

Colorado state employees earn about 25 percent more than their counterparts in neighboring states, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, and their average salary of $51,753 ranks ninth in the nation, 9 percent higher than the national average for state employees.

So why is Gov. Bill Ritter's office hosting a working group on "partnership legislation" that unions hope will include collective bargaining? The answer points to a vast philosophical chasm between pro-union Democrats and union-averse Republicans.

Follow the money, as they say, and the answer also points to the fact that unions pay big bucks to get Democrats elected.

Unions and Democrats in favor of partnership legislation point out that their latest appeal is not just about collective bargaining, where union representatives lobby management for higher wages and benefits.

"Employee partnerships are not about money," said Evan Dreyer, Ritter's spokesman. "They're about partnering with employees to give them a greater voice in state government. . . . From a taxpayer's perspective, it's about better customer service."

The Service Employees' International Union, which has met repeatedly over recent months with Ritter's staff, says that collective bargaining is just a starting point for discussion.

"I think what we're talking about is much more mature labor relations," said Mitch Ackerman, director of SEIU Local 105. "It's more about solving problems and less of a conflict-oriented model."

They says that despite competitive wages, problems are rampant in the state work force, including a high turnover rate and tens of millions of dollars being wasted on problems that employees could fix or prevent if they felt more engaged by management.

But the fact remains that collective bargaining is in the mix.

The SEIU made that intent clear in a memo released by Ritter's office last week in response to a request for records of talks between unions and the Ritter administration.

In the memo, which an SEIU representative asked officials to keep private, the SEIU identified "improving wages, benefits and working conditions for all employees" as an "appropriate issue for the Partnership Agreement." Those agreements "shall be enforceable as binding contracts on the State, Representative and the employees," it said.

Dreyer declined to say whether Ritter would include collective bargaining in his proposal.

"The evolution of a policy idea into actual policy takes time and vetting. We are still in that process," Dreyer said.

Collective bargaining is a radioactive concept for many Colorado Republicans, who warn that it will bust state budgets.

The SEIU and some Democrats say the GOP is distorting the issue and blocking real progress in state government by focusing solely on the collective bargaining aspect of partnership legislation.

Nonetheless, collective bargaining is the seed from which the SEIU's partnership model has grown. Collective bargaining almost always leads to higher wages and benefits for employees, said Richard Kearney, a professor at North Carolina State University who studies public sector unionism.

"The evidence is very conclusive on that," he said. "But maybe it's worth it."

The SEIU has found great success in the private sector with its "creative and innovative" partnership model, and it is starting to gain a foothold in organizing government employees, Kearney said.

Partnerships appeal to corporate CEOs and government administrators alike because they provide for a formal, structured voice for public employees to give feedback to management, he said.

Colorado is one of only 10 states in the country without a law addressing collective bargaining for state employees. With the governor's office and both houses of the legislature now under Democratic control, it's a ripe target for unions.

New Mexico's Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson reinstated collective bargaining for state employees in 2003 and believes it is making government there more efficient.

"If management always says, 'Management's right, and employees are wrong,' management is missing a whole big part of the story," said Brian Condit, Richardson's deputy chief of staff. "It's a lot easier to troubleshoot problems if you have an agreed-upon structure."

But at what cost?

Washington state employees are getting the biggest raises they have seen in decades thanks to new contracts negotiated by Gov. Christine Gregoire's office and approved by a legislature controlled by fellow Democrats, The Seattle Times reported in July.

Salary and benefit increases for the state's 110,000 workers will cost almost $1.6 billion in state, federal and other funds over the next two years, the Times reported.

The SEIU and Ritter's office argue that nothing close to that will happen in Colorado, mostly because state workers here, unlike in Washington, are already paid well.

And the budget is lean here, compared with a surplus in the billions of dollars in Washington, the union says.

For now, the union says it wants to see increases to the state's health insurance benefits, which are at 85 percent of Colorado's private sector.

State GOP leaders, meanwhile, say that Colorado's state workers are doing just fine already, without the union's help.

Their retirement benefits, for example, allow 50-year-old employees with 30 years of service to retire and collect 75 percent of their highest salary.

More to the point politically, Republicans want to weaken the unions that helped Democrats take control of state government.

"The governor has some serious questions to answer," said Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield. "The numbers prove state employees already have a good deal, on top of amazing job security.

"There's simply no reason to set up a union with collective bargaining except as a payoff to his campaign backers and to cycle more employee dollars into Democratic campaigns."


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