Colo. Governor compared to Hoffa

To some in Colorado, "union" is a four-letter word. To others, it's a beacon of light.

Business groups and Republicans say the state shouldn't kowtow to labor bosses and make it more expensive to live and work in the state by allowing unions to actively recruit workers.

Meanwhile, Democrats and labor groups say workers would have better health care benefits, salaries and other job securities - which leads to greater services for customers - when they can bargain as a group and leverage their necessity to a company or government entity.

The virtual Continental Divide on this issue was especially evident in recent days, after Gov. Bill Ritter quietly signed an executive order allowing state workers to join unions. Republicans were apopleptic and promised legislation. Democrats said they supported Ritter's decision and that it would help save taxpayers money. The Denver Post, in a rare front-page editorial that apparently surprised even some newsroom employees, called Ritter a latter-day Jimmy Hoffa.

The rhetoric was reminiscent of the other time the words "Ritter" and "unions" were on Republican lips - earlier this spring, before the governor vetoed a labor bill called House Bill 1072.

The measure would have changed a 1943 state law that dictates how unions form - employees vote first for whether there will be a union at their workplace. If that vote passes, a second vote then determines if the business will be a closed shop; that is, whether all employees must pay dues to the union regardless of membership.

HB1072 would have eliminated that second vote, putting the question of a closed shop in the hands of the unions to use as a bargaining tool when negotiating labor contracts with employers. Ritter said the whole debate was conducted poorly and that he agreed with the sentiment, but not the procedure, so he vetoed it.

In his veto message, he told the Democratically controlled state Legislature that he worried the change would affect Colorado's ability to attract new business.

That move almost cost Denver the Democratic National Convention, after union leaders - who are almost always pro-Democratic - cried foul. But Republicans were somewhat mollified, and the issue went to sleep for the rest of the legislative session.

Now Ritter has brought it back onto the table by allowing state workers to organize.

They will not be allowed to go on strike, and they will not be required to join a union or pay union dues, but they will be able to negotiate as a group when it comes to health benefits and salary. Republicans said that would drive up the cost of government, a bad move in a state facing a massive budget crunch. But Democrats countered that it might save money, by bringing workers to the table and seeking common goals.

The announcement came in the form of a press release at Friday afternoon, which Republicans said was designed to stem any controversy. If that's true, it didn't work, because GOP leaders took the stage on Tuesday to denounce Ritter.

State Sen. Shawn Mitchell said Ritter's move was "naked political abuse."

The political flame-throwing will calm down in coming weeks, but what remains to be seen in the long term is how this will affect unions in places other than state government.

Unions are already feeling emboldened - they passed out victorious handbills at the Capitol after Ritter's order - so it's possible that they'll start recruiting from the rank and file who don't get a state paycheck.

In Fort Collins, city employees have been courted for the past couple months by at least one union that wants to represent utilities workers.

The future of unions after Ritter's order will be the real measure of the political divide over this issue.


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