Worker-choice plan panics labor-state unions

Business and labor leaders spent last week sparring over proposed changes to the state constitution, and despite the intervention of Gov. Bill Ritter, the battle may get nastier. Wednesday, a group called A Better Colorado filed 133,000 petitions with the secretary of state. Its goal is to add an amendment to the state constitution that would prohibit collective bargaining agreements, which require that workers be union members or pay union dues. They call their proposal the Colorado Right to Work Amendment.

The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry has endorsed the measure; the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce has not yet taken a position.

Supporters argue that making workers join "union shops" violates workers' freedom. They also point to a study by a libertarian-leaning think tank that indicates employment in the 22 states with right-to-work laws has increased faster than in the 28 states without.

Unions oppose the measure and cite government statistics indicating that employees in right-to-work states earn less and have higher rates of workplace injury.

Though only 8 percent of Colorado workers are unionized, the Democratic hold on state government has led some in the business community to believe they must act now.

"Political change in this state has shifted in such a way that the rights of workers may be affected," said Kelley Harp, a spokesman for A Better Colorado. "Given the present political climate, it's important to bring it this year."

In response, the state's largest labor union has filed five initiatives of its own.

The United Food and Commercial Workers hopes voters will approve measures requiring employers to give workers an annual cost-of-living increase and mandate that companies with 20 or more employees provide medical insurance.

It is also asking that injured employees be able to sue employers outside of the workers' compensation system, that property taxes on businesses be raised and that corporations that move jobs from Colorado to foreign countries be prohibited from collecting tax credits.

The potential for a nasty fight in the fall as both sides campaign for their initiatives has led to Ritter's involvement. He met with supporters of the right-to-work initiative last week, but he was unable to persuade them to stand down.

Evan Dreyer, the governor's spokesman, said Ritter plans to stay involved and attempt to persuade both sides to back off.

"Keeping the conversation alive and open is vital to his ultimate goal of keeping (the initiatives) off the ballot," Dreyer said.

Though the campaigns to pass the pro-labor initiatives are still in the planning stages, two initiatives filed by Protect Colorado's Future, a coalition of progressive groups and unions, are moving ahead. They are unconnected with the food and commercial workers' proposals.

One would require that employers provide workers with reasons for their termination. Currently, workers can be fired at an employer's will, though Jess Knox, executive director of Protect Colorado's Future, said most businesses do give workers reasons.

"All we're doing is codifying something that's happening," he said.

The second would allow executives to be sued for damages if their company committed fraud. It would also hold them criminally responsible if they knew their company was failing to perform a task that is mandated by law.

Protect Colorado's Future is ready to start gathering signatures. Polls show that about 70 percent of the public supports the first proposed amendment and nearly 80 percent supports the second, Knox said.

The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce is fighting the proposals. It believes the just-cause initiative would require employers to enter into binding arbitration with workers and that the corporatefraud initiative will lead to "endless litigation," spokeswoman Kate Horle said.

The proposals are now before the Colorado Supreme Court, which must approve the wording. The Secretary of State's Office has already approved the ballot language.


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