Colorado debates compulsory unionism

A voluntary unionism ballot initiative in the works, coupled with ongoing talks between Gov. Bill Ritter’s office and a public employees union, have some at the Capitol questioning whether the labor battles that marked this year’s General Assembly could resurface in 2008.

Legislators last year passed a bill making it easier for workers to unionize, but only after a Senate filibuster and partisan battles in both legislative chambers. Ritter vetoed it, saying he was concerned with the tone of the debate more than the substance of the bill.

Some union leaders threatened to get the 2008 Democratic National Convention moved out of Denver, and pressure is building for the General Assembly to pass some kind of pro-union legislation next session.

Against that backdrop come two new proposals, one considered non-union and the other pro-union.

One is a statewide ballot issue submitted by an Aurora city councilman and private businessman that would bar mandatory participation in labor unions and would prohibit unions from collecting dues from workers at union-majority workplaces who choose not to join.

The Ballot Title Setting Board unanimously approved the wording of the amendment Wednesday, clearing the way for backers to begin collecting signatures to get it on the 2008 statewide ballot.

If voters approve the initiative, Colorado would join other “right-to-work” states with constitutional provisions that say workers can’t be forced to join a union even when most of their coworkers are union members. Though that resembles current Colorado law, it is not in the state constitution, and supporters fear that laws could be passed to mandate union membership.

Attorney John Berry, representing the constitutional amendment supporters, said that after the fight over HB1072, he fears stronger attempts to unionize Colorado businesses. This would hurt the state’s economic climate and the ability to attract new industries, he said.

John Bowen, attorney for the local United Food and Commercial Workers, noted during the title-board hearing that if the amendment passes, unions would continue to be forced to represent workers in union shops even if they do not join the union.

Berry thinks a ballot issue could attract the attention of national labor and right-towork groups, as a successful similar initiative did in Oklahoma earlier this decade.

Meanwhile, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is trying to make inroads in a more traditional way — through state elected officials.

The organization has been meeting with Ritter since May to discuss the institution of collective bargaining among state government workers.

This would allow those workers to negotiate as a group for improvements in wages, health benefits and work conditions, and give all sectors except public safety the ability to strike.

State agencies are experiencing high turnover, especially in the Department of Corrections, fueled in part by increasing health care costs, said Mark Schwane, executive director of AFSCME’s state council. Getting their employees more involved in workplace issues would make them feel more valued, he said.

Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, points to U.S. Census Bureau statistics that rank Colorado employees as having the ninth-highest pay package of state employees in the country.

Legalizing collective bargaining could mean that a lot more money will go to these well-compensated state employees, taking funds from vital programs, he said.

Ritter’s office hasn’t said what he plans to do in regard to collective bargaining, but he has defended the ongoing talks as a way to hear the concerns of workers and increase their cooperation with his office.

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, a Denver Democrat who has not taken a position on collective bargaining, was frustrated by the attention paid by Republicans and the media last session to HB1072, saying it took away from what he considered a positive session overall for business.

Leery of the amount of attention the governor’s talks are getting, Romanoff vowed that the issue would not distract the House from its work in the areas of higher education, transportation and health care reform.

“Our agenda is pro-economy,” Romanoff said. “I think everybody wants to get caught up in a fight about what’s good for business or what’s good for labor . . . I think a productive work force is good for the economy.”


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