Colo. unionists dance on the head of a pin

Black's Law Dictionary describes collective bargaining as a negotiation between an employer and the representative of organized employees to determine working conditions, wages, hours and fringe benefits.

Gov. Bill Ritter describes his plan to allow state workers to enter into partnership agreements with their bosses as one that provides for improving government services, achieving efficiencies and discussing issues of mutual concern.

Though opponents to the governor's plan say the two are exactly the same, proponents defend the difference as glaring.

"The way this is structured, the way we are thinking about it and the realities of it is that it is not collective bargaining," said Evan Dreyer, Ritter's press secretary. "The lack of a binding arbitration component means that there is nobody, no entity, no arbitrator who can force a decision on the state. The governor doesn't give up any authority. The same exact thing applies to the (Joint Budget Committee) and the Legislature."

And removing state workers' ability to strike, which all but state security and emergency workers have under current law, further eliminates any teeth they or their unions might have to force an agreement on the state, he said.

Ritter's plan to allow state workers to unionize has caused a stir among legislative Republicans, who immediately denounced it as one likely to needlessly increase state spending.

They say Colorado workers are already among the best paid state employees in the nation, and the state can ill-afford to pay them more.

"Constituents are worried what this does to the cost of government, and how this makes government more effective," said state Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma. "Does placing a third party in between a conversation between an employee and an employer really make a difference? It replaces common sense with unions, and it's a sad day in Colorado when we can't operate without a union representative in the room."

Democrats argue that the revenue and spending limits under the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights will prevent lawmakers from giving state workers too generous of a compensation package because there just isn't enough money to do so.

But Republicans counter that if the state did agree to boost pay and benefits for its workers, that money would have to come from other programs.

As a result, there will be a direct impact on taxpayer dollars, said state Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield.

"In this time of supposedly tight budgets and insufficient resources, (Ritter) is doing what will drive up the cost of labor and make worse those very problems," Mitchell said. "It's not TABOR's problem. It's bad leadership, bad management, bad spending priorities."

Union groups and some state workers said the GOP is focused too much on what the agreements might do, and not enough on what they are designed to do, help the state reduce waste and operate more efficiently, saving taxpayer dollars in the process.

John Silver, a corrections officer at the Fremont Correctional Facility in Canon City, said the reason why they want the ability to negotiate with their employers is to offer input on how they do their jobs, not on what they are paid.

Silver said the agreements are merely designed to put them on an even footing with their bosses, and ensure they are listened to, and not just tolerated.

"Right now, we're pretty much at the state's mercy," Silver said. "Once we get this (agreement) taken care of, we'll be on a common ground where we'll be able to come to the table and say, ‘Hey, this is what we're looking for’ in terms of this situation or that, and the state can say, ‘This is what we're looking for our employees to provide for us.’

"There will be times where we're going to have to make concessions, but I also see that the state's going to have to give into concessions also. If we can save the state money by providing a better service, I'm all for that. It's not just paying wages."

Local Democratic lawmakers said that even if the governor were to term his plan "collective bargaining," it would make little difference.

The state would continue to operate much as it does now, just a little more efficiently, said Dreyer and state Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo.

Under the governor's partnerships, the civil service rules currently managed by the State Personnel Board will be the same, including employee grievance procedures.

Wages, benefits and staffing levels still will be determined by the state budget, which is written by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

"The bottom line is that if we don't have money, the JBC and the governor will have the ability to decide what level of money is spent on employee benefits and raises," said Tapia, who also is JBC vice chairman. "So this doesn't change anything because we're still limited by the laws that are in effect. We may get lobbied a little harder (from state workers), but the budget is a bill that is carried by the total Legislature."

Other local Democrats likewise defended the move, saying ultimately it will prove to help state government operate more efficiently.

"There seems to be a bit of an uproar from the Republican side of the aisle about partnering the state employee, and in this case I think it is a point of exaggeration simply because it's not unusual in many states," said state Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo West. "Maybe if we had this in place prior to this year, we might have avoided things like the (computer) debacle or we might have found out somebody was embezzling $10 million from the Department of Revenue had we had a better communication system with our state employees."

State Rep. Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, said there's no reason why the state can't improve its working relationship with state workers and give them raises as needed.

"From what I see, I don't see a problem," McKinley said. "We spend a lot of money in the state that is unnecessary. Look at all the studies we do. We study things to death. We ought to be looking at something to give people better wages."

Local Republicans, however, questioned not only the plan, but the way the governor chose to implement it - by executive order rather than through the Legislature.

State Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, said the governor made it clear such issues should be discussed openly when he vetoed HB1072 during this year's session that would have eliminated a second vote needed to create all-union shops.

"From listening to the dialogue it sounds like it's trying to be something proactive, but I'm somewhat disappointed we went somewhat off the reservation to have it done," Massey said. "When we saw 1072 get vetoed, the talk was that we needed to engage all the legislators in a bipartisan manner. (The executive order) kind of circumvented that."


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