Colorado Gov. casts lot with gov't unions

Gov. Bill Ritter gave unions a stronger voice in state government Friday, nine months after angering them by vetoing a bill they wanted. He did it quietly, however, issuing an executive order at 3 p.m., hoping that it will preempt a full debate on the topic once the legislature convenes in January.

Republicans and business interests immediately lashed out against the eight-page, single-spaced document, calling it an arrogant payback to big labor for helping Ritter get elected.

But in an interview Friday evening, Ritter said the order, which now will go into effect without approval from the legislature, will empower state employees to improve government without tying his hands. "At the end of the day, this is not about labor," Ritter said. "This is about state employees. It's about the quality of the workplace and what they can expect from the workplace."

By prohibiting employees from striking, entering into binding arbitration or requiring nonunion members to pay fees, he said, the order hits the right balance.

A government first

The order formally recognizes unions in state government for the first time and allows union representatives to negotiate with department heads over "issues of mutual concern."

Ritter surprised many in the legislature's Democratic majority in February when he vetoed a bill that would have given unions easier access to the workplace.

Calling it "overheated politics at its worst," Ritter chastised both sides of the debate for digging in their heels and making the issue more partisan than it should have been.

Ritter has worked with union officials since then to craft what both have called a "partnership for the 21st century." He previously had said he did not know whether an employee partnership could be achieved without collective bargaining.

"This is not collective bargaining," he said Friday. "This is a partnership arrangement."

Joe Blake, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, disagreed.

"I have read this executive order, and I re-read it, and I think this is sort of a New Age version of collective bargaining," he said. "Even if you call it partnerships, I think the consequences are the same."

Blake said the chamber opposes collective bargaining for compensation and benefits because it has not worked in the private sector.

Officials from the two largest unions in state government praised Ritter's executive order as "a breakthrough to make government more accountable and reliable."

"You either treat employees as adversaries and allow them to contribute as little as possible or you treat them as people who make the agency successful," said Miller Hudson, director of the Colorado Association of Public Employees. "We want to ensure they have a voice."

No more 'deaf ears'

Unions maintain that improved morale could cut the cost of hiring and training workers, given the estimated 50 percent of new hires who leave in the first three years of service.

Unionized employees point to some foiled attempts by fellow workers to alert managers to potential problems with new information technology systems in several departments of state government in recent years.

"When employees raised the flag, it fell on deaf ears," said Dave Growley, a member of the Colorado Association of Public Employees who works in the Colorado Department of Public Administration's IT area.

While Growley and his co-workers have been able to join a union to advocate for them on topics such as health care, he said workers lack any formal representation.

"Right now, you can be part of a union, but you really have no partnership or ongoing relationship with the heads of government to make any difference," he said.

Opponents of collective bargaining and employee partnerships point out that Colorado state employees already are well-compensated, with the ninth-highest average salaries in the country.

"I believe the governor's executive order is, at best, counter-productive," said Colorado Attorney John Suthers. "It is a solution looking for a problem."

Suthers said employees may be falsely led into thinking the partnerships can negotiate higher salaries, creating bad feelings between employees and management. He also predicted that the proposed structure would "consume countless hours of employee productivity."

Ritter said that because he has to work within the limits of the budget structure, he won't have the power to give state employees significant raises. And because the partnership agreements are nonbinding, he will not have to fund compensation increases just because a good case has been made.

Ultimately, the legislature will continue to control state employee salaries, Ritter said.

"I can't speak for what legislators may decide to introduce," he said.


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