Union-happy Gov. eases public-worker strikes

Whether he realized it or not, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter left our public services vulnerable to crippling strikes by state employees when he signed an executive order last November allowing unions to collectively bargain with the state government.

Some 30,000 state employees, as well as those working at many other public agencies, already had a limited right to strike under Colorado's long-standing Industrial Relations Act. Yet, it was the governor's order that, for the first time, gave those employees something to really strike for: a labor contract locking in across-the-board wages and benefits.

The governor says the so-called "partnership" agreements authorized by his executive order will require labor contracts to include no-strike clauses. As a practical matter, those provisions will be meaningless. No-strike clauses are in fact a standard feature in many labor contracts, in both the public sector and in private industry. However, they rarely prevent strikes. That is because they have no effect in those circumstances when most strikes occur: where a contract either has expired or has yet to be reached.

Public services at some other levels of government in our state — like local bus service and public schools — already have been subjected to the disruption of strikes. Now, our state government faces that same threat due to the governor's executive order. And an opinion by Colorado's attorney general confirms that state employees do indeed have the power to strike.

That is why, more than ever, Colorado urgently needs to take the important step of banning strikes by all of its public employees — whether they teach our children or plow our highways.

When the General Assembly convenes in January, we will introduce a bill that does just that, and we call on our colleagues of both parties to close ranks on this crucial issue.

It is not that we don't value our state's many diligent and dedicated public servants; it is that the taxpaying public simply cannot afford to go without the services those employees provide. No less than the public's safety and welfare are at stake.

It is encouraging that the governor and some key members of his party have told the media in recent weeks that they would support a strike ban. We hope they will stick with us throughout the legislative process and see to it this prudent policy becomes law.

However, we also realize that the governor and members of his party are under tremendous pressure from big labor unions that have launched a new campaign to organize state government employees — now that the governor has opened the door wide to them.

Let us remember 2008 is an election year, and some lawmakers can expect to feel the heat from organized labor. If they support our strike ban, it could jeopardize endorsements and campaign contributions from powerful unions.

Just in the past few months, organized labor has unleashed a torrent of mailers, calls and even visits from union representatives to state employees at their homes, soliciting their membership. While those employees always have been free to join unions, the prospect of collective bargaining for wages and benefits has created a new lure for recruitment.

Union chiefs have argued they do not seek the right to strike and do not necessarily even want it. Fine; then they should have no problem embracing our ban on strikes. If, on the other hand, they are hoping that the credible threat of a strike will give them leverage at the bargaining table, then let's make sure they don't have that option.

Certainly, we are very troubled by the overall fiscal implications of the governor's order. Other states that have granted collective-bargaining power to state employee unions have paid a high price. Washington, for example, which began its experiment with collective bargaining in 2004, has seen its payroll costs soar at taxpayer expense.

At the moment, though, we are even more worried about the very real prospect of state employees walking off the job, someday soon, after their "partnership" negotiations with the governor go sour. Let's make sure that doesn't happen.


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