8/26/08

Unions fight to keep Colorado a labor-state

Related story: "The 28 labor-states"

Worker-choice would crimp union dues cash flow

A clash between Colorado labor and business is headed for the ballot box, leaving the fate of both camps in the hands of voters who already have plenty of decisions to make at the polls.

Up for grabs on Election Day are as many as 19 statewide amendments, several of which have unions and business leaders in fits because of their potential to dramatically change the playing field for either side.

"All of this will cause a disruption in the Colorado economy that we would feel for the next five years," said Tom Clark, head of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce's economic development arm. "That's how long it would take for the voting public to realize the damage and support a campaign to overturn all these amendments."

A slice of the business community that does not include Clark's group wants to push through a so-called "right-to-work" amendment that would ban mandatory union dues for workers who don't want to contribute to the cost of collective bargaining and other activities.

Union participation in Colorado has hovered below the national average - 8.7 percent of workers statewide are represented by a collective contract. But recent organizing successes and a favorable political climate have energized the labor movement and prompted a backlash among conservatives.

"We're not anti-union, we're anti-forced union," said Kelley Harp, a spokesman for A Better Colorado, the group pushing the "right-to-work" amendment on behalf of executives such as brewery descendant Jonathan Coors.

But former National Labor Relations Board general counsel Leonard Page called it "ideological hypocrisy" for businesses to want the government to meddle with union contracts negotiated between employers and employees.

"If 90 percent of the population isn't in a union, why are they weighing in on this anyway?" asked Page, who worked as a longtime attorney for the United Auto Workers before serving at the NLRB during the Clinton administration.

Labor interests began fighting back earlier this year with a barrage of countermeasures that businesses say would substantially raise their costs and put organizations and their executives at risk of a large number of lawsuits.

"The initiatives put forth by the unions are simply a means of trying to blackmail the voters into not being able to have an up-or-down vote on 'right-to-work,' " said Mike Severns, president of the Mountain States Employers Council. "They would be very bad business."

Still Severns added: "My hope would be that some resolution could come about that's best for business overall."

Attempts to get both sides to agree to back off have failed so far. But the effort could be revived again after the Democratic National Convention rolls out of town and the Oct. 2 deadline for pulling initiatives off the ballot gets closer.

In the end, voters could decide to stick with the status quo rather than figure out whether they can support any or all of the proposed amendments.

"The more initiatives, the more people are going to choose to vote 'no' on everything," said Mike Kanner, who teaches decision theory at the University of Colorado. "There's going to be burnout on initiatives."

But rival factions will take few chances as they raise millions of dollars to pay for their campaigns to either push or defeat amendments. Two campaign groups - one stacked with service-sector employers and another organized by the Denver Metro Chamber - combined their efforts last week in an attempt to trounce the labor-backed proposals.

The most worrisome measure for that group and others: A United Food and Commercial Workers measure that would require Colorado employers with 20 or more workers to foot 80 percent of the bill for health care coverage.

"The health insurance initiative alone will cost an average of $9,000 per employee, and people aren't going to buy $50 hamburgers and chicken sandwiches to pay for it," said Pete Meersman, chief executive officer of the Colorado Restaurant Association.

The group, known as Coloradans for Responsible Reform, will stay neutral on a "right-to-work" amendment because part of the coalition has argued that current Colorado labor law has worked well for decades because it already requires an additional election to establish an agreement requiring all workers to pay union dues.

As many as three other labor-backed proposals take aim at businesses. The UFCW has also proposed an initiative that would allow injured employees to sue companies for damages beyond what they receive through the current workers compensation system.

A "just cause" measure, which made the ballot Friday, would require companies to give a written reason for firing full-time workers.

The group that proposed it calls itself Protect Colorado's Future. It's also campaigning for an initiative that would make executives criminally liable for knowing about fraudulent activity at their companies but failing to report it.

Taken together, many of the proposals would have the effect of providing all workers in the state some of the same protections and benefits unions negotiate on behalf of their members.

"Health insurance . . . and lessening the absolute power of employers over workers - that's what unions try to bargain for people," said Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that gets most of its funding from large foundations and a smaller amount from corporations and unions.

But Eisenbrey said all those measures still wouldn't offset the impact of a "right-to-work" amendment, which would hit unions financially because some workers would be willing to take the benefits without paying for them.

"It's purpose is to weaken unions, and it's totally hostile to labor because it makes it harder for unions to represent people," Eisenbrey said.

"Unions lift everyone's wages, and an attempt to weaken them should be resisted for that reason alone."

Ed Knox, president of the Denver-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 68 said: "Unions are always involved in the rising of the tide and fighting for wages and benefits for all. If they have fewer people paying and are less successful in doing that, all workers suffer."

But Jay Hesterman, a unionized employee at Qwest, said he supports the measure because he dislikes paying union dues to the Communications Workers of America.

Hesterman has arranged in the past to take advantage of his right to "opt out" of paying the portion of fees that goes to political activities, but he stopped doing it because he disagrees with the language of the letter he had to sign each year.

He acknowledged that he reaps benefits from being covered by a union contract but wonders whether he would get more if he could negotiate his own terms.

"I know that I outperform most of my fellow workers," said Hesterman, who works as an outside technician for the telecommunications giant.

Pros, cons of 5 measures

Prohibition on Mandatory Labor Union Dues

Known as the "right-to- work" amendment, this proposed constitutional change would do away with the current practice of allowing workers to vote on whether they want an "all-union" agreement that requires employees to pay dues to cover the cost of being represented by a union that negotiates wages and other benefits.

* Proponents argue: Gives employees a choice of whether to financially support union activities. States with similar laws are viewed as more business friendly and could help Colorado attract new jobs and investment.

* Opponents argue: Employees could avoid paying union dues and still be covered by collective bargaining for pay, health care and safety. Weakens unions' ability to represent workers if their financial resources shrink.

Employer Responsibility for Health Insurance

Would require every private employer with 20 or more employees to provide health insurance, limiting the amount employees would pay to 20 percent or 30 percent for dependent coverage. Nonprofits would not be required to do so unless they have 1,000 or more employees. Employers could opt to pay for insurance through a new state authority.

* Proponents argue: Business would benefit from high productivity and fewer days lost to illness. A majority of companies offer health coverage but those who don't have an unfair competitive advantage and create a financial burden for others. The uninsured raise the cost of care for everyone.

* Opponents argue: Makes it more expensive to do business in Colorado, which could discourage employees from moving here and result in costs being passed on to consumers. Businesses could decrease pay and other benefits to compensate for high health costs. The measure doesn't address the rising costs of health insurance and the lack of affordability for some employers and employees.

Just Cause for Employee Discharge

Would ban firing full-time employees without a specific reason and allow workers to sue if they believe they've been improperly dismissed.

* Proponents argue: Workers could still be fired for incompetence or failing to do their jobs, or if companies face economic pressures. Could attract more job seekers to Colorado or boost consumer confidence for those who feel they have job security.

* Opponents argue: Puts businesses at competitive disadvantage with other states because it prevents them from eliminating unneeded workers or automating operations. Could discourage hiring full-time workers and encourage hiring independent contractors. Laws already protect employees from firings resulting from discrimination.

Criminal Accountability for Business Executives

Known as the "corporate fraud" initiative, it would make an executive criminally liable for fraudulent activity they know about but fail to report within their businesses.

* Proponents argue: Fills a gap that allows top executives to avoid responsibility for their companies' failure to follow state law. Provides a defense from prosecution for business executives who report wrongdoing before charges have been filed.

* Opponents argue: Companies could reconsider locating in Colorado. Could drive insurance costs up and hurt recruitment of CEOs and others such as nonprofit board members. Business executives could escape prosecution by reporting fraud.

Additional Remedies for Injured Employees

Would require every employer with 10 or more employees to provide a safe workplace and allow injured employees to seek additional damages in court beyond workers compensation benefits.

* Proponents argue: Current system limits choice of doctors, treatments and may provide wages far below usual earnings. Encourages employers to increase focus on workplace safety.

* Opponents argue: Unnecessary as current approach balances needs of employers and employees, and employers already have incentives to provide safe work environments to comply with regulations, lower insurance premiums and increase employee productivity.

(rockymountainnews.com)

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