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Colorado’s biggest union vs. business battle in recent memory is being fought in front of voters instead of at the bargaining table or on a picket line.

But beyond the negative radio and TV commercials for and against Amendment 47, serious questions are being raised about the so-called “right-to-work” ballot issue.

Supporters say Amendment 47 would make Colorado more appealing for businesses looking to expand their operations by making the state less friendly for labor unions.

Business leaders who oppose Amendment 47 say the measure would upset the delicate balance that makes Colorado attractive to non-union and unionized employers alike.

They also fear that four union-sponsored ballot initiatives intended to counter Amendment 47 would devastate the state’s economy if they prevail in the November election.

Regardless of the outcome of elections, relations between Colorado’s business community and labor unions won’t be the same for a long time, said Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp.

Clark laments the apparent loss of business-labor cooperation in Colorado that made possible such efforts as Denver International Airport and the FasTracks transportation program.

“To watch this relationship dissolve has been genuinely sad and depressing,” Clark said. “It’s going to take at least another generation of business and labor leaders before the wounds are healed.”

Gov. Bill Ritter’s efforts to negotiate an agreement between businesses and unions to campaign against Amendment 47 in exchange for withdrawing the union-sponsored ballot issues continues. A Ritter spokesman said the governor remains optimistic that a compromise can be reached before Oct. 2, the deadline for withdrawing a measure from the ballot.

Amendment 47 backers have stated repeatedly they won’t drop the proposal.
Where it went wrong

The battle over Amendment 47 highlights a nearly two-year war that began in early 2007. That’s when Colorado legislators approved a proposal that would have eliminated the two-step election process that current law requires before employers and unions can adopt all-union labor agreements.

Amid strong opposition from business organizations, newly elected Gov. Ritter vetoed the bill — against the wishes of union representatives and fellow Democrats. The legislation, House Bill 1072, would have revised Colorado’s Labor Peace Act of 1943 in the unions’ favor.

Later that year, Ritter appeased organized labor (while angering Republican lawmakers and many business leaders) by issuing an executive order allowing unions to represent state workers in contract negotiations for the first time in history.

Critics said the order effectively signed over control of the state budget to labor unions, and gave organized labor leverage to collect more dues, recruit more members fromthe private sector and amass more political clout in the state.

Ritter’s controversial move fueled momentum for Amendment 47, which would bar unions from requiring employees to pay dues in union shops that engage in collective bargaining.

Republican lawmakers have sponsored right-to-work legislation in the last seven sessions — including one bill that was defeated by a single vote in 2002.

As right-to-work supporters gathered financial support from wealthy backers such as CoorsTek’s Jonathan Coors and American Furniture’s Jake Jabs, and thousands of signatures for their proposed ballot issue, labor unions started to mobilize support for several initiatives designed to counter Amendment 47.

Concerned that the union ballot issues would hurt the business climate, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce opposed the right-to-work initiative.

Returning the favor, the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) removed a ballot proposal to increase commercial property tax by 5 percent and another that would have required employers to provide annual cost-of-living increases to all workers.

But the unions still have four other initiatives — all certified to appear on the ballot — including a proposal requiring businesses with more than 20 workers to provide health insurance and another that would prohibit businesses from firing employees without just cause. But the unions say they would consider removing them if the right-to-work proposal is withdrawn.


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