Big Bedfellows gang up against the little guy

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'Tony Soprano-style politics come to Colorado'

With just about a month to go before Election Day, a group of business leaders and unions announced Thursday they will team up to fight a right-to-work ballot proposal and two others opposed by unions.

In exchange, union groups will drop four measures they placed on the ballot that business groups had called "poison pills" filed in retaliation for the right-to-work measure.

The deal followed three weeks of negotiations and came just hours before the deadline to cancel a vote on the union-backed measures. The measures will still be on the November ballot but the votes won't count.

A backer of one of the measures that will be targeted for defeat by the business-labor coalition derided the deal as "protection money." Supporters of the deal say it will help preserve years of labor peace in Colorado.

The right to work measure would bar unions from requiring nonunion workers to pay dues. The others measures the new coalition agreed to fight would prohibit governments from deducting union dues from paychecks and bar political donations by government workers' unions and anyone with a no-bid government contract.

Business groups pledged to raise $3 million for the campaign to defeat the three measures.

Dan Ritchie, a member of a group of business executives known as Colorado Concern, said the deal isn't a sellout by unions or a labor squeeze on business.

"Neither are true. These big expensive fights don't make any sense when you think about all the things we could do with this money," said Ritchie, chairman of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.

Others agreeing to fight the anti-union measures include the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Colorado Concern members Walter Isenberg, CEO of Sage Hospitality, Patrick Hamill of Oakwood Homes and Denver lawyer Steve Farber.

The unions will yank measures that would have required employers to give formal explanations before firing any workers, required businesses with more than 20 workers to provide health insurance, made it easier for CEOs to be held criminally responsible for corporate fraud and allowed injured workers to sue for money beyond what workers compensation pays.

Independent pollster Floyd Ciruli said three of the measures didn't get much backing in a recent poll he conducted for the Economic Development Council of Colorado, but the one targeting CEOs had support in the "high 50s."

Ciruli attributed that to public outrage over the Wall Street financial crisis. There has been little campaigning on the issue so far.

Jess Knox, head of a union-backed group called Protect Colorado's Future that was campaigning for the labor measures, maintained they were legitimate proposals, but he said the focus needs to be on defeating the three remaining measures.

The right-to-work measure, listed on the ballot as Amendment 47, would change existing rules that let unions require dues from nonunion workers if a majority of workers agree. Other states, known as right-to-work states, bar the practice completely.

Amendment 47 is backed by brewing heir Jonathan Coors, the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry and chambers of commerce in Grand Junction, Fort Collins and other cities.

It's also gotten a contribution from American Furniture Warehouse, run by Jake Jabs, who's widely recognized for his television commercials.

Another member of the Coors family joined Gov. Bill Ritter in announcing the deal to fight the measures: Bill Coors, the 92-year-old grandson of brewery founder Adolph Coors.

Bill Coors' relationship to Jonathan Coors wasn't immediately known.

Bill Coors acknowledged the brewer's past tensions with unions but said Colorado's unique labor law has served it well and shouldn't be changed.

Kelley Harp, a spokesman for the pro-Amendment 47 group, said the deal won't change the campaign's strategy. The group has been distributing mailers and launched its first television ad last week.

"We've always expected to get outspent in this campaign but our message is stronger than any amount of money," he said.

Jon Caldara, president of the conservative Independence Institute think tank and a backer of the ban on government paycheck deductions for union dues, called the business-labor agreement "protection money."

"It's Tony Soprano-style politics come to Colorado," he said.

Caldara said it opens the door for anyone to get money from business groups by proposing ballot measures they fear.

Caldara tried to make a deal of his own, offering to pull his measure if Ritter rescinded an executive order giving unions the right to negotiate contracts for state workers. Ritter refused.

The payroll-deduction measure is listed as Amendment 49.


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