Committee passes bill on collective bargaining

The Colorado Statesman

The Democratic-controlled legislature on Wednesday began debate on a labor union bill that would ensure collective bargaining rights for Colorado firefighters, pushing the measure through the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee on a party-line vote of 3-2.

The proposal offered Democrats their first chance this year at flexing their political muscle after voters returned control of the legislature to them after the November elections. The issue could become a political football, as some Democrats may scurry from the polarizing labor union debate in an effort to maintain a moderate stance with constituents in more middle-of-the-road districts. Republicans have vowed to put up as much of a fight as they can.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, could be left with the final decision, forcing him to step away from his moderate image, as well.

A similar bill caused former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter heartburn in 2009 when he made the difficult decision to veto the measure, which was sponsored at the time by Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton. She is sponsoring the bill again this year.

Ritter received immense criticism from his own caucus and from labor unions, which bashed the governor at the time for siding with anti-union interests and those who favor local control. He had faced other labor bills that year in the Democratic-controlled legislature, also vetoing a bill that would have made it easier for workers to receive unemployment benefits if an employer locked them out of worksites. Later that year, Ritter decided not to run for re-election.

The former governor was attacked, despite signing an executive order in 2007 that granted state workers the right to join unions. But that year he also vetoed a bill that would have made it easier to unionize all workplaces.

Hickenlooper could be staring down the barrel of a similar political gun.

“We are reviewing the legislation and working with interested parties to find common ground,” said Eric Brown, Hickenlooper’s spokesman.

But if the governor is to receive the bill, Democrats will need to lock down their caucus.

“Today’s vote is an important step forward in ensuring firefighters have a voice in how departments deliver efficient and effective emergency services,” Tochtrop said shortly after the vote. “This bill will allow firefighters, who risk their lives every day protecting citizens and property, the ability to advocate for themselves regarding equipment, safety standards and other workplace issues.”

So far, Tochtrop has the support of her Senate leader: “We often talk about ways to help firefighters safely perform a dangerous job, but SB 25 is a great example of turning words into action,” declared Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs. “Firefighters know firsthand the dangers and challenges of their job and they should have the right to jointly express their concerns and ideas regarding safety.”

Specifically, the bill would allow firefighters to:

• Organize, form, join, or assist an employee organization;

• Negotiate collectively, or express a grievance through representatives of their choice;

• Engage in activities for the purpose of collective bargaining; and

• Choose their exclusive representative without discrimination.

The measure includes a clause that would prohibit firefighters from striking.

It was amended on Wednesday to clarify that the bill would not affect current collective bargaining agreements that exist in Denver, Boulder, Aurora and other municipalities or districts. Language was also added to emphasize that firefighters should have a uniform method for bargaining over safety equipment and staffing levels.

But SB 25 would still guarantee collective bargaining rights even in jurisdictions where local voters have opposed the idea. That has Republicans screaming injustice. The GOP attempted to amend the measure to require towns and cities to collect union dues, but Democrats killed the proposal on a party-line vote.

“We offered several common sense amendments …” said Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Cowdrey, a member of the committee. “The fact that the Democrats couldn’t even accept that shows how willing they are to ask local government to act as tax collectors for the unions.”

Local governments sided with Republicans. Kevin Bommer, representing the Colorado Municipal League, decried that the measure would diminish the will of local voters.

“We do have a rich tradition, not only in this state but in this country, of treating the will of the voters as sacrosanct,” implored Bommer. “Yet Senate Bill 25 presumes not only to throw out the votes at the local level that have already occurred on the question of collective bargaining, but would prohibit for all time any local voters looking to express his or her will as it pertains to his or her local government.”

Durango Fire Chief Dan Noonan also criticized the bill, despite the majority of firefighters in the room testifying in favor of the measure. He said it would create tensions in fire departments that mix professional and volunteer firefighters.

“It creates an unfunded mandate and creates an unfair advantage for career firefighters,” he said.

Leaders of several local governments also spoke out against the bill, including an unusual pairing between left-leaning Boulder and right-leaning Colorado Springs.

“This is rather difficult for me to be here, and perhaps surprising that Boulder and Colorado Springs are here in agreement on an issue, that may not have happened for a very long time,” said Boulder Mayor Matthew Applebaum.

“We’re here because we really do figure that the state’s involvement in our local personnel matter, however well intended, could undermine the relationships we have with our existing unions,” he continued.

Democrats, however, were buoyed by firefighters who lined up in an overflow Senate committee hearing room to testify in support of the bill. Ron Taylor, a Westminster firefighter and union official, referred to his fellow firefighters as “brothers and sisters” in offering his remarks.

“When this bill passes, firefighters — the ones who crawl through the smoke and through the dark — they will have a voice …” he exclaimed. “We hope that when this bill passes, it will allow our expertise a seat at the table.”

Right to work

Democrats were also successful on Wednesday in defeating a Republican bill that would have declared Colorado a so-called “right to work” state. Senate Bill 24 was defeated on the same 3-2 party-line vote.

The proposal, which would have prohibited requirements to join unions as terms of employment, was defeated with little debate.

The measure sought to address how in Colorado, it takes approval from 75 percent of workers before a workforce becomes a union shop. Democrats have repeatedly fought against changing this formula.

Before the measure was quickly killed, freshman Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, who sponsored the bill, attempted to persuade his Democratic colleagues.

“We all talk about jobs, we all talk about economic growth, we all talk about individual freedom,” he said. “This is one of those opportunities, as you’ll see on the fiscal note, that costs us nothing, that opens up the path to a 21st century economy, and makes us competitive with other states around us.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com