Guv fires off veto threat on firefighters bill

The Colorado Statesman

Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday threatened to veto legislation that would ensure statewide collective bargaining rights for Colorado firefighters. But union officials and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, believe the Democratic governor will be spared some of the political battery that his Democratic predecessor, Gov. Bill Ritter, experienced for opposing a similar measure.

In a letter to Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, Hickenlooper highlights concerns expressed over local control. Senate Bill 25 would guarantee collective bargaining rights even in jurisdictions where local voters have opposed the idea. That part of the labor bill does not sit well with Republicans, and Hickenlooper — a moderate Democrat with a background in business — is also alarmed by the prospect.

“We do not believe it is a matter of state interest to require mandatory bargaining between a locality and its firefighters,” Hickenlooper writes. “It is a matter of state interest, however, that the political rights of firefighters to engage in meaningful dialogue with their local elected representatives, including petitioning for local elections, be fully protected.”

Specifically, SB 25 would allow firefighters to:

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

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

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

• Choose their exclusive representative without discrimination.

The measure has been amended to include a clause that would prohibit firefighters from striking. It was also amended to clarify that the bill would not affect current collective bargaining agreements that exist in Denver, Boulder, Aurora and other municipalities or districts. Language has also been added to emphasize that firefighters should have a uniform method for bargaining over safety equipment and staffing levels.

Senate Republicans attempted to amend the measure to require towns and cities to collect union dues, but Democrats killed that proposal.

The legislation has moved to the House and is up in the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on March 6. Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, sponsors the measure in the House.

A similar measure caused Ritter political pain in 2009 when he made the difficult decision to veto the legislation, which was also sponsored at the time by Tochtrop.

The former governor received broad criticism from his own caucus and from labor unions, which bashed him for siding with anti-union interests and those who favor local control.

But Ritter had faced an onslaught of union bills that year in the Democratic-controlled legislature, and he was forced to make multiple labor decisions. He also vetoed a measure that would have made it easier for workers to receive unemployment benefits if an employer locked them out of worksites. In 2007, he vetoed a bill that would have made it easier to unionize all workplaces.

But that year, he also signed an executive order that granted state workers the right to join unions. He appeared to be caught between a rock and a hard place after the Denver Post printed a front-page editorial blasting the former governor for the labor friendly executive order.

In the days that followed Ritter’s tough stance with unions, he was brutally attacked at news conferences and through the press. Letters and blogs were written; editorials were spread across the state’s newspapers. Following his tumultuous policy journey, Ritter decided not to run for re-election, though he said his reasoning was personal to spend more time with his family.

But labor observers say Hickenlooper will have an easier time of it. For one thing, Hickenlooper never made promises to unions like Ritter did on the campaign trail. Union officials believe they knew what they were getting with Hickenlooper, which is a moderate Democrat who often sides with business.

“Ritter vetoed seven bills. To this point, the governor hasn’t vetoed anything,” explained Phil Hayes, political director for the Colorado AFL-CIO. “We have to give him a chance to work with us.”

Tochtrop agreed that because Hickenlooper didn’t make the same sort of promises to unions, he likely wouldn’t receive the same backlash.

“The governor is more willing to work with us,” she said. “Bill Ritter made promises that he did not keep. Gov. Hickenlooper never made a promise. There’s a whole different ballgame here.

“We’re continuing to be measured because… the door’s not been closed,” Tochtrop continued.

Indeed, Hickenlooper has not closed any doors. His letter specifically urges a compromise on the collective bargaining legislation:

“With the objective of balancing the issues of the concerned parties, we urge the legislature to reconsider this legislation and work on a different approach that meets the following goals: 1.) ensure protection of firefighters to exercise their legitimate political rights; 2.) affords an opportunity for firefighters to hold meaningful discussions with their employers on issues of concern such as workplace safety, equipment needs and other employment issues; and 3.) respects local control.”

The governor was also careful to point out that as mayor of Denver, he oversaw successful collective bargaining agreements between the city and its firefighters.

“In those negotiations, we operated with the mutual understanding that we must take into consideration the shared interests of making responsible use of taxpayer funds, prioritizing the well-being and safety of the public and ensuring the safety of the firefighters themselves,” wrote Hickenlooper.

Hayes applauded Hickenlooper for including that in his letter: “I do think it’s positive that he stated in his letter that he had a good experience bargaining with firefighters when he was mayor of Denver,” said Hayes. “That’s positive. At least he understands the value of it and that he is sincere in his concerns.”

The firefighters union itself does not appear overly alarmed by the governor’s letter, offering a measured approach to working out a compromise.

“Colorado professional firefighters plan on moving forward with Senate Bill 25 and we look forward to any viable alternative that Governor Hickenlooper may present about firefighters collective bargaining rights,” Mike Rogers, president of the Colorado International Association of Fire Fighters, said in a statement.

“We want to learn more about Governor Hickenlooper’s plans for supporting firefighters having a legitimate voice in their communities around bargaining for safety equipment and other important work place issues,” Rogers continued. “We feel there are still many ways to address Governor Hickenlooper’s issues with the existing bill and that is the strategy we will continue to pursue.

“Once these issues are worked out we hope Governor Hickenlooper will support it,” he concluded. “We appreciate that Governor Hickenlooper identified favorably with the positive impacts of collective bargaining during his time as mayor.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com