Business, labor locked in negotiations over ballot

by John Schroyer

It all comes down to money.

That’s reportedly been the sticking point in negotiations between labor officials and business leaders over ongoing talks aimed at killing four union-backed ballot measures that, many politicians and business members fear, would “decimate” Colorado’s economy.

The talks, which have been organized and pushed by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter and other state officials such as Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, have apparently broken down over the union request that Colorado’s business community help raise millions of dollars to defeat three other ballot measures the unions oppose.

“It boils down to money. They’re really trying to get money from the business community, and if they’re able to get enough, I think (the amendments) would be off the table,” said John Brackney, president of the South Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

According to various news reports, unions are asking for up to $5 million from the business community to help defeat Amendments 47, 49 and 54, but the primary target of labor groups is the first measure, which would allow employees in unionized shops to opt out of paying dues or agency fees.

In return, the unions are reportedly willing to remove Amendments 53, 55, 56 and 57, which range from requiring employers with more than 20 workers to provide health benefits and mandating that companies show “just cause” before firing any employee. The quartet has been labeled four “poison pills” by business leaders. Two of the measures were authored by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7, and the other by Protect Colorado’s Future, which is backed by the Colorado AFL-CIO and the Teamsters, among other unions.

Jess Knox, executive director of Protect Colorado’s Future, adamantly disagreed with Brackney’s characterization of the situation, however.

“That gentleman has not been a part of any conversations that I’ve been in. I’d say he’s 100 percent not authorized to speak about this,” Knox said. “There’s not one sticking point over another. I wouldn’t even say there’s a sticking point right now. We’re having a very robust conversation that has a whole range of issues. We’re excited about the possibility of having business leaders stand with us.”

As for the status of the negotiations, Knox simply said, “There’s no news to report right now.”

Though it’s unclear just who is involved with the talks, media reports have indicated that Colorado Concern has been running point for the business community. Walter Isenberg, the chairman of Colorado Concern, could not be reached for comment Thursday, and neither could the group’s executive director, Janice Sinden.

But Tim Jackson, president of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association, said his organization had been approached by Colorado Concern about the possibility of raising funds to help defeat Amendment 47. He said that wasn’t an option, especially given that his organization has already contributed to A Better Colorado, the group supporting Amendment 47.

“Our members are saying, we’re going to stand on principle and not do that,” Jackson said.

Jackson isn’t the only one. Both the South Denver Metro Chamber and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce also indicated they would not agree to such a deal.

“The chamber is not going to put money into defeating Amendment 47. Although we are in opposition to it… we are not going to put money into opposing it, and that’s the end of it,” said Kate Horle, communications director for the Denver Metro Chamber.

Brackney echoed Horle’s point, saying that the South Denver Metro Chamber would also not raise funds to combat Amendment 47.

But, he noted, many business leaders are also willing to put their reputations and companies on the line to oppose Amendment 47. Brackney said he’s actively been making calls to company owners about the situation and trying to build a big enough coalition to persuade the unions that Amendment 47 would almost certainly be defeated in November.

“The way it’s ended up is, (the unions) spent a bunch of money to get (their four measures) on the ballot, and if they’re willing to pull it, they say, ‘You should help us make sure right-to-work is killed.’ They say, ‘If we were to pull these, what’s to keep business from turning around and saying, ‘Great, these are off the ballot! Let’s pass right-to-work!’” Brackney said. “I get that in a big way.”

Still, Brackney and others said they’re still hopeful that a deal can be reached by the Oct. 2 deadline, which is the last day ballot proponents will have to remove their initiatives before the Nov. 4 election.

Knox was optimistic on Wednesday, and said, “Any time you’ve got business leaders, labor leaders and elected officials in the same room, it’s a good thing.”

Manolo Gonzalez-Estay, the spokesman for the UFCW campaign, also said earlier this week, “Discussions are currently going on. Hopefully in the near future there will some type of announcement.”

On Wednesday, however, he said, “We’re in a holding pattern.”

He did not elaborate. Rumors of an announcement swirled all week, but as of press time, no accommodation had been reached.

Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer commented Thursday morning, “There are still a lot of people working hard on this … The big prize here is protecting Colorado’s economy from a slew of ballot measures that are bad for this state. The national economy has not been in such a precarious position in recent history. This is as bad as it has ever been. Our economy is in relatively good shape because we’ve done things to buffer ourselves, but we’re not immune, and we will be buffeted.”

In preparation for the impending deal, a formal issues committee, Colorado Businesses for Sensible Solutions, has even filed papers with the secretary of state’s office. As of this week, though, the committee’s coffers were still empty, and its registered agent, Hogan and Hartson attorney Ted Trimpa, did not return a call for comment.