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Bill Ritter: Closet Progressive? Governor Gives Public Employees the Right To Bargain Collectively, Conservatives Howl In Pain

November 4, 2007

(Part Two) – Reflections on Colorado Labor History

Without having lived here in Colorado for a very, very long time, one would hardly know that this was a state where, many weapons systems ago, a powerful union movement existed whose influence was felt socially and politically throughout the state. From what I can tell, the union movement – and its contribution to social justice – real if mostly remote – is far from the thinking of most peace activists. They don’t have a clue how to approach it or understand its great potential.

Let’s just put it this way: when the union movement was strong in Colorado and the nation, its strength and organizing skill were heavily reflected in both the peace and civil rights movements. Further, I would argue, that until the union movement begins to reach its untapped potential, peace and civil rights movements will remain largely narrow and with moderate influence over the nation’s political and social direction. Nor will the integration – increased cooperation between unions and other social movements be easily achieved – but it is a goal to aspire to. Don’t forget that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated just at the time when he was moving in the direction of bringing together three movements – civil rights, peace and labor – into one united force. While needless to say I can’t prove it, as he approached that synthesis he was gunned down. I believe that is why he was assassinated. No one in this country has come close since.

Of course you can take this for what it’s worth (or not worth) from a (mostly) unrepentant `old leftist’. So a smile crosses my face when the rumblings of `things past’ seem to be coming back to the surface once again. Or perhaps it is simply wishful thinking. Time will tell.

Picture of Labor’s Past

Among those unions whose clout was especially strong in this state were the United Mine Mill and Smelter Union (which merged with the United Steel Workers of America), the United Food and Commercial Workers Union now representing mostly retail workers at Safeway and King Soopers (that engulfed the meatpacker’s union) but half a century was based largely in the meat packing industry around Greeley (and to a lesser extent in northeast Denver). After cruel, even gargantuan struggles in the states mines that included both the Ludlow and Columbine (near Lafayette) massacres, the United Mine Workers of America also established a strong presence too. For a number of decades the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ Union, based in Denver, also had some influence. Other unions in the construction trades, education had their moment as well.

By the mid 1960s Colorado’s labor movement’s power had ebbed although it still produced the likes of Herrick Roth, president of the state federation whose clear stand against the Vietnam War cost him his position as George Meany put the state’s labor federation `under trusteeship’ giving Roth who had headed the Colorado Federation of Teachers a classic Cold War boot. The McCarthy Era (late 1940s to about 1960) purged much of the old left leadership many of whom were Communists, socialists, anarchists and other sundry left elements. They were often replaced by union bureaucrat types with diminished social consciences (if any), penchants for careerism, noses that could smell left challenges a mile (or more) away.

The `Great Shriveling’ Begins

Never a big center of basic industry in any case, in tandem with national trends, Colorado’s union movement shriveled to next to naught from the 1970s onward. Like elsewhere the decline was the result of a number of factors – the beginning of outsourcing of local industry to foreign lands to benefit from cheaper labor, the shifts in the overall economy to some degree away from manufacturing, the general increase in wages in the post World War II period which led some workers to believe, wrongly it turns out, that with or without unions their wages would increase, the sluggishness of the unions themselves and their failure to read both the national and global trends that were undermining their position.

The percentage of the state’s work force in unions, never that great to begin with, shrank even further and has hardly recovered. Organizing – actually building unions – was often pushed a side for largely ineffectual lobbying efforts. Legal restrictions on union organizing multiplied. Labor Day – the annual show of labor strength degenerated into little more than annual picnic and food-fair pig out in downtown Denver (similar to what happened to Mexican Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo), shorn of virtually any political content, and Bill Owens – neo-con extraordinaire – became the state’s governor.

In some of the bigger unions that survived (to remain un-named) nepotism reigns to this day with union presidents giving their largely incompetent sons $75,000 a year organizing jobs. While once a force in the peace movement, for much of the post war era, unions played a mostly reactionary role. Nothing typifies this better than the contribution of Jim Kelly, president of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility USWA local who was nothing less than a rightwing watchdog of the military interests in the state and strong supporters of the US war in Vietnam. Within the state labor federation as a whole Kelly wielded a good deal of influence. For years he argued that the plant was safe from radiation and played the role of an enforcer – silencing those in the Rocky Flats work force that dared speak out against the growing number of safety and environmental infractions. Before he died though of cancer contracted from working in the plutonium polluted plant, Kelly had something of an epithany and actually befriended a few of the local anti-nuclear movement leaders. Still…

Not a pretty record is it? And certainly it is selective. There were `moments’… – the boycott of Coors beer (I still won’t drink that piss) after William Coors made racist remarks in the late 1970s, the occasional resilence of teachers of the Colorado Education Association, OCAW’s strong campaigns against corporate chemical pollution, the movement to organize largely undocumented Mexican farm workers in the state’s fields. In the Denver metro area some of the construction unions had entered into sweet heart deals with developers that have endured and at least assured their futures economically.

If you think as a result of this description that I am `anti-labor’ or `anti-union’….no, this is not the case. I’d just like to see the union movement cleaned up – purged of its old boy elements that still dominate – and of course democratized. That process has begun (sort of) and hopefully it will pick up steam in the years ahead.

It is also easy, given this description, which I believe accurate, to write the labor off as some kind of political dinosaur, long obsolete and with virtually no influence. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ask any candidate for office – Democrat or Republican. Yes, the labor movement is undoubtedly, a shadow of its former self in Colorado, but then, careful examination suggests it casts a rather long shadow, still has a good deal of clout and despite its weakened state still, it seems, strikes a certain discordant note among Colorado’s free market bards.

A Bad Union Better Than None At All?

A friend, long gone, Paul Bates of Ft. Collins, once put it this way when I was complaining about general political ineptness of Colorado unions in the early 1980s, `Rob, even a bad union is better than none at all’. It did take a while to appreciate the wisdom of that remark but I believe it contains a kernel of truth. What is interesting is that even its shrunken and largely de-politicized state, Colorado unions retain a wealth of grass roots power and despite themselves sometimes, something of a social conscience. This manifests itself in a number of ways:

1. Without a doubt, the union movement in the state is still probably the largest organized constituency of any social force in Colorado politics even in its reduced form
2. It remains a highly disciplined movement that can – when it wants or finds it necessary – still mobilize politically as well as group. A sense of its residual power came through in the last few elections. Any honest Dem (there are a few) would admit that Colorado labor made a decisive difference, if not the decisive difference in the historic shift which brought Democrats in control of both houses in Colorado. Labor support is not always enough to win elections, but it’s near impossible to win without them.
3. The actual working conditions of the Colorado working class vary enormously, but for many – especially those working part time, in places like Macdonalds or Walmart, or in many areas of the health care industry wages and working conditions are very poor indeed. Say what you want, without unions or other employee organizations, labor is left to accept the `good will’ of management. As it has all along, this situation forces labor to – sooner or later – to stand for and fight for the living and working conditions of its workers.
4. The labor movement – while still needing what we might call a `cultural revolution’ – has shed itself of its most backward, downright reactionary, corrupt elements in Colorado – those beholdened to former AFL-CIO president George Meany.

While the local papers are howling about Governor Ritter’s executive order to give collective bargaining rights to unions, I am quite pleased with and supportive of the development. I’ll detail some of the order’s short comings in the next day or two, but I understand the Denver Post’s pain. Ritter’s order creates an environment in which, despite limitations, the union movement in this state can grow again. And it is this more than the fact that public employees might now have limited collective bargaining rights that so frightens the state’s conservatives. But then where profit is involved, or especially where profits are involved, they’ve always been easily frightened.

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