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

November 5, 2007

(Part Three)

A Hypothesis of the Crisis…or Thanks Jimmy Hoffa Wherever You Are

When Governor Bill Ritter vetoed a revised Colorado Labor Peace Act nine months ago that would have granted public sector employees collective bargaining rights, protests were triggered both state and nationwide. On the national level the AFL-CIO floated the idea of changing the venue of the August 2008 Democratic Party convention. After that idea was dropped, Teamster President James R. Hoffa, son of `the disappeared one’, suggested that the convention just might be the site of major labor demonstrations in protest of Ritter’s actions. He was quoted as saying demonstrations might `blow up’ at the convention, a comment that it appears, some Colorado Dems took to heart.

There must have been some intensive lobbying done to get the AFL-CIO to back down from changing the convention venue and although a variety of forces in the Democratic Party were involved, seeing the forced relocation as the kind of humiliation that could effect the results in November, it wouldn’t be surprising that a number of local players with national ties were right in the midst of it all – especially those who would love convention center, hotel, restaurant and bar income as well as those who for political reasons wanted to showcase the city and thus highlight their own national image.

Among those who would fit comfortably into that category are Mayor John Hickenlooper and Denver Democratic Party don’s Norm Brownstein and Steve Farber, the latter two with decades-close ties to the Clintons. The Clintons will be undoubtedly entering very friendly territory when they arrive in Denver for the convention. It is not unrealistic to suggest that they lobbied the national AFL-CIO to tone down their criticism of Ritter so as to not piss on the Brownstein-Farber national political parade. But Hoffa’s vague threat to jiggle the Democratic apple cart still hung over the process as Hoffa has a reputation of being a man of his word.

That the August convention considerations were indeed a factor comes through clearly in today’s (Nov. 5) Denver Post which in a more restrained, but still hostile manner, kept the story on p.1. If this hypothesis is correct – the pressure was on for the Governor Ritter to somehow soften the union opposition and neutralize the situation some, hoping to improve the convention atmosphere and to dispell the very accurate notion before the nation that Colorado is an anti-union state. At a certain point such perceptions dampen interest in businesses moving here and in Colorado’s goal, far from realized, to become a major national convention center.

Something had to be done to revise and at least slightly improve Colorado’s anti-union image (while retaining the essence). Of course it is ironic but not surprising that Hickenlooper, Brownstein and Farber were in there lobbying the governor to veto the amended Colorado Labor Peace Act in the first place. Meanwhile the governor was still smarting from the political damage that the veto had cost him (as mentioned in an earlier blog) and looking for a way to re-establish some connection with his labor base but to do so with the least political damage to his business supporters.

Unfortunately (at least unfortunately for the governor), he can’t have it both ways…

The result of all this was his executive order last Friday.

Less Than Meets The Eye

If one studies Ritter’s executive order closely, there is, unquestionably, less there than meets the eye.

1. While permitting public employees to form unions the order prohibits strike actions, collective bargaining or resolving disputes through binding arbitration. That doesn’t leave much for Colorado public sector unions to do other than go skiing in the mountains.

2. The way that the order is written, it gives the governor pretty much `supreme authority’ to determine whether or not public employees get the raises they are asking for.

3. Since it comes as an executive order and not through the legislative process, the impact of the executive order could be limited to Ritter’s term in office and could easily be reversed by the next governor as Richard Lamm accurately points out in today’s paper.

That public employee union reps have been calling their members (one of which includes my wife) to suggest that a great victory has been won comes off as more hyperbole. It was somewhat irritating to be treated essentially as schmucks by these union reps, many of whom are little more than cheerleaders for this or that union. It’s not quite nonsense, but what public employess got out of this deal is not much and, as suggested above, very well might be temporary. It will be interesting to see if the order lasts much past the convention.

What seems to have happened is that the governor came up with a plan to offer public employees the smallest amount of progress possible – ie – the right to organize but not to enjoy the same rights as other unions and that when all is said and done there is alot more symbol here than substance. But then if the hypothesis presented here is correct – that is exactly what Ritter hoped to achieve.

Ok. so, in fact, the whole thing amounts to peanuts, maybe less.

Then why support it?

There are a number of reasons:

1. The whole issue raises the the question of the shabby treatment of state public sector employees whose salaries and working conditions – despite what the local press says – have long been in need of improvement. They’ve gotten nothing from two Democratic governors (Lamm and Romer) in the same way that as Denver city employees have gotten litte and not expect much more from Mayor John Hickenlooper

2. The very fact that public employees have earned the right to organize means, as Richard Lamm rightly (I hate to admit) points out, that it is likely that some of their wage and working condition demands will be met even without the right to strike. A mechanism has been set up to increase their collective imput into the process. Besides there are other kinds of actions that can be taken short of striking…just watch how the police and firefighter unions have functioned under similar restrictions

3. Unquestionably, increased union membership will increase the clout of the Democratic Party in the future. If union numbers grow, the main political beneficiaries will be the Democrats, that for some time in the future.

Let’s Not Be Schmucks About It

Of course, the key thing here is simply not to proceed like schmucks, to think that labor (and thus all of us) has won a great victory. We also have to keep in mind that because this executive order is so fragile that labor will have to fight hard simply to retain the small gains it has made in this situation. And it has been some time in Colorado since labor – as a movement, as a class, has fought for its own self interest with the same shrewdness and persistence as do those in power.

So…let’s see what happens.

Will the media attacks against Ritter’s executive order let up or intensify? Will the modest gains public sector labor has made be only a pre-convention pr stunt or something more permanent. And, will Ritter, stuck between a rock and hard place, show he has some principle and backbone, or will his commitment to public employees be temporary and tactical.

And…let’s see what part of this hypothesis hold

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