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Colorado Wins: 32,000 State Employees Unionize. Kind of.

June 19, 2008

1. Remembering Ellen Lavroff

Truth be told, I don’t think that often these days of my old friend and companera Ellen Lavroff – one of my first colleagues to die young. So much has happened since – most of it negative – that has forced me to concentrate my attention elsewhere.

Hailing from Minnesota, Ellen was a highly cultured woman with a phd in Spanish, a chain smoker. After a short and disappointing marriage, she divorced from an abusive Russian husband whose last name she kept. She succumbed to lung cancer about ten years ago shortly after she retired from 30 years of teaching. I had seen her a few months prior to her death. As seems to happen all too often with lung cancer, by the time the condition was diagnosed, it was too late and Ellen’s journey from this world to the next happened quickly. So died one of the better, effective more progressive Colorado labor organizers of the past quarter century. And – again – if truth be known – we didn’t and don’t have very many of them in this state.

Ellen was long time the president of the state community college local of the American Federation of Teachers in a state where the AFT has always been dwarfed by a much larger and better organized National Education Association state apparatus. She was also the president for a few years of the Colorado Federation of Teachers, and managed the state union’s affairs well, and although the union never really grew that much, from what I could tell, that wasn’t Ellen’s fault. Objective conditions – as they say – just weren’t ripe then.

At times our little community college local had as few as 10 members, but there was a moment of near-glory in the late 1970s when the union movement essentially forced an election on the state community college system. Fearing the collective power of the state’s 1000 or so community college teachers and employees, the state board of the time, made up mostly of business interests, broke the system up into 8 little separate units in the name of `local autonomy’ and then proceeded to gut the system of its best programs a few years later. I’ve written about it elsewhere in this blog. Then the state legislature was taken over in the early 80s by neanderthal `Reagan (counter) Revolution’ types, like oil lobbyist and soon to be governor, Bill Owens.

The new shift to the right – corresponding to Colorado Springs emerging as a national center for the wacko Christian right, a more aggressive oil and gas lobby and the ever present military corporate interests in the state – took matters further. They declared a rather dubious state `fiscal emergency’ and used that as an excuse to purge the community college – and other state social based programs – of funds and faculty…including yours truly. I was laid off three times from 1982-1985, but thanks to our little union and especially Ellen’s unfailing efforts, was able to win back my job twice giving credence to the adage (which I just made up) that even a tinsy-winsy union is better than none. And one of 32,000, despite some limitations opens up all kinds of possibilities not only for the labor movement but for the political complexion of the state.

2. Nothing Like It Before In Colorado History

Sitting last night among some 200 of those 23,000 new union members, Ellen’s memory came back to me so vividly. Another 9,000 are expected to vote union in the next few weeks. Although they don’t know it, the people sitting at the `Colorado WINS’ dinner are standing on her shoulders and those of union organizers like her. Too bad she didn’t live to see the day the conditions for which she helped shape!

In some ways the evening was what I thought it would be – dinner, peppered with some union pep talk. We had to hear the `new approach’, how this wasn’t `the last century’ (thanks for telling us what century we’re in), how what Colorado Wins had `won’ was not collective bargaining rights but `a partnership’ with the governor. I’ve heard this kind of public relations talk before, and don’t take it too seriously. We’ll see how long it takes for the `partnership’ to morph into more traditional forms of class struggle and what shapes they take. This state, Colorado, is a very anti-union, pro-business state and with almost as many anti-union Democrats as Republicans.

There are many `qualifications’ to the victory.

Among the two most significant ones…

+ the right to negotiate – the term collective bargaining is carefully avoided – was not approved by the legislature but by an executive order of the governor.. A future governor (or this one) could rescind this order just as easily. And this hangs over the process as a kind of unspoken guillotine, – ie if the unions ask too much, there is the danger that the whole process itself will be quickly rescinded, and state workers forced back into their former relations. It also means that the Colorado WINS has a vested interest in electing Democratic governors who will maintain the relationship, a tendency that the Republicans in the state were quick to note – and with good reason as they understand well the political consequences of this election.

+ the relationship between the governor and Colorado WINS is something less than collective bargaining where the two sides `negotiate’ and try to come to some agreement. No. Colorado WINS will make requests to the governor and he will decide, without any negotiations or meetings, what he is willing to accept and reject. While undoubtedly this could entail some pressure from labor in some forms, it is a much weaker than collective bargaining.

Add the no strike clauses and other limitations and there are some real questions as to what it was that Colorado state employees actually won.

To deny the limits of the new arrangement however, is not grounds for writing off the arrangement as irrelevant – or worse – retrograde. Something positive happened here. As a friend wrote `it [the partnership song and dance] sounds like a crock’ but perhaps that is too harsh. What happened here in Colorado is the playing out of a national union strategy that’s being tried out—somewhat successfully by SEIU—in “right-to-work” states where there’s no union density, as a way to somewhat level the playing field and get a foot inside the door. And at first glance, the strategy seems to have worked here and well at that.

There is something else to temper cynicism and that is the degree that this effort was cooperative between different unions with long histories of squabbling with one another over turf. Instead the Colorado Association of Public Employees (CAPE) – the old state workers association – joined forces with AFSCME, the AFT and SEIU in a common effort in what was described last night – and aptly too `as the largest successful union organizing effort in Colorado history’. This is neither exaggeration nor hype from what I can tell. The vote was historic and the margins – in many of the sectors – for the union were above 80%, the highest being in the healthworkers section where it reached an 87% approval rate. The local media made much of the fact that only 30% of those eligible voted, but in fact that is a high percentage for this kind of election.

I suppose we’ll see in time whether or not the strategy is a creative and appropriate way to strengthen the labor movement in this state or something less than that. Regardless it will undoubtedly strengthen the impact of labor in Colorado state politics and especially in the Democratic Party (where `NAFTA-free traders’ seem to abound). Sitting among Colorado Dept of Transportation workers, nurses from the Colorado State Veterans Home, from the state tax office, from the Ridge Home…to be in a room of working class people almost all, who have for so long been beaten down by the captains of capital in their different forms, and to realize that modest as it might have been, these people had won something…it was no small thing.

And now let’s see how we can strengthen this movement, which in its heart and soul – despite some occasional lapses – has always been by its very nature democratic, for civil rights and human dignity. For all its warts and limitations, nothing much progressive happens in this country with out the influence of the labor movement. And now – in a small way in a small state, it’s appears to be coming back after a long pause. Ellen Lavroff’s spirit was in that room – there she was smiling, still puffing on a cigarette, saying. `ok – let’s get on with it’.

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