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A Hundred Years After Ludlow, Colorado Labor Makes Slow Gains

June 23, 2014

ColoradoWINS lobbying the state legislature, December, 2013

1. A New Day for Colorado’s State Employees?

November 2007 was a historic moment for union-unfriendly Colorado, or so it seemed. The breakthrough drew little attention from Colorado’s general public for labor movement developments get little to no airing in the state’s media. But the shift was noted among politically sensitive business and government circles, as well as state’s labor movement: Governor Bill Ritter issued an executive order legalizing union activity for the state’s employees.

The rules of the state sector labor-management game were about to change. Each “side” had its priorities. For labor it was use the new situation – an executive order allowing state employees to unionize – to increase its modest leverage and bargaining power in the state. The goal of business – and the business oriented bureaucracy in state government – to the contrary, was to limit the impact of the changes as much as possible.

Not long before, in February of that year, Ritter vetoed HB 1072, which, if passed would have eliminated one of two votes needed for unions to negotiate all-union shops. The two stage voting system to achieve a closed union shop is unique to Colorado and has been one of the main legal mechanisms for keeping the state’s labor movement in a weakened position.

In order to throw a compensatory crumb to Colorado labor, an important constituency of the state’s Democratic Party whose organizational contribution to elections is undeniable, Ritter responded with an executive order giving state employees the right to form unions. Up until this point, state employees had been denied this right. One somewhat self-serving reason to proceed in this manner was to increase the Democratic Party’s social base, as the continuation of state employee union rights depends heavily on Democratic Party control of the governor’s office.

Until Ritter’s executive order, Colorado labor management relations were subject to the stipulations of the 1943 Colorado Peace Act. The act provided collective bargaining rights to private sector employees but specifically excluded state employees. Ritter’s executive order  changed that, giving state employees the right to organize unions and participate in a process something akin to collective bargaining rights (although not exactly).

The governor’s decision came in the midst of a series of possible ballot initiatives coming from both pro and anti-labor constituencies. In the midst of the 2008 economic collapse, the Colorado AFL-CIO got behind two state ballot initiatives, the first would have made business executives personally financially liable to employees, shareholders, and the state if their companies broke the law.  In response to national revelations of corporate crime related to the banking crisis, this initiative was a response to the state’s own financial scandal involving, Joe Nacchio, former Qwest Communications CEO. Nacchio was convicted of insider trading and sentenced to six years in prison; his shenanigans led to job losses, depleted pension funds and plummeting stock values.

The second initiative would have made it illegal for employers to fire workers without cause, a rather frequent occurrence. According to an AFL-CIO spokesperson at the time, Wendy Greenwald, polling conducted by Protect Colorado’s Future indicated that as many as 80 percent of Coloradans supported the anti-CEO measure.

Taken together, the two measures would have moderately strengthened the weak position of organized labor in the state and held corporate CEO.’s more responsible for their actions should they, like Nacchio, flagrantly break the law. It was Ritter’s attempt to compensate for having vetoed HB 1072, not what Colorado AFL-CIO was looking for, but still, something.

2. Colorado Legislative Class Struggle Circa 2008

When Colorado Democrats tried to strengthen Ritter’s executive order by placing pro-labor initiatives on the Colorado ballot, business interests in the state reacted aggressively, threatening to introduce their own  “right to work” amendment  to the state constitution that would have put severe restrictions on public employee union activity. They interpreted both labor supported ballot initiatives as threats to the decided edge that business has maintained over the Colorado labor movement since World War II.

Ritter’s office was able to strike “a compromise” – urging both sides to withdraw their initiatives before the deadline for placing them on the November ballot had been reached. This was done, preserving the state’s status quo between business and labor, the rug having been pulled from any legal improvements of Colorado’s labor status at the time.

Still, Ritter’s executive order granting Colorado public employees the right to organize unions remained in place, although through the negotiations that followed, collective bargaining rights were essentially eliminated. Now, seven years after having gained the right to organize, state employees are still denied those rights. At the moment there is very little indication that such legislation is in the offing for fear of another right-wing, anti-labor backlash.

Still, shortly thereafter, in the summer of 2008, state employees voted to have union representation. Made up of a coalition of three public employee unions (the American Federation of Teachers [AFT], the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [ASCME] and the Service Employees International Union [SEIU], the Colorado Workers for Innovation and New Solutions, better known by its acronym, “Colorado WINS,”  was formed and won the support of the state’s employees. In principle, in all it represents 31,000 state employees located throughout the state from Cortez to Julesburg.

Labor’s gains were minimal, but real; Colorado’s business community, still smarting that state employees now had the right to form unions, was, nevertheless relieved. Much of the old status quo created by 1943 legislation, tilted clearly in favor of Colorado’s business community, remained in force. Labor had gained a symbolic, Pyrrhic victory, with few teeth. Many of those were about to be neutralized as well.

What did statewide employees gain from having a union, even one legally somewhat crippled by Colorado’s long anti-labor history?  Here, ColoradoWINS is not shy about touting its achievements which include (these directly from their website):

  • 2% salary survey increase for state employees: The Joint Budget Committee (JBC), approved a 2% salary survey increase on Jan. 30, 2013. With this vote, some high performing employees could see a raise of as much as 4.4%.
  • 2.5% back into paychecks: Since July 2010, state workers have been forced to pay an additional 2.5% into PERA (10.5% total) while the state reduced its contribution. Colorado WINS members collected and delivered more than 1,700 petition signatures to the DPA Director and more than 3,200 postcards to the Governor urging them to restore the 2.5%  cost shift back to employee paychecks, while keeping PERA solvent. This will keep about $20 million in employees’ pockets when this provision goes into effect on July 1, 2012.
  • Full funding for health premium increases: In 2013, according to figures from the JBC, it appears that employee out-of-pocket healthcare cost will not increase on July 1. In fact, current figures show slight decreases in out-of-pocket costs. In 2012, the JBC voted not to increase the employee contribution for healthcare premiums. This was the first time in at least 4 years that employees did not pay more for healthcare premiums.
  • Nearly 500 jobs saved: In 2012, Colorado WINS opposed any layoffs and urged lawmakers to keep full funding of the Health, Life and Dental premium increase. On March 29, 2012, JBC members approved a 1% personal services reduction, exempting 24-hour (24/7) facilities, Public Safety and divisions with less than 20 FTE. This meant that correctional facilities and DHS facilities were held harmless and experienced no reductions. The Governor’s office made clear that other divisions that fall under the 1% can manage the cuts without layoffs.

These are real gains, achieved through lobbying the legislature, that should not be pooh-poohed or downplayed. They would probably not have happened without the union. State employees sometimes do not appreciate these genuine achievements. On another level, the very existence of a union has changed – at least until recently – how management on both the institutional and state level addresses management – employee issues. It is a fact that ColoradoWINS has been successful in getting modest wage increases through the legislature and in opposing cuts in the state work force. On the other hand, the present governor, John Hickenlooper has not taken any initiatives to strengthen the position of state workers by getting legislation through that would codify their right to organize.

3. The Ambiguities of Ritter’s Executive Order

Still, there were ambiguities in Ritter’s executive order concerning whether or not it provided a process for collective bargaining.

– In some ways, Ritter’s executive order certainly “complicated the rules of the game governing labor relations in the public sector.” In exchange for joining in “a partnership with the state administration, state workers were obliged to give up the right to strike as a condition of their membership. This is in conflict with a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1992 upholding a 1915 decision granting public employees the right to strike.

– Although controlled by Democrats, the Colorado State Legislature failed to transform Ritter’s executive order into state law. This failure to pass such legislation leaves ColoradoWINS in a precarious situation. While a governor’s executive order does give state employees the right to organize into unions, the fact that the legislature failed to bolster the executive order through legislation means that another governor less friendly to state employees than Bill Ritter could, through another executive order, rescind union rights.

– While Ritter’s executive order gave state employees the right to organize into unions, it did not confer on the unions the right to collectively bargain over wages and working conditions nor to go on strike, two tools without which a union’s bargaining power is considerably reduced. What is referred to as “interest based bargaining” (IBB – in state lingo) replaced the promise of collective bargaining. IBB has proven to be a questionable effective alternative to “the real thing.” Actual bargaining over wages and working conditions – the essence of collective bargaining – is excluded, weakening any advantage that getting union rights might have enjoyed. Colorado state employees did get the right to organize unions, unions crippled by their increasingly restricted legal mandate.

– Such arrangements, while not so common in the USA, are actually quite common elsewhere, particularly in European countries and Canada where they seem to work, or at least work much more efficiently than here in the U.S. of A. What makes them work so much better in Germany or Finland than here in the United States? On the one hand, the labor movements in those countries are larger, better organized with many more resources and experience in such matters. European unions, even in an age of global Reagan-Bush economic policies, have considerable political clout, as any American who has spent time in these countries can attest to.

Of course, co-management does not end class tensions between managers and employees, a permanent part of the capitalist system, here and elsewhere. But in Europe, at least for most of the period since World War II, a pattern of trust and cooperation, and one might add of mutual respect between labor and management has a long history.

– In concert with IBB, a series of unit based `co-management’ structures, with legal status in state policy, called `employee-management committees’, EMC’s were established. While in principle, such structures could, with good will on both sides and a stronger generalized base of union support statewide, be effective in dealing with labor management issues and improving the overall efficiency of state activities.

The mandate of the EMC is both concrete and ambiguous.

The concrete element: management (administration) reps on the one hand along with ColoradoWINS reps – sole, legal representatives of the employees – on the other, would meet regularly, and together, at least in principle, work to address issues of common concern. It can work under certain circumstances but, the pattern has been for the State and institutional administration to do whatever to trivialize or gut what could be a productive,  joint process (ei – cooperation on an annual Christmas party, but refusal to address deeper structural problems or to cooperate on their resolution).

Without such critical intangibles, co-management decays into a pattern of distrust and conflictual relations as it has here in Colorado to a great degree between the state’s Human Resource Division, that oversees the state employment sector and the union, ColoradoWINS. HR administrators are well aware of this situation and are exploiting it now.

4. Employee – Management Cooperation – Colorado Style.

Employee-Administrative cooperation through the EMC process has hardly been the case.

Strong anti-union prejudice exists – their denials to the contrary – at the upper levels of the Colorado Human Services Department that overseas state agencies, only encouraged by the current governor, a Democrat perhaps, but who has proven to be anything but a friend of labor. Executive Director Reggie Bicha and his key assistant Nikki Hatch were recruited to Colorado from Wisconsin, one of the most anti-public employee unions in the country. These attitudes are only magnified at level of facility administration. Forced by state legislation to “tolerate” union activity, state agencies and specific institutions have worked hard to eviscerate and trivialize the process.

If management is quite cool to sharing decision-making with ColoradoWINS, at the same time, the union finds itself in a sensitive position as well. It is a union always looking over its shoulder, concerned that its fragile legal framework could collapse as a result of political pressure from the right. They are right about that. It is a narrow tightrope on which the union walks, caught between vying social forces. If the union takes too militant a position, they fear, with good reason, the wrath of the state’s anti-union, pro-business power brokers will come down on their heads.

If they fail to challenge different anti-employee administrative moves forcefully enough, they risk losing support from their membership. Add to this the fact that funding base of ColoradoWINS is rather modest. While the main focus of anti-labor sentiment concentrates in the state’s Republican Party, Colorado Democrats include many elements hostile to unions and most especially collective bargaining as well. This anti-union atmosphere that permeates the state, combined with precarious nature of the mandate for public employee union activities, acts as a Damocles sword over the head of ColoradoWINS.

This situation has produced a kind of self-censorship. How far could a state employees’ union go before antagonizing the state’s powerful business and government interests before the latter would press for union de-certification?

Colorado has a long history of antagonism to trade union organizing that includes one of the sorriest moments in the state’s (and nation’s history), the Ludlow Massacre of April, 2014, the 100th anniversary of which is in less than months. Prior to and immediately after Ludlow labor-management relations in the state were turbulent, a turbulence and mutual distrust that has continued into the present. Right up there with Ludlow has been the anti-union activities of the Coors Brewery, whose family leadership has long had close ties with extreme right-wing Republican, anti-labor elements. The anti-union atmosphere in the state remains strong today, and in some ways, it is even more pronounced.

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