Colorado Democrats eye sweeping new labor rights for more than 250,000 public-sector workers

Colorado Democrats say they want to take a “natural next step” in their pro-union push with a bill to allow all public sector employees in Colorado to join unions and collectively bargain over pay, benefits and working conditions

This follows Democrats working across two legislative sessions in 2019 and 2020 to reach agreement with Gov. Jared Polis on a bill allowing union leaders to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of the roughly 30,000 people who work for Colorado state government.

They succeeded eventually, with Polis announcing his support just before the pandemic set in. He signed the policy into law, and last month he and the state union agreed to ratify a new contract — the first of its kind in Colorado — that included several years of cost-of-living raises and more paid time off, among other new benefits.

The planned 2022 bill would affect all public employees, not just those working for the state.

“If you’re a worker, no matter who your employer is, you should have some basic rights,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who plans to sponsor the bill. He noted that public-sector workers aren’t generally afforded the same unionizing and negotiating rights available to private-sector workers.

The bill is still in drafting, but the plan is to introduce it in the state House of Representatives in the next session, which begins Jan. 12. It would be headed in that chamber by House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat who also negotiated the 2019 and 2020 bills for the state employee union.

Unlike the earlier bills, this one would not by itself force change. It doesn’t create new unions or require existing ones to engage in collective bargaining. Instead, it would state that public sector workers have the ability to unionize if they choose, and it would lay out terms of bargaining for employees that make that choice. Those terms, among other bill details, are not finalized and could change before the policy is introduced.

Proponents estimate more than 250,000 workers stand to be affected by the policy, including those who work in public education, first responders and anyone else employed in the public sector in Colorado outside of state government.

The bill is assured pushback from public sector leaders.

“The state absolutely has a role in determining how to dictate employment matters for its own employees. But the state shouldn’t be involved in determining employment matters at other levels of government,” said Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, which represents and lobbies for towns and cities. He suggests lawmakers could be in violation of the state constitution by wading into local control matters over which it doesn’t have jurisdiction.

“With all due respect to the proponents and sponsors, local control and home rule authority is derived by citizens through their votes and through their duly elected (officials),” Bommer said.

Under current law, those local officials do not need to recognize employee efforts to unionize. A group of workers can say they’re forming a union, but that union would be largely ineffective without recognition from its town, city or county leaders, and without the ability to bargain over contract terms.

“The majority of the time when we go into these conversations around collective bargaining and negotiations it’s just workers simply wanting to have a voice when it comes to safety, workflow, how they can provide ideas and be heard. It’s not always just salary and benefits,” Esgar said.

Added Peter DellaVecchia, a Denver paramedic and member of the Denver Health Workers United union, “It’s not so much that we’re trying to line our own pockets. Working conditions right now are just really, really difficult. … We want fair market compensation, but we want benefits, a good work-life balance.”

The left-leaning national think tank Economic Policy Institute has estimated that workers covered by collective bargaining contracts can make about 13% more money on average that non-unionized people doing comparable work, and that they are 28% more likelyto have employer-provided health insurance. They’re also more likely to have employer-provided pensions and more paid time off, research shows.

Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, echoed Bommer’s concerns and added that her organization, which represents 146 rural districts, doesn’t think it’s necessary to impose a state mandate in order for workers to feel empowered to seek better pay and benefits.

“It would be our position that that decision properly resides within the jurisdiction of local school boards,” she said, adding that she can recall only one instance in the past decade in which rural education workers attempted to unionize and were rebuffed. “We don’t really know, in K-12, what problem we’re trying to solve here.”

Colorado AFL-CIO President Josette Jaramillo countered that the problem in K-12 is that public-sector workers do not have guaranteed rights to advocate for themselves and their colleagues. That kind of guarantee from the state would be much different from the present situation, in which union organizers in the public sector must ask permission to be recognized, she said.

“So I think this bill is something that’s really needed for public employees to have that seat at the table,” she said.

The AFL-CIO’s Jaramillo called the legislative proposal well timed.

“We are living in this really crazy time when it is the employees’ marketplace. COVID really kicked that off, where folks have the opportunity and ability to be a little more choosy about where they want to work,” she said. “We have lots of vacancies, hiring is tough right now. I think that very much lends to the moment of not accepting the status quo. I think workers are seeing their value.”

Neither opponents nor proponents of the proposal have estimates for how many workers would form unions if a bill becomes law. Jaramillo said labor leaders would likely target work in places where they find a real appetite for organizing, instead of casting a wider net that, “would be like farting into the wind.”

Any bill would need the governor’s OK to become law. Polis did come around on the 2020 bill and the current proposal’s sponsors say that with their policy still in drafting it’s too soon to know whether they’ll have the governor’s backing. It is generally true, however, that a bill with both majority leaders signed onto it will have a strong chance of succeeding.

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