The lawmaker who last year helped state employees earn the ability to form unions for purpose of collective bargaining is now looking to expand that right to every public employee in the state.
That would include anyone employed by cities, counties, school, library or fire districts, public colleges or universities, or the office of the state public defender, according to an April 6 working draft obtained by Colorado Politics.
House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, who sponsored the 2020 state employee union bill, is sponsoring the legislation to give public employees a say in workplace conditions.
"They should be allowed to have that conversation, and this bill gives them an avenue to have those conversations," she said.
Discussions on the bill are still ongoing about the impact on home-rule cities, which would not be exempt from its provisions; it's one of the reasons the bill has taken awhile to be introduced, Esgar said. It could roll out as soon as this week, according to sources, although it's more likely to come next week.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers recently told Colorado Politics that the bill is an “outrageous overreach” by state government and “a total affront” to local control and to home-rule cities.
“No one should be surprised that Democrats rewarded unions by unionizing state employees” last year, he said, “but this is a bridge too far.”
The draft bill lays out the details: Public employees would be allowed to unionize, collectively bargain, communicate with unions and other public employees, participate in the political process, have exclusive representation at formal discussions on grievances or personnel policies and practices, and be able to post information on unions in the employer’s facilities.
Joining a union, under the draft, is optional. Each bargaining unit could be as small as an individual campus, for example.
Home rule cities — and there are 104 of them with authority to manage their own affairs under powers granted in the state Constitution — are not exempt, according to Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, likely to be the bill’s Senate sponsor. Charter schools are not exempt, either.
The draft's inclusion of higher education is likely to be among the most complicated provisions. Public colleges and universities have a three-tiered employment system: classified employees, who are part of the state personnel system (and are already allowed to join Colorado WINS, the state employee union); exempt or at-will employees such as program managers; and faculty, who also have a two-tiered system with permanent faculty and another for temporary faculty known as adjuncts, who teach on a per-course basis. Higher ed officials have worked for 20 years to convert many of their classified employee positions to exempt positions, with the help from previous laws written by the General Assembly.
One thing the draft bill doesn’t include that the 2020 law did: a prohibition on strikes. Esgar is standing firm, for now, on the right to strike, citing conversations with labor unions on what works for them and what doesn't work. She recounted a conversation she recently had with a child welfare worker, who told Esgar the last thing she would want to do is strike.
"Those kiddos need her working 24/7," Esgar said.
Esgar said there is a lot of misunderstanding about the bill, including that it's only about money. Unions aren't always just fighting for salaries; they fight for workplace conditions, and to be at the table on how to make things function better, she explained.
"When we talk about public sector employees, it absolutely is not about the money. If you've ever talked to someone in child welfare," it's about the lives they impact, she said. "They want a say in how things work."
It's about protecting public employees who put themselves on the front lines every day, she added: nurses, teachers and child welfare workers. All they want is to have a say on workplace conditions, what's working and what isn't, and pay as it compares to the private sector.
The bill doesn't say employers have to do what the employees want, Esgar said.
"This is to make this state and communities a better place for all workers," particularly as workers have struggled through the pandemic, she said.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the bill is being backed by the AFL-CIO and the Colorado Education Association, as well as other partners.
CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said the right to collective bargaining is a fundamental right. Most school districts don't engage in collective bargaining with their employees, she explained. She also cited a January 2021 poll conducted by Harstad Strategic Research that shows there is broad support for the right to strike. That survey was of 729 active Colorado voters, including 202 from Denver. Of those surveyed, 72% said they supported the right to strike, including 45% who strongly supported it.
"A strike only happens when all other legal avenues are exhausted" and as a last resort, she said. In Colorado, teachers have a qualified right to strike, one that has to be approved by the governor, so it's a very important part of the bill, she said.
Whether a healthcare worker or city employee, first responder, child care provider, those workers deserve the same rights to have a voice on the job, freedom to speak up, negotiate and set standards on wages, benefits and working conditions, she added. "It's not like employers are bending over backwards and out of the goodness of their hearts granting rights to workers," she said.
Dennis Dougherty of the AFL-CIO noted that the bill does not proactively prescribe that public sector workers must join a union.
"Instead, it allows workers in the public sector to have the same freedom to collectively bargain as workers in private businesses. No employees would be forced to form a bargaining unit as a result of this bill," he said. "Employees’ right to collective bargaining is a right all workers should have regardless of their employer."
Dougherty said the bill is needed because of the patchwork of laws governing public employees and their right to have a voice on the job.
"This bill would remove the obstacle of having to receive employer approval for a basic right to organize. It leaves the responsibility of forming a union to public employees," he added.
He also addressed the impact the pandemic had on public employees. Public service workers have put their lives at risk, doing essential work and delivering public services needed to halt the virus and jumpstart the economy, he explained.
"For their dedication and sacrifice, public service workers deserve a voice on the job and a seat at the table to negotiate with their employers for the things our communities need to build back better," Dougherty said. "When public service workers have the freedom join a union and negotiate with their employers, they set standards on wages, benefits and working conditions that improve entire communities." He said those workers have fought for safer staffing at hospitals, smaller classroom sizes, and better equipment and training that provides more efficient delivery of public services.
Dougherty also noted that home-rule cities "do not control labor policy that is of statewide concern." Dougherty pointed to two Colorado Supreme Court rulings that said collective bargaining is a matter of "mixed local and statewide concern," one that would let the General Assembly pass a law that would allow collective bargaining for home-rule city employees.
Suthers noted that Colorado Springs voters have rejected collective bargaining at least five times, most recently in April 2019, when a vote on firefighters failed by a 2:1 margin.
The bill also could conflict with other efforts in the General Assembly on law enforcement accountability. One of the biggest obstacles to quick discipline for police officers are police unions, he said.
“Why impose unions when people are starting to realize that this is contrary to efficiency and accountability?” he asked.
State Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, who has made criminal justice reform and law enforcement accountability a signature issue, had similar concerns.
“People should be held accountable for wrongdoing, and law enforcement unions have traditionally been a moving force behind the thin blue line that protects each other, as opposed to protecting the community," Herod said recently. "We should be concerned about that.”
However, she said, the accountability in Senate Bill 20-217 supersedes the influence of police unions to a great extent, including the end to qualified immunity. That takes the decision-making out of the hands of the employers and puts it in the courts, she added.
In addition, Dougherty said that many police departments already have staff unions, and the bill would not impact already existing employee organizations.
The history of unions, Suthers explained, was to allow workers to benefit from their labor in for-profit companies, including benefits, wages and working conditions, which he called appropriate.
As private unions waned, public unions began to surface. “You’re not fighting over profits,” Suthers said. “You’re fighting over a tax pie.” When one entity in government gets a larger share of that pie, it comes out of other government services, he said. In the end, taxpayers would wind up paying for it with either higher taxes or fewer services.
AFL-CIO's Dougherty explained that when workers have a say in the policies that are made about their jobs, they fight for improvements that benefit entire communities.
"Many of these improvements can be accomplished within current budgets," he said.
Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League, said there is no change that could be made that would get them even to a neutral position. The General Assembly should be making employment decisions for state employees, not local governments and their employees, he told Colorado Politics. It's the purview of city councils, working in collaboration with labor and local voters, who should decide whether to allow it, he said.
"This is a one-size-fits-all that presumes that what's good for Denver is good for Dove Creek," he said.