Republican state Rep. Phil Covarrubias represents a district that encompasses Brighton, Lochbuie and eastern Adams County south to Deer Trail.
It’s a good mix, he says, of rich and poor, blue-collar workers, and rural farmers and ranchers.
It’s the blue-collar workers who may be closest to Covarrubias’ heart because that’s where he comes from.
The Brighton lawmaker is a longtime union member, part of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 111. He’s also been a union steward for many years, working with the local’s members on labor issues, as well as being an employee of companies that use union labor. That’s included serving as a lead foreman for Xcel Energy Inc. in years past.
When Covarrubias showed up at the Colorado House for the 2017 session with union credentials, he says, it took some in his caucus by surprise. It’s meant taking on the responsibility of educating his caucus on what it means to be a union member, but and it also means pointing out that not all union members, at least in the trade and construction industries, are Democrats.
Union members in his industry are close to 50 percent voting for Republican candidates, he claims. But Republican union members “don’t have a voice, because the union leaders and bosses aren’t Republicans.”
That’s where he comes in, both inside and outside the state Capitol. Last October, Covarrubias spoke at a national union/management convention in Denver. He’s proud of that role, as he believes no Republican has spoken at an IBEW-affiliated conference in perhaps 100 years.
Part of the job of educating his caucus includes explaining why he’s a union man: good wages, comprehensive education, and devotion to safety. He’s especially proud of the effort required to become a journeyman, the ticket to becoming a full-fledged union member.
It’s four years of commitment in an apprenticeship, he explained.
“It’s way different than what it takes to get a four-year college degree,” where a student can sometimes ditch classes or party, he said. “You don’t have that option” in an apprenticeship.
“We are liable for our work. If I put in a gas line and it blows up a month later, I’m going to jail. I’m responsible for every weld, fitting, connection we make. That’s why I don’t take any guff from anybody when it comes to union or non-union work.”
Covarrubias showed his trade pride Wednesday morning when he shared the microphone on the House floor with Democratic state Rep. James Coleman of Denver in a resolution saluting the trades industry and career and technical education.
The resolution noted the strong pay, averaging more than $50,000 annually and more than 155,000 workers in Colorado in skilled trades. The resolution will be sent to the state’s technical colleges, contractors’ organizations, and several unions, including the IBEW.
What makes a union member a Republican? Covarrubias says it’s education, the work ethic, pride and love of country — values he acknowledges almost everyone in a union holds.
But where he differs from his fellow union members who are Democrats is on the issue of merit and seniority. In a union, it’s seniority that often determines who advances rather than who might be best in a job but hasn’t been there as long, he explained.
Covarrubias believes the political tide of the union workforce is changing and points to the 2016 presidential election as a sign. He’s a strong supporter of President Donald Trump and his promises to bring jobs back to the United States.
“The majority of union members want this conversation,” he said. “Democrats have done nothing for us for 20 years. … Union members want more than the one option” they’ve had for years.
Will that mean union dollars for his re-election campaign? Covarrubias isn’t quite counting on it.
The IBEW in Colorado has put nearly $100,000 into political campaigns in the last two decades, and there aren’t any Republicans among the state House and Senate candidates they’ve backed. Those contributions are paid for through donations to political action committees from union members, not out of union dues, Covarrubias pointed out.
Some of his strongest financial support in his first race, however, has come from the companies that hire unions, such as political committees associated with contractors’ groups and Minneapolis-based Xcel.
In one area, he stands strong with most of his Republican colleagues: a dislike for teachers’ unions. Where he differs: he won’t sponsor “Right to Work” legislation, which has been attempted by Republicans in the Capitol for years and would allow an “opt-out” on job sites where unions are employed. His views are nuanced; he believes people should have the option to belong, or not to belong, to a union.
His union brothers and sisters, he says, “know I have their back.”