Gov. Jared Polis enters the House to deliver his 2020 State of the State address at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver on Thursday, Jan. 9 on the second legislative day of the second regular session of Colorado's 72nd General Assembly.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has agreed in principle to legislation that would allow state employees, members of the union Colorado WINS, to obtain collective bargaining rights.

Polis, WINS and a handful of lawmakers spoke about the proposal during a Friday afternoon news conference.

The bill is a repeat of legislation from 2019 that died in a House committee last May, after Polis made it clear the bill didn't pass muster with him. But what his issues were with the 2019 legislation was unknown.

In a joint statement issued with WINS last May, Polis said they would work together to "address outstanding issues surrounding House Bill 1273 and other issues affecting the state workforce and the people of Colorado that cannot be resolved in the few remaining days that exist in the [2019] legislative session."

Colorado has two employment systems within state government. The smallest is the classified workforce of around 30,000 employees who work in state prisons; in transportation, health, and social service agencies; and in public safety. The larger system is made up of unclassified or exempt employees, which includes cabinet and other top-level positions at state agencies and most of the jobs in the state's public colleges and universities.

Under the administration of former Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, and with help from the General Assembly, public colleges and universities began removing most of their classified positions from the state civil service. That left in the classified workforce mostly the lowest-paid and entry-level employees in higher ed (as well as positions in information technology), but those employees lost virtually any opportunity for career advancement unless they were willing to leave the classified system.

According to a 2018-19 workforce report from the Department of Personnel and Administration, the state employs more than 101,000 people, including part-time and temporary workers. 

But the state now faces a workforce shortage similar to other Colorado businesses. According to a 2019 report commissioned by WINS, one in five state classified positions are now vacant. That report called collective bargaining an answer to the labor shortage.

WINS has represented state classified employees (except for public safety, which has its own union) since Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, signed an executive order in 2007 granting WINS the right to represent employees on workplace issues such as efficiency, safety or training. The executive order — D 028 07 — expressly forbids WINS from striking or for negotiating for pay, benefits or issues related to the state's public pension plan. Portions of that executive order — particularly regarding strikes — were codified in legislation in 2008. 

WINS was the brainchild of a coalition of labor unions and membership organizations: the Colorado Association of Public Employees (then part of Service Employee International Union), the American Federation of Teachers Colorado chapter, and Council 76 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. 

Polis, surrounded by more than 100 state employees and supporters, characterized a collective bargaining agreement as a way to improve services in state government. The success of state government is because of its workforce, he said. Partnership agreements in each agency allow line workers and agency leadership to have conversations about how to be more efficient and deliver better value to taxpayers.

"Those discussions already happen today," Polis said. But by institutionalizing those partnerships, even when governors or agencies come and go, "we can ensure the line workers have that voice. They know the improvements" that can be made and "have a channel to make sure those improvements are made."

According to WINS President Skip Miller, the legislation would take away the temporary nature of the 2007 executive order and codify it in legislation. They also don't intend to touch the 2008 law that forbid state employees from striking. 

So what power do state employees have if they can't strike? The power comes from the partnership, Miller said, such as providing the best services to the citizens. "We get to negotiate how we get there," he said.

The other question is how to pay for it. State Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, is also one of the bill's prime sponsors. She told reporters they look at the limited funds available, but also at the DPA's report on vacancies. The bill allows the General Assembly to have a say on whether state employees would get raises, she said.

"We will always protect the budget" but will also look for ways to increase state employee pay, she said.

The bill also will be carried by Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, who noted his community is one of the fiercest union towns in the West. But it's also a region that voted for Republican President Donald Trump in 2016. Garcia was asked by Colorado Politics if the bill is an effort to sway union votes in Pueblo toward Democratic presidential candidates.

Pueblo has a rich labor history, Garcia responded. "People can elect whomever they want. This is something we hear is extremely important, that workers wants to be represented. We're creating that venue for them."

The legislation allowing collective bargaining by state classified employees has not yet been introduced.

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