Dennis Dougherty

A labor organizer at work: Dennis Dougherty is executive director of the 130,000-member Colorado AFL-CIO.

Is the labor movement making a comeback in Colorado — not only in the workplace but also in politics? That’s essentially one of the questions we put to Dennis Dougherty,  executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO.

To say organized labor in the state was cheered by the results of last month’s election is probably an understatement. Labor unions of course had played a role in that outcome, and they’re now arguably poised to reap dividends from the Election Day gains of their longtime ally, the Democratic Party.

What now remains to be seen is how labor will parlay those gains and, particularly, how much it will be able to expect from a legislature that will be controlled by Democrats when it convenes in January.

We ask Dougherty that, too — and more — in today’s Q&A.

Colorado Politics: Nov. 6’s blue wave swept Republicans from state government and cost them control of the state Senate. With a more labor-friendly party now in charge of both the legislative and executive branches in Colorado, what does organized labor hope to accomplish in the 2019 session? Are there specific legislative priorities you expect to pass that were stymied previously by a Republican majority in the Senate?

Dennis Dougherty: This election cycle, Colorado AFL-CIO members spent tens of thousands of hours phone banking and canvassing for candidates who share our core values of improving the lives of working families, bringing fairness and dignity to the workplace and securing social opportunity and equity. We want a government that works for working families, not just the wealthy few and big corporations – and we believe in a Colorado where all people, regardless of age, background, race, gender or status, can care for and support their family, contribute to their community and enjoy our beautiful outdoors.

Colorado is becoming a tale of two states; big corporations are raking in record profits while many hardworking Coloradans are struggling, living paycheck to paycheck with little hope for a secure retirement. It’s only fair that that the big corporations that profit from Colorado’s growth be responsible to working people and our communities by paying decent wages and benefits, safeguarding our air and water and land, and paying their fair share of taxes to support the infrastructure that girds all industry.

Part of the solution is the passage of legislation introduced last year which died in the Senate State Affairs Committee, including local control of minimum wage to allow cities to increase their local minimum wage and FAMLI Medical Leave Insurance Program to set up a worker-financed fund to pay for their own paid medical leave should they need it, so they and their family are not at risk of eviction or hunger.

We are looking forward to conversations with legislators and the governor-elect to achieve better wages, get access to affordable health care, protect consumer rights, build a skilled workforce to meet industry demands, and provide a just and equitable transition [for] fossil fuel dependent workers. We will work with the governor on his Colorado Workers’ Agenda.

Dennis Dougherty

  • Executive director, Colorado AFL-CIO, since 2017. The AFL-CIO represents about 165 affiliate unions in the state, with membership totaling more than 130,000.
  • Commissioner, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, 2007-2017.
  • Elementary school teacher, Atlanta Public Schools, 2002-2005.
  • Board member and past president of the Rocky Mountain Labor and Employment Relations Association.
  • Holds a bachelor’s degree from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio and a master’s in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School.

CP: Organized labor’s influence over Democratic Party politics long was thought to be on the wane amid an increasingly tech-centric, post-modern U.S. economy that long ago exported heavy industry — and union jobs — overseas. Yet, union membership has been inching back up in recent years in Colorado, from around 8 percent of the state’s labor force in 2010 to 10 percent by 2016. Are there signs organized labor’s political clout in the state is increasing, as well? 

Dougherty: Our power is derived from our members, and we are growing. More than 260,000 workers joined unions in the U.S. last year, and three quarters of them were under age 35. According to a recent Gallup poll, 62 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, a 15-year high. Workers see unions as the solution to corporate and CEO greed, stagnant wages, income inequality and arbitrary and unfair work rules.  Unions give them a voice and the ability to stand together to fight for what they deserve. 

Colorado workers are enthusiastic that a number of union members were elected in November, including House District 37’s Tom Sullivan, a long-time American Postal Workers Union member and Colorado AFL-CIO Executive Board member. Having our own at decision-making tables will translate into the structural change needed to un-rig an economy corrupted by a few corporate interests.  

CP: Colorado’s economy certainly was built by hard work — whether roustabouts in the oil patch, hard-rock miners deep underground or ranch hands riding the range in all weather. Yet, unions simply haven’t played the role in the state’s economy that they did historically in other regions of the country. Why has the West been so resistant to unionization?

Dougherty: Labor unions have been an integral part of the Colorado story dating back to the late 1800s. In fact, schoolchildren in Colorado learn about the Ludlow Massacre, when coal miners and their families were slaughtered by Colorado Fuel & Iron and Colorado National Guard troops.  Over the years unions in Colorado defended eight-hour day work laws and launched the now nationwide Justice for Janitors campaign. 

As Wall Street and big corporations leave working families with less and less, the traditional Western notion of “rugged individualism” is being replaced with a desire to work together to achieve economic gains. As Colorado’s population shifts towards younger adults who approve of labor unions, we believe those Coloradans joining together in union will continue to increase.  

CP: A key area of growth for union membership, in Colorado as across the country, has been among the ranks of public-sector employees. What’s next on that horizon in Colorado — the expansion of collective-bargaining power for more local police and firefighters? Collective bargaining, including the right to strike, for state employees — picking up where Democratic former Gov. Bill Ritter left off with his executive order back in the 2000s? 

Dougherty: Coloradans value our freedom. Working people deserve the freedom to live a balanced life where they can spend time with their family, take care of loved ones, and retire with dignity. Corporate interests have sought to eliminate the ability of workers to join together in union. Wages for everyone rise when working people stand together in union, including women and people of color, who too often get paid less for the same work.

There are over a million young Colorado workers aged 18-34, the age group that Gallup reports supports unions at 65 percent. Organizing younger workers is a key area for growth in union membership. 

CP: Last spring we saw the rise for the #RedforEd movement of teachers making the case for better pay and more respect in the workplace. You spent time in the classroom, so what do you think about the unionization of college-educated professions like teaching, in which value added is arguably more subjective and  harder to generalize at the bargaining table than it is, say, for traditional laborers, assembly-line workers or those in skilled trades?

Dougherty: Fair treatment, having a voice in the workplace and earning a fair return on work is why workers – blue-collar and white-collar alike – join together in union. 

The Pueblo teachers and paraprofessionals strike earlier this year was not just about long-overdue wage and benefit cost-of-living increases, but also respect and recognition that frontline educators have creative ideas and concrete solutions to offer that will improve the education system for all students.

CP: With a background as a teacher and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School, are you the new face of organized labor in the 21st century? How have labor unions evolved, and how will they have to continue to evolve to remain relevant as the economy changes?

Dougherty: The Colorado AFL-CIO president, Josette Jaramillo, is the new face of organized labor in the 21st century as a social worker and LGBTQ woman of color. Our members are increasingly more diverse in every way. The Colorado AFL-CIO’s Inclusion & Diversity committee will be looking into ways to encourage and recruit more women, young workers and people of color to rise into positions of power in the Colorado labor movement. 

Gig work, technological innovations, automation, AI, the move away from fossil fuels to clean energy – all of these changes impact current and future workers. But 21st century technological innovations providing societal benefit do not have to come along with 19th century labor practices. There is purpose, pride and dignity in work and those who have toiled to build and power Colorado should not be discarded with little regard for their well-being. Elected officials need to address all of these changes thoughtfully.  

CP: What kind of traction do unions have with Colorado’s vast and growing bloc of unaffiliated voters?

Dougherty: Despite the "Colorado is booming" narrative, a good portion of unaffiliated voters are struggling with stagnant wages and the rising cost of living in Colorado. Too many of them live paycheck to paycheck because the rich and powerful rig the rules to take away our freedom to join together and negotiate. 

Unaffiliated voters aren’t interested in having personality debates or talking party politics but they are looking for credible information to take action. They receive information from a variety of sources to make informed decisions at the ballot box but the truth is working people trust other working people, so labor has been engaging unaffiliated members on pocketbook issues which matter to them.  What worked this election cycle was union members talking to each other about issues that matter to us, and that’s what we’ll continue to do in 2020.

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