Labor leaders in Colorado entered this legislative session thinking — or, at least, hoping — they’d get the Democrat-controlled legislature to pass a bill empowering more than 250,000 public-sector workers with new union rights. The policy they envisioned would make national headlines and would mark the most substantial gain for organized labor in this state in years, if not decades.
It’s now clearer than ever that such a measure is highly unlikely. Over this week and last, The Denver Post spoke to more than 15 people with knowledge of the negotiations around this not-yet-introduced bill, and gleaned new specifics about how this would-be landmark proposal stands to be neutered.
The point of the bill is to grant public workers the right to unionize and to collectively bargain over wages, benefits and working conditions. Some public workers, including the majority of Colorado educators, already have this right. But many thousands do not, and that’s why labor leaders seek a statewide policy that lets every public-sector workplace form a union without needing employer recognition, then sets out baseline terms for contract negotiations.
A number of headwinds face the bill, including the fact that lobbyists representing public employers across the state are united in opposition and already threatening lawsuits.
“We’re going to oppose everything,” said Kevin Bommer, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League.
Also, while Democrats have a huge majority in the state House, their 20-15 margin in the Senate means sweeping, progressive policy must always win over the caucus’s more moderate flank — an outcome that is hardly guaranteed in this case. With no Republican support expected, it would take just three Senate Democrats to upend the bill.
But most importantly, many sources told The Post that Gov. Jared Polis, whose signature is needed to turn a bill into law, is not interested in including people who work for cities, school districts or special districts. That alone would lop off the vast majority of the public sector.
“The governor conveyed to me that he is comfortable including county workers and higher (education),” Josette Jaramillo, president of the Colorado AFL-CIO, told The Post.
Several people told The Post that Polis is also loath to grant labor too much power in any provisions of the bill affecting conflict resolution between workers and employers. That means, among other things, that the right to strike is a non-starter. So is binding arbitration.
Even on those terms, a bill covering counties, or counties and higher education faculty both, would still arguably be the most significant pro-labor policy of the governor’s first term. In the context of the much greater ask, it’s but a narrow reform.
Jaramillo spoke of how pained the labor community is by the thought of compromising the bill in the governor’s image.
“The decision means cutting folks out,” she said. “So it’s going to be a tough decision to make for the coalition.”
Lawmakers believe they never could have gotten this far with previous Democratic governors, like John Hickenlooper and Bill Ritter. In Polis, they’ve found more of a labor ally, though far from an unconditional one.
Polis has declined repeatedly to discuss the matter with reporters. He said in January that he could support a “much narrower” bill than what’s been drafted, and has offered nothing since then.
Most labor leaders are a bit more open than he is, but they, too, are generally unwilling to speak publicly about the bill in any detail. As has often been the case on other big, messy policy matters at the Capitol, the parties involved on this bill are working to strike a deal behind the scenes, to avoid a drawn-out public negotiation.
But as Colorado’s legislative session chugs along, now about one-third complete, tensions are rising and pressure to choose a path is mounting.
A bill of this nature will be long and detailed. It will be lobbied relentlessly and it will prompt hours of debate in both chambers. Proponents risk getting nowhere if they wait until late in the 120-day session to take the policy from private meetings and into the committee rooms and chambers of the Capitol.
That’s especially true if they push a bigger bill than works for Polis or moderate Senate Democrats.
One of those moderates, Arvada Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, said, “The advocates of the bill are going to have to make a choice: do we go ahead and make this a messaging bill and ask for what we want and think we deserve, or do we chip it down to what we think we can pass and make some progress?”
Those working on this bill are accustomed to compromising with Polis, a hands-on governor who involves himself closely in legislative affairs, unlike Hickenlooper.
It took two sessions, for instance, for Polis and Democratic lawmakers to agree on a bill granting collective bargaining rights to the state workers union. That bill affected some 30,000 people belonging to a single union, so it is unsurprising that this follow-up, which could touch hundreds of thousands more people, belonging to many hundreds of different workplaces, is even trickier.
The bill has two powerful sponsors: House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar of Pueblo and Senate Majority Leader (soon-to-be Senate President) Steve Fenberg of Boulder. In interviews, both seemed to have accepted that the bill they want to pass isn’t going to happen. Democrats are starting to try to reframe the conversation in the hope that it is not lost on the labor movement, nor on the public at large, that a bill affecting tens of thousands of workers is still a big deal.
“If we’re able to get more rights to more people in Colorado, I’m going to call that a success,” Esgar said.
Added Fenberg, “I want to introduce a bill that can pass. I don’t want to introduce a bill that’s far from reality of what we can get done.”
Fenberg said he’s gotten “no red lines” from Polis, but added, of the governor’s negotiating style, “If he makes a statement on where he is on something, he holds pretty strong. I think he comes to those conclusions with a lot of thought. I don’t think they’re random, off-the-cuff lines in the sand. … I don’t see him just rolling over.”
The labor side has wanted this policy for years, and many in that camp want to introduce the all-inclusive version and invite Polis to a public showdown. The alternative is to take what win is available and hope to build from there in future sessions.
Alex Wolf-Root, an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 7799, said he wants to get the big version out in the open.
“We have to make that push and we have to try, and if Polis decides he’ll be the person to harm our public good and our public workers, at the end of the day we can’t stop that,” he said. “But just because we know he might be willing doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”
Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the state teachers union, met with Polis along with leadership from the National Education Association. She said she didn’t get a “slammed door” from Polis, but added, “Even if there were a slammed door, we’re not willing to accept that.”
A crowd of union members, advocates and Democratic lawmakers rallied on the Capitol steps last week, a show of force outside the legislature and governor’s office. That’s a good move, said Sen. Faith Winter, a progressive Westminster Democrat who is not involved in this bill but who in previous sessions has fought Polis, the lobby and her own caucus’s moderates on paid family and medical leave policies, and on climate action.
“When you’re representing people and ideas that don’t have a lot of money behind them, you have to be more creative on bringing energy into the building,” she said.
The reality, Winter and others noted, is that the usual tactics — rallies, letters and columns in newspapers, social media campaigns — don’t work on Polis.
“To negotiate with the governor, you need to be prepared for very steadfast and passionate opinions that are unlikely to change,” she said.
Asked how to get around that, she said with a laugh, “I don’t think I’ve figured it out.”
Neither has the labor community.
“The coalition is aware of the governor’s position, and time is of the essence,” Jaramillo said. “We have to make a decision. Are we going to pull it? Are we going to move forward without everyone involved, or move forward as is, fully knowing where the governor stands?”
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