Labor pushing changes in Colorado |

Labor pushing changes in Colorado

Jessica Fender
The Denver Post
Denver, CO Colorado

DENVER, Colorado “-Emboldened by Democratic control of the Capitol, labor interests this year are pushing for sweeping legislative changes and trying to regain ground lost during GOP-controlled eras.

Police and firefighters throughout Colorado may be able to unionize. State contractors may have to pay higher wages. And employers could be punished financially for locking out union employees.

Critics call the bills ” two of which will be heard today ” political payback for union campaign contributions and say the proposals will raise the cost of doing business in Colorado.

Supporters such as Rep. Ed Casso say it’s about time Democrats begin looking out for working-class families, and strengthening unions is one way of doing that. “There are even some people on our side who say it’s the wrong time, but when is the right time?” said Casso, D-Denver. “We’ve had the majority now for three years.”

He pointed out that the bills “do not strike at the health of small businesses.”

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The legislation comes as lawmakers deal with a $1 billion budget shortfall over the next 15 months.

State government should lessen burdens on businesses, not encourage unionization, said Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma.

“Now is the time to relieve businesses,” he said. “It’s not the time to sign checks over to union bosses.”

Labor has been a major issue since Democrats first won majorities in both chambers and the governor’s office.

In his first year in office, Gov. Bill Ritter extended some unionization rights to state employees through a controversial executive order. And a battle between business and labor over a series of ballot initiatives ate up much of 2008.

Patrick Scully, a longtime labor lawyer who has represented both sides, said that in the past few years, he’s seen more bills dealing directly with labor laws as well as union-supported legislation to help industries being organized.

The two bills up for consideration today would represent sea changes in state law, and a third could directly affect negotiations between grocery stores and their workers that begin in May, said Scully, who now represents management interests.

Firefighters and police departments can’t unionize unless local county or city voters say they can.

Denver police and seven other departments in Colorado already have collective-bargaining rights, as do many more fire departments throughout the state, said Carole Charles, general manager for the Colorado Police Protective Association.

The professional organization has not taken a position on Senate Bill 180, which would compel local governments to recognize unions. It also would give those unions the right to negotiate salary and terms of employment and require arbitration in some cases.

Opponents “would say it’s a local issue and needs to stay at the local level,” Charles said. Proponents would argue “it’s a very expensive process to get the city to put it on the ballot.”

The second bill, by Rep. John Soper, D-Thornton, would require state contractors and their subcontractors to pay workers a prevailing wage, much in the way federal contractor pay is handled through the Davis-Bacon Act. The higher wages are calculated as the average of salaries paid in the area and are largely influenced by unions, Soper said.

His proposal is key to rebuilding the middle class and protecting workers in an economic downturn, Soper said. “When we had a healthy middle class, we had a healthy economy.”

A third proposal, House Bill 1170, would ensure that union workers in negotiations with multiple companies ” such as grocery employees bargaining with several chains at once ” receive unemployment insurance if one chain locks them out. Because employers pay those benefits, the bill would provide a financial disincentive for stores to refuse to let their employees work.

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