OP/ED: Ritter Had No Choice

The veto pen of Gov. Bill Ritter has been unsheathed, and its first use was to strike down a bill favored by the same labor unions and Democrats that supported Ritter’s candidacy just a few months ago. Is Ritter a traitor? A ‘DINO’ (Democrat in Name Only)? You could certainly make a convincing argument blaming Ritter for this, but I would argue differently.

I think Ritter never really had a choice.Now, that doesn’t mean I hold Ritter completely blameless here (more on that in a moment), but Democrats and labor unions dropped a steaming turd on his desk and asked him to make brownies. Ritter had promised to support changes to the Labor Peace Act similar to what House Bill 1072 proposed, but by the time it reached his desk it had become such a complete public relations disaster that it would have done much more harm than good for Ritter’s administration. I don’t entirely blame Ritter for this because Democrats and labor unions had a responsibility to at least make the bill palatable before they gave it to him. Ritter said as much in his letter explaining the veto on Friday:

I recognize how deeply disappointed my friends in organized labor will be with this decision.  I know that members of my own party in the legislature stood firm in the face of outrageous, unprecedented and shameful partisan rhetoric done only for political sport. But I strongly believe that the way we do the people’s business is as important as what we do.  And I am obligated to judge legislation by its consequences, intended and unintended.

Over the last several days, I have listened intently to people I respect who worried deeply about the impact this change would have on our ability to attract new business to Colorado, to create new economic opportunity for all. I am persuaded by their argument that changing long-time Colorado law relating to business and labor negotiations in this manner, in the atmosphere with which it was debated, is not now in the best interests of our state.

The media coverage and the spin on HB-1072 had gotten so bad on the opposition side that Ritter couldn’t have signed the bill without looking like a partisan stooge. The timing of the bill also hurt, because Ritter didn’t want to have to look like he was paying back big labor in his first month in office. Could he have stood up and signed the bill anyway, saying that he was sticking with his friends? Sure, but his friends also shouldn’t have hung him out to dry the way they did.

It should be said that the media did an absolutely shameful job in its lack of balanced coverage on the bill, where they completely swallowed anything that the business lobby and Republican Party Chair Dick Wadhams fed them. But supporters did an equally horrid job with their explanations of why the bill was a good thing. Republicans spun HB-1072 as a bill that would be Armageddon for business, and it worked. Even loyal Democrats that I talked to thought that it seemed like a scary proposition for business; they bought the hype, because the bill’s supporters didn’t know how to promote it correctly. The business lobby, led by the Colorado Assocation of Commerce and Industry (CACI) came out swinging early, deriding the bill as anti-business with claims that the press falsely repeated. As Colorado Media Matters reported:

…several Colorado newspapers again have uncritically repeated some variation of the assertion that HB 1072 would enable “closed shops” in Colorado. “Closed shops” — in which workers are forced to join a union as a condition of employment — are illegal under federal labor law…

…However, as Colorado Media Matters noted, the “closed shop” argument is an outright misrepresentation of the bill. In its overview of U.S. labor and employment law published by the Bureau of National Affairs, the American Bar Association (ABA) noted that closed-shop agreements are illegal under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

These erroneous arguments were continued on conservative radio shows, and the chorus was led by people who also don’t understand the basic premise of the bill. Again, from Colorado Media Matters:

Caldara was discussing the bill with state Rep. Robert E. Witwer (R-Golden), who referenced the Republicans’ February 2 filibuster of HB 1072. In addition to misusing the term “closed shop” during his February 2 show — as he had repeatedly on previous broadcasts — Caldara, joined by Witwer, asserted that the bill “forces people to join unions or lose their jobs.” Witwer also misused the term “closed shop,” asserting that under current law Colorado is “right in the middle of right-to-work and closed shop, which is sort of the opposite extreme, where we’re headin’.” A right-to-work state is one in which “union shop” agreements are prohibited by law. The National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation lists 22 such states.

A “closed shop,” as Colorado Media Matters has reported repeatedly, is a complete misnomer that would not result from the passage of HB-1072. The “right-to-work” designation is a clever title that Republicans dreamed up long ago. When “right-to-work” legislation is passed (it has been defeated in Colorado every time it has been submitted), it effectively kills labor unions. The fact that Witwer really has no idea where the truth lies is a testament to how labor union supporters completely lost the PR battle.

How did this happen? Supporters of HB-1072 lost the spin battle from day one with a basic inability to accurately explain what the bill does. The Rocky Mountain News first wrote about the bill on January 19, and take a look at the two sides of the story. Which one sounds better to you?

Why?

[Rep. Michael] Garcia says it’s “ridiculous” to require a special vote, particularly by a supermajority, for any element of a union contract. Employers already have to treat all workers in a union shop equally, so their payrolls wouldn’t immediately rise when a workplace became all-union. And an employer is never forced to agree to an all-union workplace.

Why not?

The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry says the bill “upends” six decades of careful balance between employers and unions. The second election is the only chance workers get to vote, in secret, solely on the all-union provision, apart from all the other elements of the contract. That’s important because workers can be fired for refusing to join a union in an all-union workplace.

Obviously the second argument is more effective, and Garcia was probably the wrong person to carry it from the beginning. Garcia said this morning on KGNU radio that he would never have carried the bill if he would have known that it would be so contentious, which tells me two things: 1) Garcia really didn’t understand how to defend the bill, and 2) Garcia wasn’t passionate about it anyway.

But it wasn’t all Garcia’s fault, by any means. Even the discussion of the basic crux of the bill was flawed from the beginning. One day after that story ran in the News, the paper had to run a correction because of a factual error:

This story incorrectly said House Bill 1072 would essentially repeal the Colorado Labor Peace Act. The bill would replace part of the law. The article also described an all-union workplace inaccurately as a “closed shop,” in which all workers must become dues-paying, voting members of a union to keep their jobs. That is illegal under federal law. In an “agency shop” or “union shop,” the employees must pay the union for the costs of representation but may refuse to join.

Most of the discussion about HB-1072 leading to a “closed shop” probably originated from this initial error by the News, and the correction wasn’t likely to have been spotted by enough people to matter. Republicans and the business lobby were able to easily convince the public that HB-1072 would severely damage businesses and would force people to join unions, and it wasn’t true. They also made it sound like the bill was a drastic new measure that was now being introduced because Democrats finally had control of the legislature and the governor’s office; the truth of the matter was that this bill has been introduced in the legislature nearly every session for the past decade. It isn’t a new idea.

Supporters of the bill needed more from the likes of Raymond Hogler, a professor of management at Colorado State University who shot down the opposition’s claims in an editorial for The Pueblo Chieftain:

Under HB1072, workers would have several opportunities to voice their desires about an “all-union” agreement. Eliminating the second election does not compel an employer to agree to a union security arrangement.

If either a union or an employer believes that union security is not in their best interest, they simply reject it in the negotiation process. If an all-union agreement is tentatively accepted, the contract is subject to ratification by members of the bargaining unit. If a majority opposes the security provision, they can vote against the agreement.

There are other protections for workers under an “all-union” agreement. The contract provision is in effect only for the duration of the negotiated contract, which is usually three years. During that time, workers have the right under the federal National Labor Relations Act to rescind the “all-union” agreement by filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB will conduct an election to invalidate the security provision.

No economic downturn will occur because of HB1072, as the experience of most other states makes clear. Workers will continue to have all the rights available to them under federal law, including the right to vote for or against unionization in a secret ballot election.

The opposition claims were easy to refute, but Democrats and labor unions did a terrible job of getting their message out. They also never had a coherent quick soundbyte about HB-1072, as you can tell from Rep. Garcia’s rambling explanation in the Rocky Mountain News. The basic discussion around HB-1072 should have been simple: It is fundamentally unfair to require two separate elections to create a new union when every other organization in America only needs one election. Or, as Hogler stated in his editorial:

HB1072 is important because majority rule is the bedrock of American democracy. We routinely vote on matters of fiscal consequence to us, such as financing new roads, schools and other public institutions, and the minority cannot choose to opt out of the majority’s decision.

While Republicans filibustered and blustered on about the dangers of HB-1072, Democrats basically responded with this: “Nuh, uh.” Even Ritter was quoted by the press saying that HB-1072 wasn’t as big of a deal as opponents claimed, but that’s not good enough when you’re trying to hold off a PR onslaught that saw negative editorials from nearly every newspaper in the state.
The negative press about HB-1072 was out of control from the beginning, and supporters were never able to even out the discussion. They owed it to Ritter to at least make the bill palatable, but Ritter also should have done a better job of explaining why the issue wasn’t as big of a deal when it was his turn to speak about it. And while the timing of the bill was bad for Ritter, he certainly could have asked Democratic leaders to postpone discussion on it for a few months.

It’s easy to say that Ritter caved into political pressure rather than showing some backbone when he vetoed HB-1072, but it’s not fair to ignore the political reality of the situation. Supporters of HB-1072 didn’t give Ritter any political cover, and when the media came down hard against the bill, Ritter risked losing the perception that he was a business-friendly moderate Democrat

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Jason Bane

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