Unions, Businesses Are Top Donors In ‘Right-to-Work’ Campaign

The war over rules for establishing unions in Colorado workplaces is being funded by unions and corporations rather than by individual donors, recent financial reports show.State and national labor unions have contributed more than $1.5 million in only two months to defeat a so-called “right-to-work” ballot initiative that would prohibit union shops from requiring nonunion members to join and pay dues or fees and to support two counterproposals that would make corporate executives liable for any fraud that happens in their companies and make employers give a reason when workers are fired.

All three measures are slated for Colorado’s November election, but at this time only right-to-work has gained the required petition signatures to make the ballot.

Right-to-work supporters have given more than $489,000, according to state records.

Under the right-to-work proposal, collective bargaining rights for labor would be weakened by making it illegal for unions to negotiate with businesses for workplaces with required dues or fees. Companies in Colorado would not have to accept such union shops if the measure passes.

Two issue committees, the Colorado Right-To-Work Committee and A Better Colorado, have been registered to campaign for the initiative.

Supporters of the right-to-work initiative have spent $489,440 via two 501(c)4 nonprofit organizations called Colorado Citizens for Change and Protect Colorado Jobs.

Under federal law, 501(c)4 nonprofits can put an unlimited amount of resources into lobbying and can be involved with political campaign activities. Such organizations are not required to disclose funding sources and may also contribute money to political campaigns, making it difficult to determine which person or persons are actually behind the contributions.

Although it is rare in Colorado to see initiative campaigns funded predominantly by nonprofit organizations, a few campaigns have done so in the past.

An issue committee called the Colorado Club for Growth — the local affiliate of the National Club for Growth, an anti-tax organization — created its own nonprofit that spent more than $2.1 million on a campaign against Referendums C & D, two budget proposals on the state ballot in 2005.

According to financial reports filed with the secretary of state’s office, the Colorado Right-To-Work issue committee spent more than $284,000 to collect signatures to put the proposal on the ballot, with all of the money coming from Protect Colorado Jobs.

When asked about the committee’s contributions and expenditures, John Berry, an attorney and registered agent for both the Colorado Right-To-Work organization and the nonprofit that contributed to the committee, said he could only refer the media to the secretary of state’s disclosure reports for information about funding.

According to the Denver Post, which cites an unidentified source, backers of Berry’s nonprofit organization include hospital chain HealthOne and American Furniture Warehouse, although records on file with the secretary of state do not confirm the information at this time.

A Better Colorado has also accepted money from a 501(c)4 called Colorado Citizens for Change, which was shown by secretary of state reports to have given $200,000 to the campaign. The only other contribution was a $250 individual gift.

After the financial disclosures were filed earlier in the month, CoorsTek government relations director Jonathan Coors stated that the $200,000 was contributed by his company through Colorado Citizens for Change. CoorsTek is a materials manufacturer and spin-off of the Coors brewing company, and Jonathan Coors is a descendant of the brewing family.

Opponents of right-to-work have criticized both committees regarding the nonprofit funding.

Jess Knox, executive director of Protect Colorado’s Future, a labor-backed issue committee registered to oppose right-to-work and to campaign for the two countermeasures, likened the contributions to a “shell game.”

“I can only speculate that this is an effort to hide information from Colorado voters,” Knox said, speculating that “special interests” behind the measure are trying to hide their role in the campaign.

Kelley Harp, spokesman for A Better Colorado, said he could not speak officially for Colorado Citizens for Change but did note that A Better Colorado anticipates having a wider diversity in contributors, not just of the nonprofit variety.

“We’re confident that we will raise enough funds to run an effective and winning campaign,” Harp said.

Harp also charged that the more than $1 million contributed to Protect Colorado’s Future from labor unions was an “injustice” because the money “was taken from [union] members’ paychecks.”

Secretary of state records show that more than 99 percent of funding for Protect Colorado’s Future came from labor unions, although the issue committee is quick to point out that more than 300 Coloradans contributed small amounts to the group.

At least $1.1 million of the total $1.5 million raised so far came from out-of-state union groups such as the national AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union.

“All of the unions that contributed have membership in Colorado,” said Knox, who also confirmed that his group will not consider using nonprofits as a proxy for funds. “We’re certainly willing to be judged and have questions asked. That’s what this process is about.”

Knox’s committee has also filed a complaint with the secretary of state’s office alleging that petition signatures for the right-to-work initiative were collected illegally, an accusation supporters deny.

Harp says his committee plans to focus on voter outreach and education efforts now that right-to-work has made the ballot, while Knox said that petition forms for the corporate fraud and employee firing proposals will begin circulating this week.

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About the Author

Erin Rosa

Erin Rosa was born in Spain and raised in Colorado Springs. She is a freelance writer currently living in Denver. Rosa's work has been featured in a variety of news outlets including the Huffington Post, Democracy Now!, and the Rocky Mountain Chronicle, an alternative-weekly in Northern Colorado where she worked as a columnist covering the state legislature.

Rosa has received awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for her reporting on lobbying and woman's health issues. She was also tapped with a rare honorable mention award by the Newspaper Guild-CWA's David S. Barr Award in 2008--only the second such honor conferred in its nine-year history--for her investigative series covering the federal government's Supermax prison in the state.

Rosa covers the labor community, corrections, immigration and government transparency matters.

She can be reached at erosa@coloradoindependent.com.

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