Colorado’s union battle long time in the making

Colorado is now a battlefield over a "right to work" proposal on rules for establishing unions in the state, but the long history of workers’ rights is rooted back in the Great Depression.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, effectively outlawing management from interfering in workers’ attempts to organize a union. The law essentially legalized union activity and offered legal protections for workers who were trying to organize.


Despite many court battles over the law’s multiple provisions, the Supreme Court ultimately upheld the act in 1937 as being constitutional, despite harsh criticisms from employers and their congressional allies that the law would inhibit profits and the struggling economy.


In the early 1940s Arkansas and Florida were the first states to initiate "right to work" laws, which prohibit union shops from requiring nonunion members to join and pay dues or fees.


At the time, unions could negotiate what are called "closed shops," where employer are required to only hire labor union members.


According to data form the federal labor department, Arkansas was the first state to enact a "right to work" constitutional amendment in 1944. Florida soon followed suit with a state law in 1943, and voters in Arizona, Nebraska and South Dakota approved right-to-work amendments in 1946.


Soon after, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, gutting many provisions in Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act and banning "closed shops." That law is still in effect today and it is illegal for a workplace to force employees to join a union.


The right-to-work debate continued after Taft-Hartley however, and labor department data shows that a majority of the more than 20 states under right-to-work laws enacted the legislation in the the late 1940s and 1950s during the height of the nation’s second Red Scare, a period of fear and persecution of communists.


While the right-to-work laws continued to gain prominence in states, there were still some surprises when the issue was put up for a vote.  About 64 percent of Ohio citizens voted to oppose right-to-work in 1958, and in 1958, 50 percent of Idaho voters also defeated a similar measure before they reversed course and became a right-to-work state in 1986.


The most recent right-to-work law to be passed was by Oklahoma in 2001 with a "yes" vote of 54 percent, according to the state’s election records.


More than 60 years since the first right-to-work law, Colorado voters are set to decide on the issue this November, with both labor and business interests filling their war chests with hundreds of thousands of dollars already.


Voters in the state will ultimately decide where Colorado will be placed in right-to-work history.


Tomorrow and Thursday: Check back for a review of Colorado’s top employers.

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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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