Facts Belie Significance Of State Labor Order

    In the political battle sparked by Gov. Bill Ritter’s executive order recognizing collective bargaining power for state employees, the facts don’t match the controversy. When The Denver Post, one of the state’s leading dailies, published a front-page editorial on Sunday, Nov. 4, criticizing the governor’s mandate to recognize state employee unions, and comparing Ritter to notorious labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, it was regarding an issue that has already been widely accepted in a majority of states and an issue that will directly affect a small percentage of Colorado’s workforce.

    That’s according to information released from state and federal agencies regarding state employees and collective bargaining contracts.

    U.S. Census Bureau figures from March 2006, the most recent time period available, show that there were a total of 67,451 full-time state employees in Colorado, with the majority working in higher education. Numbers from the Colorado Department of Labor report that the state had a workforce composed of 2,622,476 individuals in September 2007.

    The governor’s executive order, which applies only to state employees, would at most directly affect approximately 3 percent of the state workforce, based on the current information. If employees did decide to unionize, they would be barred from striking and seeking binding arbitration, which means employees would not be able to bring grievances before an independent arbitrator with decisions that the state would have to abide by. The governor and state officials are to “retain final decision-making authority on all matters” with discussions that will be held on a voluntary basis only, according to the executive order.

    As for state employees who do not wish to join a union, they will not be forced to do so. That is illegal under federal law, and any union that does successfully organize state employees in Colorado will be required to operate in a “right-to-work” environment, not unlike the Denver Newspaper Guild’s agreement with The Denver Post, in which employees have the choice not to pay agency fees or dues to a union despite the fact that the union contract covers all applicable workers.

    An additional factor is that 27 states already recognize the collective bargaining of state workers and have working agreements with their employees, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Locations include California, Florida, Nebraska, Hawaii, Alaska, and all of New England. Notable cities such as Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago also have similar agreements, along with thousands of other municipalities throughout the country.

    States with collective bargaining agreements shown in red.

    In September, The Rocky Mountain News revealed documents from the state’s House Minority Office advising GOP representatives to use labor unions as a negative for political purposes. An example would be Talking Point No. 2 in one of the memos: “”Don’t forget the property tax hike and union bosses.'” 

    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@www.coloradoindependent.com.