At Day’s End Ritter’s Union Order Looks Like Much Ado About Nothing

A long time ago I served as a negotiator for a union that had a no-strike clause and no binding arbitration. Here’s how much power we had:


Predictions of greater labor muscle based on Gov. Bill Ritter’s recent executive order allowing state workers to join no-strike, no-arbitration unions strike me as a joke.The people invoking images of “labor bosses” peddle paranoia. But union officials who think they will suddenly be able to sign up tens of thousands of new dues-paying members may be equally deluded.

A week has passed since the Democratic governor issued his order. Charges have flown from Republican rivals. No one has yet signed up for a union, said Ritter’s press secretary Evan Dreyer.

Sure, it’s early in the process. But this process will always have more to do with politics than economics.

Unions depend on two things to succeed, said University of Colorado professor Jeff Zax, an expert in public sector unions. “Can they enforce the agreements they make and can they get the workers to support them?”

Having read Ritter’s executive order, Zax is betting no on both counts.

The “duty to bargain” on the part of management is unclear, Zax said. The state may have to talk to workers’ representatives. But that’s about all. Whatever management agrees to “can’t interfere with budgeting procedures.” The governor can nix any agreement negotiators make, he added. “There is no recourse to court and no binding arbitration.”

Furthermore, there is no way to compel workers to pay union dues. So what you have is “nearly as bad as a right to work law,” Zax said. That means plenty of “free riders” taking advantage of collective bargaining without paying for it. “There is a very meager opportunity for unions to get paid for what they’re doing.”

Even guys like Metro State College Business School Dean John Cochran, who thinks the union order is bad for business, predict very little short-term financial fallout. “The overall impact is relatively limited for both sides,” he explained. “It was as easy a move as (Ritter) could make to provide a dog biscuit to labor, not a whole meal.” The fact that Ritter’s business supporters felt like they got a “bite in the back” is more symbolic than economic, he added.

The short-term damage to Ritter will not come from taxpayers picking up the tab for higher wages and better benefits for state workers based on union negotiations. The damage comes from splintering the business-labor coalition that got the governor elected in the first place. He will need that coalition to push through a 2008 ballot measure to pay for such things as health care reform, higher education and transportation.

“He promised everything to everybody,” Cochran said.

Not quite.

What Ritter didn’t promise to employees who choose to pay dues for union representation is a way to compel any action on the part of the government. Without the right to strike or to have binding arbitration of disagreements, the state continues to call the shots. The bottom line in any impasse is take it or leave it.

Sure, the union can throw up informational picket lines. I did that when I represented a local chapter of the Newspaper Guild. We demonstrated every day at lunch for weeks. We held neat signs and chanted cool slogans. Nothing happened.

Eventually, after I left, management unilaterally refused to renew the union contract.

That gets us back to politics.

The union question may not play as prominently in any new revenue initiative as Ritter’s opponents hope.

Republican oil man Bruce Benson is mad with Ritter for badmouthing Benson’s pal and Ritter’s predecessor, Bill Owens, in explaining why the union order was needed. Benson is nobody’s idea of a “toady” for union leaders, as the Denver Post described the governor in a front-page editorial. Benson almost certainly won’t be voting for Democrats in 2008 or for Ritter if Ritter stands for reelection in 2010.

But Benson, who teamed with Owens and Democrats to pass a temporary suspension of tax restrictions in 2005, is pragmatic and possibly representative of the business community when he talks about new money measures. He just helped Denver’s Democratic Mayor John Hickenlooper pass a tax increase and $550 million in new bonds.

Benson doesn’t care about unions as much as he cares about finding workable solutions for Colorado’s financial problems.

That’s how he will look at whatever revenue initiative the governor puts on the 2008 ballot. “It’s going to depend on what (Ritter) comes up with,” Benson said. “It’s not going to have to do with what he does with labor. If I think it is good public policy, I’ll support it. If not, I’ll walk away.”

The Republicans think Ritter has delivered them an issue that, along with a freeze on lowering property tax rates in certain school districts, gives them a tax-and-spend liberal label for the Democratic governor.

The governor relies on his overwhelming popularity and his reputation as a moderate consensus builder to convince folks that in recognizing unions and proposing a new revenue source (did I miss this? what revenue source?) he’s doing what must be done to build a better state.

That, said Cochran, is why you hear Ritter talk about a “moral budget.”

The framing of both arguments will determine Ritter’s success in the balance of his first term.

Meanwhile, Cochran noted a principle of politics that could rule even though the union recognition piece has about as much bite as a paper tiger.

“Change is OK with people,” the professor said, “as long as the tax burden goes on someone else.”

On the other hand, countered Zax, this “brouhaha is stupid.”

“All I’ve heard on both sides,” he said, “are expression of faith, rather than reason.”