Colorado employees are participating in the largest union campaign in the nation in a push organize 32,000 state workers, according to union officials with a local labor coalition.
In November, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter issued an executive order recognizing state workers’ efforts to form employee organizations that negotiate workplace issues. Last week, Colorado state troopers were the first to formally elect a labor union to participate in bargaining with state, and it appears that at least another agency is on the way to holding a similar election. Rather than out-of-state union agitators, many who are working to organize state workers in Colorado are also state employees.
Michael Bowers says he has worked as a state correctional officer for almost 12 years, and he hasn’t had good experiences with organized labor in the past. When the employee of the state’s Denver Women’s Correctional Facility worked in New York City, he says a labor union at his workplace only cared about membership dues.
“All they wanted was my money, but if you truly have a problem they weren’t going to support you,” he says.
Despite the past, Bowers is now a member and organizer for Colorado WINS, a coalition of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME); the Colorado Association of Public Employees/Service Employees International Union (CAPE/SEIU); and the American Federation of Teachers.
“It gives us what we need — a voice for state wages, benefits and better working conditions,” says Bowers. “The employee organization is the biggest help to all state employees across the state. It’s about how do you make your ends meet, and we’re no different.”
Colorado WINS was formed after Ritter’s executive order to consolidate resources in the push to organize 32,000 state employees, which officials with the labor coalition say is currently the largest union campaign in the nation. Such alliances are relatively new but have been implemented in states like New York, Pennsylvania and California.
Bowers says that he first heard about the possibility of joining a union from colleagues at a training retreat in Canon City before Ritter’s executive order was issued, a mandate which requires 30 percent of the workforce to sign union cards in order to hold an election with the state’s division of labor.
Now the correctional worker is actively working to organize an election to have union representation at the state’s Department of Corrections.
“The whole key is talking with everybody you work with. I talk to everyone in my facility. Everyone I’ve talked to has signed a card,” Bowers says, claiming that around 37 percent of the department’s workers have signed union cards so far.
Workers are not forced to attend any union information meetings at the department, according to Bowers, and such meetings are held during nonworking hours in the evening or at lunch.
Data from the Department of Corrections shows that Colorado’s inmate population has almost tripled in the last decade, and while the inmate population was growing, so was turnover. The percentage of turnover in the department has increased from 8.5 percent in 2003 to 12 percent in 2006, according to reports from the state’s Department of Personnel and Administration. Average annual salaries for state correctional officers have also fallen by approximately 6 percent from 2003 to 2006, according to data from Colorado Department of Labor.
Bowers speaks highly of his profession.
“We go out. We take the oath to protect the community. This is what we do,” he says. “If you want to be safe, you have to have a competitive compensation package. It’s not fair for people to come in and train and go to other departments. We’re training brand new people to go work elsewhere because the compensation package is weak.”
State workers salaries are dependent on the legislature, and when there are other priorities and budget limitations from legislation like the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), salaries can fall by the wayside.
Under the executive order, state workers are prohibited from striking and entering into binding arbitration. Employees are also not required to sign union cards or pay dues.
“Once you start striking, the state no longer sees you as a valuable worker,” Bowers says.
It is not known when an election for the Department of Corrections will take place.