Over a year has passed since the Colorado AFL-CIO, a prominent federation of labor unions in the state, went though a major shakeup that ended in the sacking of both the president and secretary-treasurer of the organization along with the subsequent hiring of former state legislator Mike Cerbo as the federation’s executive director. Cerbo, a Denver Democrat and former chairman of the House Majority Caucus, recently sat down with the Colorado Independent to discuss the role of labor unions in Colorado amid the state’s changing political landscape and upcoming Democratic National Convention.
CI: Just for a little background, how did you land the job as executive director of the state’s AFL-CIO?
Cerbo: Well, an interesting opportunity came up. I applied for it and took it. Before I was in the Legislature I was the business manager for a hotel restaurant workers union for 24 years, so I’ve been very active in the labor movement and working family issues for years.
CI: For the first time since the Kennedy administration, Democrats hold a majority in the state House and Senate, not to mention the governor’s office. How has this affected the way labor unions operate in Colorado?
Cerbo: Having a Democratic majority … means we have people we can talk to and work on our issues with us, rather than having people at the Capitol that are opposed to us and not willing to listen to us on our issues. That’s a real general comparison but that’s the best way I know how to spout it out. People are electing people that listen to them.
CI: Since the announcement that the Democratic National Convention would be coming to Denver in August, the city has seen the unionization of its first hotel at the Hyatt Regency near the Convention Center after more than a year of contract negotiations. Does the convention present any opportunities for labor unions?
Cerbo: I think it’s an opportunity for working families along with other constituent groups in the Democratic Party to be on a national stage and show their meaning and purpose in society.
CI: How are they going to do that?
Cerbo: Well, TV’s rolling for so many hours a day. There’s going to be plenty of opportunity. It’s a convention. There’s people coming from all around the country, like-minded folks in the Democratic Party to talk, to discuss, to display what you stand for, what you’re working towards and how you bring positive change to a community.
CI: Let’s go back to House Bill 1072, one of the definitive battles between labor and business interests at the state Capitol during the 2007 session. The legislation would have made it easier for unions to organize workplaces by only requiring one employee supermajority election to ratify a job shop, rather than two. Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter later vetoed the legislation, much to the dismay of union supporters. During the battle, business interests were at the Capitol on a regular basis, but there didn’t seem to be any strong showing from labor groups on the ground. In fact, there still doesn’t seem to be a strong union voice at the Capitol. What do you think?
Cerbo: When I served in the Legislature I saw an overwhelming presence of elements of the business community down there. A lot of it comes down to resources, and it’s something we’re working on, increasing labor presence down there. It goes back to activity in the political process altogether. It’s money. Workers are far outspent by businesses, and I’m saying that very generally about the process. You know I’m flattered when I hear about "labor raises all this money" and "labor taking control of the Capitol" and all, but the business interests are well entrenched down there and in the political process.
CI: So you think the odds are stacked against labor unions at the state Capitol?
Cerbo: I don’t think the odds are stacked against us. I think we communicate our message, and we have a legislative person down there who lobbies, of course. So I wouldn’t say the odds are stacked against us, but I would say the money interests and the business interests are definitely well represented down there.
CI: Recently the state has seen Amendment 47 put on the 2008 ballot, a so-called “right-to-work” initiative that would ban contract agreements between labor unions and an employer that require employees at a unionized workplace to at least pay agency fees for incurred collective bargaining costs if they choose not to pay union dues. How will this legislation affect unions in Colorado if it’s passed?
Cerbo: They way I look at it is, something like this Amendment 47, the purpose is to divide workers. That’s one of the purposes. Naturally when you go to the bargaining table you want workers united, so that’s probably one piece of their agenda. It’s always costly to negotiate labor agreements, and the longer things drag out the more costly it gets.