State workers overwhelmingly approve employee partnerships

Five occupational groups of state employees voted resoundingly to join a union on Wednesday, after months of organizing for what has been called the largest union membership campaign in the country.

More than 6,000 eligible state workers cast mail-in ballots to decide weather to join Colorado WINS, a labor coalition composed 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.

On Wednesday the ballot results for each occupational group were counted by hand through an independent mediator called the American Arbitration Association, while state officials and union supporters observed the proceedings. Each classified group of workers voted to join Colorado WINS, with at least three groups saying "yes" with more than 80 percent of the vote.

Approximately 30 percent of the more than 22,500 eligible workers that could vote participated in the mail-in ballot, but such a turnout figure is normal for union elections, according to Jeff Zaino, a spokesman for the association.

In November, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter issued an executive order recognizing state workers’ efforts to form employee partnership organizations like unions that negotiate workplace issues, although the groups are not legally allowed to strike or to enter into binding arbitration, according to the order.

Ritter’s order also bars unions in state government from creating bargaining agreements where workers are required to pay agency fees or dues as a condition of employment.

Colorado WINS is now more than half way to representing Colorado’s 32,000 state employees with the newest addition of 22,500.

Sandra Maes, an organizer in the campaign who has been working as a custodian for the state for 12 years, was happy to see the results because she said wages are not enough.

“There’s some of us who are going homeless because we can’t keep up with all of our bills,” she said.

After nine years of working as an administrative assistant for the state, Karen Esau said she has had enough of trying to negotiate with management about issues like pay. Instead, she started organizing her co-workers to join Colorado WINS.

“There’s no training. [The state] throws you into jobs and you either sink or swim," Esau said. "There’s some training, but it’s definitely not adequate.”

While Colorado WINS has tasted its first success with the latest results, the union coalition is still looking to organize more than 10,000 state workers who have not yet voted.

“We think that the immediate future is that there are other employees that haven’t had the opportunity to vote yet, so we’re anxious to just to do that,” said Bob Lawson, executive director of Colorado WINS.

Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer did not return a request for comment about the election results.

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

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