Grocery workers blast Ritter veto of bill to reinstate lockout benefits

Calling it “ill-advised and counterproductive” to enact a bill that would restore unemployment benefits to workers locked out during a labor dispute, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter instead wielded his veto pen Tuesday evening and sent the Democratic-sponsored legislation back to the Legislature.

Wasting no time, the union representing grocery workers — involved in ongoing negotiations over a contract set to expire at the end of the month — flayed the governor for “(siding) with corporate interests over working families and an economic recovery” with the veto.

Ritter said in a letter to the Colorado House of Representatives that he was open to “future discussion” on the lockout provisions, but that he was concerned the legislation could “make a negotiated resolution of the grocery store contract more difficult, not less.”

At least some grocery workers aren’t buying it. From a United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 release:

“As someone who voted for Bill Ritter in 2006, and who believed him when he talked about ‘policies that intersect with where people struggle’ in his inaugural address, I’m really disappointed that he hasn’t kept his promises to working people.” said Andrea Karr, a 20-year Safeway employee who works in Englewood and lives in Highlands Ranch. “This was a veto from someone who doesn’t understand people like me, people like me work hard and play by the rules to support our families. The big corporations have the advantage in this fight. They have the money and the power, as the Governor’s veto today showed.”

“Nobody asked workers about timing when Gov. Owens changed the law in 1999,” said Julie Collier, a 30-year King Soopers employee from Westminster. “When is the timing right to help the people who make $10 an hour, not just the people who make $10 million a year?”

Proponents of House Bill 1170 argued it merely restored benefits available for decades to workers locked out by employers. In 1999, a Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law eventually signed by Gov. Bill Owens, also a Republican, that stripped the ability of workers to collect unemployment benefits locked out during a labor dispute. The change came three years after Safeway workers collected benefits during a month-long lockout aimed at pressuring striking King Soopers workers.

In his veto letter, Ritter said the state shouldn’t “interject itself” into contract negotiations, which have been at a standstill over union demands for wage increases and continued pension funding while grocery stores are proposing wage freezes and cuts to pension plans. After describing the looming impasse, Ritter writes:

… In these troubled economic times, I am deeply concerned about the effect a strike or lockout of employees would have on grocery store workers and consumers across the state, and I am concerned that signing this bill into law will make a negotiated resolution of the grocery store contract more difficult, not less. Therefore, under these circumstances, the state should not interject itself into these contract negotiations by enacting House Bill 09-1170 into law.

The merits of this bill, however, are worthy of future discussion and perhaps future legislation. In 1999, the statutory provision that House Bill 09-1170 would repeal and reenact was substantially amended for the first time in twenty-four years, upsetting the longstanding balance governing when locked-out and striking workers were eligible for unemployment benefits. The issue of how best to restore this balance is a debate that we should have. But the debate should be had and legislation crafted outside of the shadow of a major contract negotiation that has the imminent threat of a strike or lockout.

The bill wouldn’t have affected grocery bargaining, a UFCW spokeswoman contended. “It would have taken effect on July 1, 2009, well past the current grocery contracts’ deadline on May 30,” Laura K. Chapin said in a statement.

Comments are closed.