Colorado Democrats to introduce “monumental” labor bill after significantly narrowing it

After threatening its introduction for months, Colorado Democrats are finally ready to debut what would arguably be the most significant pro-labor legislation in this state in years.

The bill would grant roughly 40,000 county government employees the right to unionize — without first needing permission from employers — and to collectively bargain over pay, benefits and working conditions.

It’s the product of a lengthy process that began with Democratic lawmakers and labor advocates saying they’d work to get these rights to all 250,000-plus workers in Colorado’s public sector, who generally do not enjoy the same union rights of those in the private sector. Facing opposition from Democratic Gov. Jared Polis — who since January has refused to speak to the press in any detail on this topic — the bill concept was narrowed to include only county and higher education workers, with K-12, city and special district workers cut out.

Disagreements among labor leaders in the higher education space in recent weeks led the bill to be narrowed further, now to include only county workers. Some in labor may actively oppose the bill on the grounds that it is actively harmful to the cause of worker empowerment.

House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat, said the bill is still “monumental.”

“To say that we whittled it down — I think folks really need to understand that this is huge,” said Esgar, a lead sponsor of the bill. “This bill is going to more than double the amount of public employees who are able to represent themselves in a union. … We felt like that was a big enough deal to keep moving forward.”

The bill’s other lead sponsor, Senate President Steve Fenberg said they were “stuck between many different interests and demands,” which is why their bill is limited to county workers. He and Esgar both said they believe every worker deserves a union if they want one.

This legislation will not create any new unions. Rather, it establishes a right for county workers to unionize, and sets out terms for how those people should negotiate contracts with employers.

Crucially, those terms don’t include the right to strike, nor require binding arbitration as a way to settle contract disputes. Some in labor felt like those concessions went too far. Alex Wolf-Root, an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 7799, was among many in higher education who saw the concessions as a poison pill — which is why higher education ultimately came out of the bill.

“Prohibitions on strikes, slowdowns and other concerted actions that could impact the workplace largely undermine any leverage workers have at the workplace and at the negotiating table, and this is even more significant when there is then no binding arbitration,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “It’s good that such significant worker suppression conditions will not apply to higher ed workers.”

Esgar, Fenberg and other labor leaders reject suggestions that the bill could be a step backward for laborers in any sense.

“We need to move forward with the county employee piece,” Esgar said.

Lawmakers have until May 11, the scheduled final day of this year’s legislative session, to pass this bill. The Senate majority leader, Commerce City Democrat Dominick Moreno, has called it “must-pass” legislation. Republicans in both chambers of the legislature say that while they don’t have the votes to kill the bill, they plan to fight it as ferociously as any bill pending in these final couple of weeks of the session.

Last week a group of county commissioners, mostly Republican and mostly from rural areas, held a press conference at the Capitol to argue that the bill is not necessary. County workplaces are like families, they said, adding the law would not be prudent because higher-paid workers — a typical upshot of a unionized workplace — means less budget money for necessary services. The commissioners also argued the measure was not appropriate because counties can govern themselves without state influence.

The Democrats backing the bill counter that nothing within it requires county executives to pay workers more. It leaves counties with the right to “establish and oversee budget, finances, and accounting.”

The county commissioners aren’t a monolith, either.

Said Democrat Andy Kerr, a Jefferson County commissioner and former state lawmaker. “The ridiculous, inflated numbers being thrown around by those opposed to our hardworking county employees’ rights have been manufactured by the anti-union industry.”

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