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Nicolais: Have unions gotten their mojo back in Colorado?

Fueled by economic conditions and led by the Denver teachers’ strike, unions could be poised to reverse decades of decline with a King Soopers strike looming

Following the lead of Denver Public School teachers in February, union employees at King Soopers voted to strike last week after negotiations with the grocer collapsed. The back-to-back, high-profile votes — and the subsequent teacher strike — beg the question of whether, after years in decline, Colorado unions have begun to get their mojo back.

It’s no secret that union power has been ebbing since one in three Americans were members in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

A variety of reasons have led to the steady and drastic decline to one member out of 10 American workers: outsourced manufacturing jobs, changing career paths that no longer see workers stick with one company, right-to-work statutes, technological advances, and leadership corruption represent just a few of the forces that have withered collective bargaining groups over the past half-century.

Mario Nicolais

Recently, Colorado has bucked that downward trend, if only slightly. But the economic climate in the state may be slowly, imperceptibly tilling the soil for the rejuvenation of union power.

While unemployment numbers have dropped precipitously over the past 10 years to near record lows, it isn’t exactly a rosy outlook for many of the employed. Stagnant wage-growth numbers mean that the gap between income from those jobs and costs of living keep shrinking. That’s particularly true for workers struggling to cope with rapidly increasing healthcare and housing costs in Colorado. Often, it means choosing between one or the other.

Those concerns were on full display during the Denver teacher strike. According to some reports at the time, 40 percent to 50 percent of teachers’ salaries went to mortgages or rent. In rural Colorado, the effects can be even more dire where at least one teacher has resorted to living in a fifth-wheel camper to make ends meet.

That confluence of factors could potentially be a perverse blessing for unions. The more pressure on worker paychecks, the more likely they may be to turn to unions for protection.

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Agree or not with the ability of unions to deliver, but when workers have limited options and feel powerless in their own jobs, the siren song of a union rep carrying a membership card can become awfully seductive.

Of course, there is no more visible action, nor a better membership drive, a union can undertake than a well-orchestrated strike. The more press coverage the better. And nobody has made a bigger impact than teachers over the past year, with major strikes in Los Angeles, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, and, of course, Denver.  

That shouldn’t come as a surprise. First, the membership rate for public-sector unions is five times that of private-sector unions. Second, while an economy dominated by manufacturing jobs fueled the rise of the Teamsters almost a century ago, the strongest union in an information age economy naturally belongs to teachers. That doesn’t exactly make them Jimmy Hoffa, but it certainly increases their bargaining power and influence.

The real question is whether other unions will be able to follow suit. In Colorado, the first to try will be the food workers’ union as they take on King Soopers parent company Kroger — ironically, the same company Hoffa began his career organizing against.

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To be clear, I’m not debating the merit, or lack thereof, to union membership. I’ve always been personally skeptical while my wife is a card-carrying member of a teachers’ union. I’m not sure if she would cross a picket-line, but I wouldn’t be shocked if our household saw more grocery bags from Safeway and Sprouts in a few weeks.

Regardless, to ignore the potential rejuvenation of a former political powerhouse would be folly. If unions begin to reverse course and draw more members, they may find renewed influence at the state Capitol, particularly with Democrats — traditional, if unreliable allies — controlling both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office.

For better or worse, Colorado unions appear to be faced with an opportunity to reverse decades of steady decline. What they do with it may have long-lasting repercussions on our state and economy for years to come.


Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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