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Gov. Jared Polis elbow bumps House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, after being introduced by Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, ahead of delivering his 2021 State of the State address on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The Colorado branch of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions, will not donate to Democratic legislative campaign committees until at least May 2022 in protest of what the organization sees as the party’s exclusion of labor interests from state policy discussions. 

“We have … been excluded from caucus discussions about policy creation in favor of bringing business and opposition groups to the table, disregarded as allies and relegated to afterthoughts,” Dennis Dougherty, the Colorado AFL-CIO’s executive director, wrote in a letter to labor leaders that was obtained by The Colorado Sun. “Working people are the heart and soul of the economy and the key to a well-functioning society and should be the first group to be consulted as we repair the past, recover from the pandemic and build back stronger.”

Dougherty wrote that the Colorado AFL-CIO’s executive board decided that the organization “shall not contribute to the Colorado Democratic Party through the House Majority Project, Democratic Senate Campaign Fund, Pre-Legislative session events, the Colorado Democratic annual event/dinner in April, or any other channels/events until at least mid-May 2022.”

“Additionally, the executive board voted to urge affiliates to stand in solidarity and withhold contributions to the Colorado Democratic Party until mid-May 2022,” the letter said. 

Unions have long been a key constituency of Colorado Democrats and the AFL-CIO and its affiliated groups have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to state campaign committees, candidates and causes in Colorado over the years. 

The letter comes against the backdrop of Republicans across the U.S. trying to brand themselves as the party of the working class and Democrats as the party of the elites. Dougherty did not suggest support for the GOP in his note, however. 

“There is too much at stake for Colorado’s union members and working families for us to be excluded from policy discussions … and for us to be an afterthought during the creation and introduction of legislation that affects our members,” Dougherty wrote. “We need the Colorado Democratic party to treat us like authentic partners.”

The letter notably does not mention giving to individual candidates by the Colorado AFL-CIO or its affiliates, and the mid-May 2022 prohibition on donations still leaves time for the organization to contribute to the campaign committees ahead of Colorado’s 2022 primaries and general election. 

Dougherty’s letter did not mention specific grievances. In a statement to The Sun, he said: “Labor and worker voices need to be brought to the table first for important policy and legislative discussions and not be an afterthought.”

Dennis Dougherty

Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Democrat from Pueblo, a city with strong union ties, said he was surprised — even “taken aback” — by the letter.

“I take this very seriously,” Garcia said. “We as Senate Democrats strive to make sure we are accessible to everyone.”

Garcia said that he thinks the letter does not represent how all labor unions in Colorado feel about Democrats in the legislature. He said he spoke with representatives from the state employees’ union and the firefighters’ union who said they were grateful for policies passed by Democrats at the Capitol in recent years.

“If there’s areas of improvement I’m willing to talk to anyone about how we can increase collaboration,” he said. 

House Speaker Alec Garnett said in a written statement that he was “surprised to hear about this letter for the first time through the press,” but he nevertheless remains committed to his open-door policy regarding the legislative stakeholder process.

“We value the strong partnership — forged through shared values and dedication to workers — that our members have with our brothers and sisters in the Colorado labor movement,” Garnett, a Denver Democrat, said. “This partnership led to a historic session for labor and nation-leading legislation to promote a just transition for workers and communities moving away from coal-based economies.”

Garnett also highlights measures passed at the Capitol this year expanding rights for agricultural workers, creating a state apprenticeship agency and making “historic investment in Colorado workforce initiatives.”

Morgan Carroll, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party, also expressed support for unions when asked about the letter.

“Supporting workers and the right to collectively bargain for living wages, safe working conditions and better benefits is a fundamental belief of the Colorado Democratic Party,” Carroll said in a written statement. “Unions are essential for a healthy economy and good quality of life. We will always stand in solidarity with our union brothers and sisters.”

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....