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Colorado state representatives stand for a morning prayer as the 2022 legislative session opened Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in the state Capitol in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

A bill that would grant more public employees in Colorado the right to unionize is shaping up to be the next big labor fight at the state Capitol.

The proposal, which will be sponsored by House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat, would allow people working for cities, counties, schools, public hospitals and other local government entities the right to collectively bargain. 

It would be a major expansion of labor rights for those workers, who can currently form unions but don’t have negotiating power over their work conditions, unless they are recognized by voters or the organization they work for.

“We want to make sure it doesn’t matter where you live, you have the right to bargain,” Esgar said. 

Demonstrators listen as essential worker and caretaker Charmayne Phillips speaks at a rally on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, at the Colorado Capitol. Speakers advocated safe working conditions and living wages for essential workers through the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. WINS, a union of over 31,000 state employees, represents nine district chapters in Colorado. The state’s minimum wage remains $12.32. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Although the measure has not been introduced and many details are still in flux, labor groups say it’s the last major piece in their long effort to expand collective bargaining for workers in Colorado. In 2020, Democratic lawmakers passed a measure allowing the union for nearly 28,000 state workers to collectively bargain. Labor advocates had another win last year when they passed a contentious law granting agricultural workers minimum wage, collective bargaining and other protections. 

“This is the unfinished business of making sure all Coloradans have the freedom to join a union,” said Dennis Dougherty, executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO. 

This year’s effort has garnered early opposition from conservatives and public sector groups, including the Colorado Municipal League, a powerful advocacy organization representing cities and towns that argues the measure would unconstitutionally infringe on local control. 

“Local governments and their voters are fully equipped to be able to have the conversation locally and determine what’s appropriate,” said Kevin Bommer, the group’s executive director.

The conservative dark money nonprofit Advance Colorado Action says it will spend six figures on a direct mail and digital ad campaign against the measure, Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic lawmakers. And Advance Colorado Institute, an affiliated nonprofit, says it will sue to overturn the proposal if it becomes law. 

State Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, argues that without limits on strikes, the measure would give public employees far too much power. 

“It’s an extraordinary, unimaginable piece of leverage being handed to public employees,” Gardner said. 

Gov. Jared Polis walks back to his office after delivering the state of the state address at the Colorado State Capitol Building on Jan. 13. (AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post)

There’s another big hurdle for proponents of the bill: getting the governor’s approval. Polis doesn’t support the bill “in its current form,” spokesman Conor Cahill said, though he did not cite any specific part of the bill. 

“The governor was proud to sign legislation that provides the state workforce collective bargaining while striking a balance between collective bargaining and elected representation,” Cahill said in a statement. “The door is open to a much narrower legislation to expand collective bargaining and the governor hopes the advocates engage local governments more earlier in this process.”

A major expansion of the right to unionize

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted how essential public workers are to society, said Esgar. And while there are already laws that give most private sector workers the right to organize and force their employers to the bargaining table, Coloradans working for local government, schools and public hospitals and universities don’t have that ability. 

“Many everyday public heroes who take care of our kids, clear off roads and respond to emergencies, they don’t have collective bargaining rights,” Esgar said. “(This bill) gives us a huge opportunity to level that playing field and create equity and fairness for working families across the state.” 

A number of local public workers have tried unsuccessfully in recent years to unionize under current law. 

Last year, nurses and other workers at UCHealth and Denver Health tried to form a union, but their efforts weren’t recognized by their employers. 

In Colorado Springs, voters turned down a 2019 ballot measure that would have amended the city’s charter to allow local firefighters to form a union. 

Colorado Springs’ City Hall is seen on Friday, July 2, 2021. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

In Denver, which allows collective bargaining by rank-and-file police and fire employees, efforts over the last two decades to bring a charter amendment granting bargaining rights to other city employees have failed. 

Among Colorado’s 272 cities, just 16 currently allow some or all of their workers to unionize. 

The forthcoming bill could grant more than 250,000 more public workers the right to collective bargaining, said Dougherty, the AFL-CIO president. 

“You can have near-unanimous support for a union, go to a board and they can say, ‘We’re not interested,’” Dougherty said. “This should be a fundamental right.”

The proposal is the AFL-CIO’s No. 1 focus this session, Dougherty said. 

It also comes after the union told Democratic lawmakers that it would suspend fundraising for Democratic legislative groups until May 2022 because their interests have been “excluded.”

The AFL-CIO is not basing its funding decisions on support for the bill, he said. But recent discussions with Democrats about working relationships have been productive and are “headed in a positive direction.” 

Many details are still unclear 

This isn’t the first year lawmakers have mulled whether to expand the number of public employees who can unionize.

Last year, a draft of a similar proposal allowing county and municipal workers to more easily collectively bargain was circulating ahead of the legislative session. But a bill was never introduced. 

Esgar hopes to introduce her measure this year at the end of January. 

House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat.

But many policy details are still uncertain, said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who is working on the legislation, too. 

“There’s still a lot of conversation on what it is,” Fenberg said of the prospective measure. “Who it applies to, what exactly it is — it’s a little too soon to say. I think the caucuses generally want to do what they can to move collective bargaining rights forward for all employees, not just state workers.” 

Many interest groups wait until a measure is introduced before taking any official positions. But the Colorado Municipal League said it’s likely to oppose the measure no matter what exemptions or carve-outs end up in the final text.

“It has little to do with whether or not there should be collective bargaining,” Bommer said, adding that the league has opposed past attempts by the legislature to ban public-sector collective bargaining on the same principle. “Employment matters at the local level should be a matter of home rule and local control.” 

The group argues the soon-to-be measure would infringe on the constitutional right of cities that operate under “home rule” charters, which is nearly 100 Colorado cities and towns. The home-rule status gives the municipalities the right to self-govern in policy issues of “local concern.”

But if Democrats do decide to pursue the legislation, CML and Gardner said there should be limits placed on the ability of the affected workers to strike. The 2020 law allowing the state workers’ union to collectively bargain prohibits them from striking. 

Gardner said he would advocate for the same prohibition under the new proposal to avoid employee groups “holding the state hostage” by disrupting government services. 

“They would have extraordinary power, coupled with this right of concerted action … to just walk off the job of providing state services,” Gardner said. 

According to the AFL-CIO, the latest draft of the prospective bill includes requirements that public safety workers – people working for law enforcement and fire departments – use arbitration to settle an impasse and prohibits them from striking. The draft bill wouldn’t otherwise limit strike activity. 

“I wouldn’t say we’ve landed anywhere,” Fenberg said, but “everybody recognizes there are certain professions and certain lines of work that have to be there for public safety purposes.” 

Lawmakers are seen at the Capitol’s House floor on Jan. 12, 2022 in Denver at the start of Colorado’s General Assembly’s 2022 session. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Proponents also dispute CML’s argument that requiring cities and towns to recognize employee unions would infringe on home rule, arguing the requirement would be similar to state laws governing anti-discrimination and worker’s compensation that apply to all municipalities. 

Bommer also raised concerns that the proposal would affect existing bargaining agreements brokered by local governments or passed by their voters, and about language in earlier drafts that lay out specific requirements for the bargaining process. 

Workers would still need to win the support of their coworkers to form a union and go through a negotiating process with their public employer, Esgar said. 

Thy Vo previously was a politics reporter for The Colorado Sun.