Colorado’s 38,000 county employees would be able to collectively bargain — but not strike — under a long-awaited, pared-back public workers unionization bill introduced Monday by Democrats in the state legislature.
The measure, Senate Bill 230, comes as the 2022 lawmaking term heads into its final two weeks and despite opposition from a statewide association of county governments, which last week held a news conference blasting the forthcoming bill and expressing anxiety about it driving up their costs.
Earlier versions of the legislation would have expanded the collective bargaining rights extended to state employees in recent years to all public workers, including municipal and higher education employees. The latter group was begging lawmakers to include them in the measure amid fierce opposition from the state’s colleges and universities.
But, ultimately, the sponsors of the measure chose to go a narrower route instead of a measure that would have affected more than 250,000 workers.
“At the end of the day,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat and one of three prime sponsors of the measure, “we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We didn’t take them out because we didn’t have the votes. It was because of a deliberate conversation with workers and, honestly, some of the workers were split on how they wanted to proceed.”
Republicans are expected to fight the measure as it’s debated in the legislature, but they don’t have the votes to block its passage unless Democrats cross party lines.
Gov. Jared Polis remains a potential hurdle to the legislation. He expressed opposition to earlier versions of the measure and has the power to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.
“We look forward to looking at it,” the governor told The Colorado Sun on Monday.
But House Majority Leader Danyea Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat and another prime sponsor of the bill, said proponents did everything they could to appease him.
“The governor has been pushing this whole time to really make sure that we have a bill that mirrors that Colorado WINS bill,” Esgar said, referencing the 2020 measure granting collective bargaining rights to the state employees’ union, Colorado WINS. “We’ve done as much as we possibly can, knowing the counties in the state are a little different, to mirror that bill.”
There is nothing in the bill that would force a county commission to adopt a contract with a union made up of its county’s workers. But workers couldn’t be fired or discriminated against for organizing or participating in a union under the bill.
“This genuinely will just be a conversation between the workers and the county commissions,” Fenberg said. “There is no process that forces anyone’s hand.”
Collective bargaining rights would let county workers vote to form a union and then negotiate over pay, benefits and working counties.
County commissioners are still wary.
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“The increased cost of collective bargaining will make the difficulty of dealing with rapidly rising costs even worse,” Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas, a Republican, said at the news conference last week. “And our citizens will suffer in the form of reduced services.”
Colorado Counties Inc., a nonpartisan organization representing the state’s counties, called the measure “a solution in search of a problem.”
The bill would not apply to Denver and Broomfield counties because they are city-county combinations.
Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, is the third prime sponsor of the bill.