Democrats introduce weakened union-rights bill for county employees in final weeks of session

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The Colorado State Capitol, March 128, 2022.

It was one of the biggest policy proposals going into the 2022 legislative session: Influential Democrats hoped to pass a sweeping new law to grant union organizing rights to hundreds of thousands of employees.

Four months into session, that bill has finally emerged — though much smaller. Opposition by Gov. Jared Polis and others resulted in a compromise that may well pass the legislature while still disappointing both sides of the labor debate.

On Monday, the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate introduced SB22-230, a bill that would grant collective bargaining rights to about 38,000 public-sector employees in Colorado. The bill, as it was introduced, would allow people who work for the state’s 64 counties to form unions and — if they can gain enough members — enter into collective bargaining agreements with their employers.

That’s a much narrower set than the roughly 250,000 people who would have been covered by earlier versions of the bill, which also included cities, schools and colleges. The initial proposal was gradually eroded over months of negotiations, facing intense opposition from local governments.

House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar said the final result was a compromise, but insisted it would still make a difference.

“This is 38,000 workers across the state who, when this bill passes, will have the right to collectively bargain. And we think that that is historic,” said Esgar, who represents the historically union-strong city of Pueblo.

“We think that is a huge group of folks who have been literally standing in the middle of the pandemic and serving our communities every single day,” she said “They deserve the right to come together and improve their workplaces.”

Currently, county workers can only form a union if they’re allowed to do so by voters or county leaders. Only a few counties — like Denver, Adams, Pueblo and Las Animas — have allowed workers to do so. 

Under the proposed bill, employees would no longer have to ask permission before organizing. It guarantees that workers have the right to associate with one another, talk about their concerns and present those concerns in a unified way to their bosses.

But besides narrowing the set of workers who would get organizing rights, the final bill also omitted some key union powers that advocates wanted.

For example, the bill would not allow county worker unions to go on strike. It also would not force counties to engage in binding arbitration — meaning that county leaders won’t have to obey the final results of negotiations with employee groups.

“What is powerful in this bill is the ability to actually come together, talk with your other employees and figure out how to move forward and make your workplace a better place without fear of attribution, without fear of being fired,” Esgar said. “Having that ability to actually have a seat at the table and express your ideas.”

Major changes were made, in part, to satisfy Gov. Polis. The bill tries to mirror a 2020 law which allowed state government employees to collectively bargain through the Colorado WINS union.

“The governor has said that he wants the bill to feel and look and smell like the WINS bill, the statewide workers’ bill that we passed a few years ago,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg. 

Not good enough for some

Some labor advocates said the changes weakened the bill so much, they’d prefer not to be included at all. Members of the Communications Workers of America Local 7799 overwhelmingly preferred not to support a bill that lacked binding arbitration and strike powers, said vice-president Alex Wolf-Root.

“At this point, the bill has been watered down not just for who’s in it but the conditions of the bill — to the point that our membership was not OK with the conditions,” said Wolf-Root, a philosophy adjunct at CU Boulder. CWA 7799 has members at Denver Health, the University of Colorado, UCHealth and the Denver Public Library, all of which were cut out of the bill.

“If you have nothing with binding arbitration and you make it illegal for workers to flex their power (through strikes), you take any leverage they have for management and the bosses to accept any of this,” Wolf-Root said.

The public teachers union — which was not included in the final bill — shared similar concerns. 

“We are disappointed, in K-12, to not be included (in the bill). But at the same time, we are really pushing forward for a strong, robust bill,” said Colorado Education Association president Amie Baca-Oehlert. She said the association would have wanted the right to strike if it were included. 

Counties warn of tens of millions in costs

Even with the compromises, county governments still have strong objections. Officials for Jefferson County claimed it would cost them some $17 million, while El Paso County said it would amount to about $25 million in additional administrative costs and other expenses.

“We're gonna spend time and money on these union negotiations instead of working on hiring people to help our citizens. So we feel like this is gonna be counterproductive, and even detrimental to the services counties provide,” said Eric Bergman, policy director of Colorado Counties, Inc.

But for some county employees, the bill brings hope of change. Josette Jaramillo is a child welfare caseworker in Pueblo County and the president of AFSCME Local 1335. Currently, Pueblo County union employees can only negotiate over working conditions, not wages and benefits, she said. 

Jaramillo’s union wants to talk about issues like extra compensation for bilingual speakers, she said, but they are mindful of the county’s limited budget.  

“You can’t get blood from a turnip. We understand that if the money’s not there, the money’s not there,” she said. “We enjoy the work that we do ... but having the opportunity to discuss some of those issues is important.”

The bill faces an intense sprint through the final weeks of session. Esgar and Fenberg described it as an important step for workers statewide. For others, it’s a sign of a long journey to come.

“Gov. Polis has clearly showed that he’s no friend of workers. So maybe that means after his second term — but we can have better legislation in the future when we come together as a labor movement and as working-class people,” Wolf-Root said.

Baca-Oehlert said the teacher’s union would keep trying to win over the governor.

“I look forward to the governor creating a space at the table for us, hearing our voices, and listening to what we believe we need to provide that high-quality education for every student across the state,” she said.

The bill will next be assigned to a committee. In a statement, the governor’s office expressed “optimism” that it could pass.

“'While we are still looking at the latest version, we appreciate the sponsors' work on this important issue and encourage them to continue working with the counties as well as our office on the final details of the legislation and we are optimistic that agreement can be reached on the few issues still open,” wrote spokesman Conor Cahill in an email.