El Paso commissioners sue to stop public sector unions law

Pikes Peak Colorado Springs
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Pikes Peak looms over Colorado Springs.

A new state law takes effect this July that allows some public employees to join unions. But first, the leaders of populous, conservative El Paso County are trying to stop it.

The law, SB22-230, says that employees of county governments are free to communicate and organize. If they gain enough support, they could force their bosses to negotiate over pay and benefits — although there’s no guarantee that those negotiations will go anywhere.

El Paso commissioners voted on Tuesday to file a lawsuit against the state labor department. They say it could be costly for the county to deal with labor negotiations and potentially raise wages. Therefore, they argue, the law imposes an unfunded mandate from the state.

“If the state doesn’t want to pay for the policies they create, our citizens should not be forced to sacrifice services or pay more for those same services,” said Commissioner Carrie Geitner.

The new law does not include “binding arbitration,” so counties would not have to accept the results of any union negotiations, even if a mediator gets involved. Democratic former Rep. Daneya Esgar argued the law is giving workers a right — not forcing counties to spend more. 

“It seems like a poor waste of resources at this point,” Esgar said of the lawsuit.

Esgar said state officials had negotiated with county officials and made numerous other concessions, such as barring county employees from striking, in the course of passing the law. (Esgar was selected this month to fill a vacancy on the Pueblo County commission)

The El Paso County lawsuit has not yet been filed. It would ask a judge to review the law and detail what “rights and responsibilities” the county has under it.

El Paso officials also say the law infringes on the rights of other local elected officials, such as county clerks — since it could put county commissioners in the position of negotiating with employees from those other officials’ offices.

A county spokesman said the lawsuit would likely be filed next week