DENVER – Right-to-Work laws have passed in at least 24 states – not without angry backlash from unions and Democrats – but a measure designed to end forced unionization in Colorado died quietly in a Senate committee on Wednesday.
Perhaps because the bill’s demise was predictable, only two proponents testified for Senate Bill 24, Right-to-Work legislation, which failed to generate a single opposition argument.
Yet, Democrat Senators embraced Senate Bill 25 to impose collective bargaining for firefighters around the state – even communities where voters have rejected it on election ballots. The bill would usurp the right of voters to weigh in on the issue of unionized firefighters in the future.
Sponsored by Sen. Owen Hill (R-Colorado Springs), SB 24 was described as a workers’ rights measure to allow an individual to obtain a job without being required to join a union. The bill would not have prohibited unions in Colorado.
“It’s important to allow people to privately contract with their employer,” Hill said repeatedly.
The bill, he said, would allow job seekers to “choose where they work, what the conditions of their employment are, and where two sides have to come together in an agreement.”
Mark Latimer, president and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. testified that with the exception of New Mexico, Colorado is surrounded by states that have right-to-work laws – and that lures new businesses and creates jobs.
The passage of SB 24, he said, would be “an economic driver” for Colorado which could then compete on a level playing field with right-to-work states.
Latimer also shared statistics indicating that right-to-work states are the fastest growing sectors for manufacturing and non-agricultural jobs.
Workers, he said, on average earn higher after-tax income than those in states like Colorado without a right-to-work law. Between 1980 and 2011, the employment in right-to-work states increased 71 percent compared to 32 percent in states without the law.
For example, after Indiana passed the law last year, the state added 43,300 jobs according to Labor Watch. During the same period, at least 7,300 jobs were lost in Michigan — which later passed a right-to-work law in December.
The bill’s passage was a rocky road of protesters, some threatening violence, and sending out ticked-off tweets such as filmmaker Michael Moore who called Republican legislators, “political serial killers.”
“Still enraged by actions of Republican shock troops in the lame duck MI legislature yesterday. Revolt, anyone?” asked Moore, whose film production company employees are unionized.
Colorado won’t have a true measure of Right-to-Work’s support or opposition this year. The bill failed within 20 minutes, 3 – 2 in a partisan split.
The bill was killed by Democrat Sens. Lois Tochtrop of Thornton, Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge and Rollie Heath of Boulder. Republican Sens. David Balmer of Centennial and Randy Baumgardner of Cowdrey supported the measure.
By comparison, the Senate committee devoted nearly two hours to hearing testimony on Senate Bill 25, sponsored by Tochtrop, that would allow firefighters across Colorado to unionize – and is applicable to departments with two or more employees.
Tochtrop said this bill is for firefighters – men and women – who are “out there protecting us, protecting our property and our homes… I think they deserve the respect that this bill gives them.”
The bill would grant collective bargaining rights to firefighters who currently do not have them, she said, and preserve existing agreements for those who are unionized. More than a dozen communities have firefighter unions such as Aurora, Boulder and Denver.
Tochtrop reeled off a list of what the bill would not do such as setting pay rates or benefits which would be open to negotiations with local jurisdictions.
“It does prohibit strikes by firefighters,” declared Tochtrop.
“The strike provision in the bill is meaningless,” countered Kevin Bommer, a lobbyist for the Colorado Municipal League that opposes the bill. “This bill is silent on consequences so there’s no disincentive.”
CML opposes the bill, he said, because it disenfranchises local voters – not because of collective bargaining. The league supports “people choosing what is best for their communities,” said Bommer.
SB 25 opens the door to collective bargaining whether or not voters have rejected it in past elections – and that, he argued, overrides the will of the people. In addition, he questioned why the state should impose its will on local municipalities and fire fighting districts.
Bommer said the legislation is nearly identical to a bill that Democrat Gov. Bill Ritter vetoed in 2009. That decision angered union bosses and firefighters who demonstrated against Ritter.
Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper has yet to take a position on the controversial legislation.
The bill passed the Committee on a 3-2 vote divided along party lines, and moves to the Senate floor.