Firefighter Unionization Measure Advances

February 6, 2013

The bill would override a state law that allows local voters to decide whether to allow public safety employees to unionize

DENVER– The rights of at least 100 home rule cities were championed by Senate Republicans in their effort to extinguish a bill that would force collective bargaining for firefighters across the state. That didn’t dampen the pro-union spirits of Democrats who passed Senate Bill 25.

“There’s already a process for firefighters to obtain collective bargaining inColorado,” declared Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman ofColorado Springs. “It’s been exercised for years and years and years – they can ask the voters in the communities where they serve.”

State Sen. Lois Trochtrop (D-Thornton) is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 25 as well as its twin that was passed by the Senate and House in 2009, and then vetoed by Democrat Gov. Bill Ritter.

Both bills override state law that allows voters to decide whether to sanction unions for public safety employees, but SB 25, in play this year, is more stringent because it would apply to all fire prevention units with two or more employees instead of 50 or more under the previous bill.

“This is a bill that one of my dear, dear friends worked on for many, many years,” said Tochtrop of Randy Atkinson, a past president of the Colorado Professional Fire Fighters Union who died in October.

“I’m going to call it The Randy Atkinson Memorial Bill,” announced Tochtrop, who simply asked for an aye vote Tuesday on the Senate floor.

“We all knew Randy and miss his smiling face,” responded Cadman. “I wish he was there to look at while I share my remarks about this bill.”

As a government affairs advocate on behalf of the Colorado Professional Fire Fighters Union, Atkinson knew numerous elected officials including Democrat U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.

A videotape of Udall remembering Atkinson on the empty U.S. Senate floor airs on the union’s website as well as several articles dispelling myths about SB 25 – and promoting its promise.

“Despite the heated rhetoric from anti-worker extremists who vigorously lobby the General Assembly to prevent workers from gaining any rights in the workplace, this bill would do little more than give fire fighters a seat at the table with their employers,” said Mike Rogers, president of the union.

“SB 25 prohibits strikes, leaves final fiscal authority to local jurisdictions and is not an unfunded mandate. The bill would protect existing laws and give fire fighters a formal setting and process for resolving important safety issues with their employers.”

“When he was mayor of Denver, Governor (John) Hickenlooper granted and respected the collective bargaining rights of his fire fighters,” said Rogers, who urged legislators to vote for the measure.

“This bill would effectively and inappropriately – and in appropriately – override those local votes and the voters,” said Cadman.

“Changing our current system of local voter approval of collective bargaining to overriding the will of local voters who have rejected collective bargaining is not appropriate,” said the Minority Leader.

“I think these are accurate words, they are eloquent words. They are not my words,” said Cadman.

Those were words spoken by Ritter after he vetoed the bill in 2009.

State Sen. Scott Renfroe (R-Greeley) quoted the headline of a Denver Post editorial published last month, “Labor Legislation Bad for Colorado.”

“So Governor Hickenlooper, I hope you are listening,” said Renfroe. “And if you won’t listen to the Post… how about listening to a hundred home rule cities and municipalities in Colorado that we’re trampling over with this piece of legislation.”

The rights of home rule cities also monopolized debate during the bill’s second reading Monday when Republican senators attempted to amend the bill five times – all defeated.

“Where are they coming from?” whispered Tochtrop, whose voice was picked up by the mic.

When Renfroe presented an amendment to exempt home rule cities, the Thornton Democrat bristled.

“I live in a home rule city, and probably most of us do, but my city is fine with this bill,” declared Tochtrop. “So again I just ask for a no vote.”

However, Cadman clarified, “The city of Thornton opposes this bill.”

“Um, the city of Thornton is neutral,” responded Tochtrop, who recalled meeting with city council members early that morning. “They asked that we be very specific – they are neutral on the bill.”

SB 25 does not apply to volunteer firefighters, does not set a pay rate for professional firefighters and does not allow strikes. However, the measure does have strict criteria and deadlines for collective bargaining and if breeched, can be challenged in court. There is no penalty for striking.

Tochtrop maintained that the bill would enable firefighters to have a seat at the table to discuss safety issues and to have proper training, education, equipment and work reasonable hours with breaks to rest.

“I don’t want to hear anybody stand up here and say how wonderful the firefighters are, but they can’t support Senate Bill 25,” said Tochtrop.

“We understand the great service and dedication they provide,” said state Sen. Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud). “But Senate Bill 25 is not designed to support the firefighters.”

“It’s designed to support unions,” concluded Lundberg.

The bill passed on a party line split with Democrat state Sen. Gail Schwartz (D- Snowmass Village) joining Republicans in voting against it. The measure now moves to the House.

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