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Unions make gains in Colorado

Colorado may not be considered a state dominated by labor unions, but the activity on the ground reveals labor unions are strengthening their foothold in the Centennial State.

On January 31, 2023, a proposed bill entitled “Public Employees’ Workplace Protection” (SB23-111) that would give public unions more power and influence in the workplace. The sponsors are State Senator Robert Rodriguez (D) and State Representative Steven Woodrow (D). The legislation would impact public employees such as county or municipal workers, general assembly staffers, school district employees, higher education employees, public defenders’ officers, University of Colorado and Denver hospital authorities, fire authorities, and members of board of cooperative services.

Senate Bill 23-111 would expand public employees’ labor rights and protections including organizing or forming an employee organization, i.e., labor unions, and permitting the right to discuss employee representation. Public employers would also provide the following protections to public employees:

  • Engaging in “protected, concerted activity for the purpose of mutual aid or protection”
  • Participating “in the political process while off duty and not in uniform, including speaking with members of the public employer’s governing body on terms and conditions of employment and any matter of public concern and engaging in other political activities in the same manner as other citizens of Colorado without discrimination, intimidation, or retaliation”
  • Joining or assisting “an employee organization” or refraining from “organizing, forming, joining, or assisting an employee organization”
  • Prohibiting public employers from “discriminating against, coercing, intimidating, interfering with, or imposing reprisals against a public employee for engaging in any of the rights granted”
  • Granting the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment the authority to enforce alleged violations and rule-making authority
  • Outlining that the department’s decisions can be appealed to the Colorado Court of Appeals, but the court is required to “give deference to the department”

Sponsors say that the bill would not require public employers to negotiate with workers.

Multiple unions have already endorsed the bill. The Communications Workers of America 7799 (CWA), which is affiliated with AFL-CIO and represents public defenders, education employees, healthcare employees, and library workers, said the bill would protect workers from retaliation from employers.

The bill is not the first legislative attempt by unions to gain a larger foothold in the state. In 2020, Gov. Jared Polis signed the “Colorado Partnership for Quality Jobs and Services Act,” into law, which allowed state employees to unionize in “employee organizations” (i.e. unions). Before the 2020 law was signed, state employees could join a union called Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions (WINS) that was authorized by a 2007 executive order. Because it was an executive order and not authorized by the state legislature, Colorado WINS could not officially engage in binding collective bargaining agreements until the state legislature passed a law authorizing it.

Then, in 2022, state lawmakers passed a law called “Collective Bargaining for Counties” which allowed county-level employees to unionize and collectively bargain. If unionizing workers and the county do not reach an agreement, then both parties must go through mediation process that is non-binding. Some critics of the bill worried that the mediation process would cost millions of dollars and cut services, but union supporters dismissed their concerns.

The 2022 bill’s initial proposal would have covered all public employees throughout the state. But through the legislative process, it was changed to cover just county workers in 36 of the 64 total counties in Colorado, which tend to be the most-populated counties in the state. The bill excluded workers in 24 counties where the population is under 75,000 people in the 2020 U.S. Census, in addition to other counties that have different government structures.

Union reactions varied on the law’s passage. CWA Local 7799 chose not to endorse the bill due to the non-binding arbitration provision, while American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) offered praise for the bill.

AFSCME’s press release called the law “one of the most significant expansions of collective bargaining rights to public service workers anywhere in the nation in recent years.” The union said that it gave 36,000 county workers the right to collectively bargain.

Contrast AFSCME’s reaction to comments from an official at the Economic Policy Institute. Jennifer Sherer, a senior state policy coordinator at the labor union-backed think tank, said, “It’s a baby step forward.”

Though the 2022 bill did not ultimately apply to municipal workers including teachers, teachers unions’ presence continues to grow in Colorado. The Colorado Education Association (CEA) and American Federation of Teachers-Colorado (AFT-Colorado) maintain a political presence in the state, particularly online. On the website of AFT-Colorado, the union highlighted its 2022 campaign and canvassing efforts, as well as promoting columns penned by AFT’s president, Randi Weingarten.

CEA called itself as “the largest labor union in Colorado” with 39,000 members and said its mission is to “ensure all students get the exceptional public schools they deserve in every Colorado neighborhood.” In a 2022 press release, CEA expressed disappointment that it could not get collective bargaining legislation passed for teachers during the legislative session. CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said, “We’re disappointed that K-12 wasn’t a part of this year’s attempt at a statewide collective bargaining bill but we will continue to make that a priority for all of Colorado’s public workers.”

Currently, only 16 of the state’s 272 municipalities (or 5.8%) have passed laws to allow collective bargaining. In these cases, either city councilmembers voted in favor of allowing collective bargaining or voters chose to allow collective bargaining. Municipal employees, unless local leaders or voters approve collective bargaining, cannot organize, join, or form a union.

It is a similar situation as Colorado’s teachers, who can collectively bargain only if the local school board recognizes collective bargaining through a Colorado state law called the Labor Peace Act. The school board must vote in favor of collective bargaining to allow teachers to organize, join, or form a union. In the same vein, state law does not force school boards to recognize collective bargaining. For example, in 2022, the New America School charter school board voted unanimously to reject unionization and collective bargaining due to financial concerns.

Based on a report from state politics website Colorado Politics, 39 of Colorado’s 178 school districts (or 21.9%) allow collective bargaining for teachers, which includes larger school districts such as Jefferson County Public Schools and Denver Public Schools.

Unions see an opportunity in Colorado to expand membership in a state that has not been a traditionally unionized state in both the private and public sectors. Recent events highlight their growing presence in the Centennial State.

Spencer Irvine

Spencer Irvine is Senior Writer & Researcher at Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Spencer previously worked in state government, in communications for a non-profit advocacy organization, and held various administrative and communications roles at a media analysis organization. He has a master’s degree in public administration from George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from Brigham Young University. He lives in Arizona with his wife, is an avid history buff and enjoys touring historic sites.