- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

DENVER | When it comes to labor politics, Colorado won’t make anyone forget Detroit. Only 8 percent of the work force is unionized, and most of those are government employees who already rank among the highest-paid in the nation.

But a series of pro-union political moves by state Democrats has ignited a brawl between labor unions and right-to-work forces that is headed for an election-year showdown.

Amendment 47, a paycheck-protection measure backed by business, qualified last month for the Nov. 4 ballot. The initiative would allow workers to opt out of paying union dues even if they work for a union shop.

Unions and pro-labor groups have responded with a kitchen-sink approach, filing seven labor-friendly ballot titles with the Secretary of State’s Office while quickly raising $1.5 million to fight the right-to-work measure.

Critics say the union proposals are little more than bargaining chips aimed at taking Amendment 47 off the table.

Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. and Sen. Ken Salazar, both Democrats, already have attempted to intervene by calling on both sides to drop their ballot initiatives.

“They’re trying to scare the business community,” said Republican state Sen. Ted Harvey, who helped organize the Amendment 47 effort. “They’ve publicly stated that they’ll pull all these measures if we pull right-to-work off the ballot.”

A group called Protect Colorado’s Future has been cleared to gather signatures for two pro-union proposals. One would prevent employers from firing workers unless they give reasons. The second would allow business executives to be sued or held criminally liable if their companies or individuals under their watch commit fraud.

“We’ve never said these are bargaining chips,” said Wendy Greenburg, the group’s communications director. “These two initiatives are incredibly strong. They’ve polled really strongly.”

The other five titles were filed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International, the state’s largest labor union, although none has been approved for petition-signing.

Raising the stakes is the imminent arrival of the Democratic National Convention here in late August. State Democrats are anxious to make the right-to-work measure disappear before it can affect the party’s big event.

“I’m sure there’s a sense of Colorado pride among the unions, wanting to send a message to Democratic conventioneers that this is a union-friendly state,” said former state Senate President John Andrews, a Republican.

At the same time, he said, Democrats have no one to blame but themselves. Business interests launched their push for a right-to-work measure only after the Democratic governor and General Assembly made it clear last year that Colorado’s 60-year-old labor truce was over.

Since 1943, the state has operated under a unique hybrid called the Labor Peace Act, which requires two secret-ballot votes, including a supermajority of 75 percent on the second vote, before a union can establish a closed shop.

Republicans were never able to muster enough votes to push through right-to-work legislation because many voters didn’t see the need for it, given the generally amicable relationship between labor and business.

That changed when Mr. Ritter rode into office in 2007. The Democrats, who by then controlled both houses of the legislature, immediately passed House Bill 1072, which would have made it easier to install a closed shop by eliminating the second vote.

Mr. Ritter appeared ready to sign the legislation, but business leaders raised such an outcry that he issued a veto instead, citing concerns about the process. To appease union leaders upset by the veto, he issued an executive order granting collective-bargaining rights to state workers.

He also resumed the practice of automatically withholding union dues from state employees’ paychecks, a practice that was halted under the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican.

“The business community is playing defense here,” Mr. Andrews said. “They’ve felt cornered and threatened and forced into going to the ballot.”

Even the liberal Denver Post blamed Mr. Ritter for the squabble.

“Ritter provoked the business-sponsored right-to-work initiative with his inane executive order granting collective-bargaining rights to state workers,” said the May 10 editorial. “That, in turn, provoked labor to run a handful of ballot measures that would be devastating to Colorado businesses. And Ritter, so far, has been powerless to stop it.”

Twenty-two states now have right-to-work laws, including six of the seven states bordering Colorado - New Mexico being the exception.

In a May 1 letter obtained by the Amendment 47 camp, local UFCW president Ernest L. Duran Jr. predicted that fewer than 50 percent of union-eligible workers would opt to join the union if the measure passes.

In Wyoming, a right-to-work state, fewer than 40 percent of workers belong to the union, he said.

“Therefore, before we even start to negotiate we are divided, and unity is the workers’ greatest strength,” Mr. Duran said.

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