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Coors is not light in union battle

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2008

DENVER

A high-stakes game of chicken between labor and business is unfolding in Colorado over four pro-union ballot measures and a right-to-work proposal, all of which are scheduled to appear on the November ballot.

Labor leaders, desperate to kill Amendment 47, the right-to-work measure, qualified four measures for the ballot last month that nearly everyone agrees would cripple the state's economy. Union officials have agreed to remove the four so-called "poison pills" from the ballot if Jonathan Coors, a third-generation heir to the brewing fortune, removes Amendment 47.

Problem solved, except that Mr. Coors, 28, refuses to budge or even discuss sinking the amendment, which would forbid making union membership or dues-paying a condition of employment.

Now the state's top Democratic political leaders, led by Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., are negotiating with labor officials to pull the four measures by the Oct. 2 deadline. They're not above quid pro quo: The latest option calls for businesses to contribute between $2 million and $4 million to the union coalition's campaign to defeat Amendment 47 in exchange for the proposals' removal.

The entire spectacle has mesmerized the state's political and business sectors, which anxiously await daily updates on the talks. It also has opened up debate over whether Mr. Ritter is doing the right thing by moving to protect the state's economy - or buying more trouble by giving in to union blackmail.

As far as Jon Caldara is concerned, it's the latter.

"You shouldn't negotiate with terrorists," said Mr. Caldara, head of the free-market Independence Institute in Golden, Colo.

"Unfortunately, business can be very shortsighted," he said. "What's to stop [the unions] from doing this next year? Or the next?"

Be that as it may, Colorado can't take the chance that even one of the four poison-pill measures may pass, said Joe Blake, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and one of the key figures involved in the talks.

"It's a tragic miscalculation for Colorado on the part of everyone involved," Mr. Blake said. "You can clearly see the impact of these amendments on the economy and the state - if any one of them passes, it's going to make it impossible for us to recruit and maintain businesses here in Colorado."

At the same time, it's easy to see why the four measures would prove attractive to voters. The first, Amendment 53, known as the Colorado Corporate Fraud Initiative, would make executives criminally liable if they fail to report fraudulent activity at their corporations.

"In Colorado, we've paid the price for greedy CEOs and companies who break the rules to get ahead," says a statement by Protect Colorado's Future, the labor coalition promoting the ballot measures. "According to the FBI, white-collar fraud costs Colorado taxpayers billions of dollars every year. But too often, corporate criminals end up walking free, while taxpayers are left holding the bag."

Amendment 55 would require employers to show "just cause" before they fire employees, essentially barring "at-will" employment, the current standard.

Amendment 56 would require businesses with more than 20 employees to provide comprehensive health care insurance for employees and dependents.

Amendment 57, known as the Safe Workplace Initiative, would allow employees injured on the job to sue their employers for additional damages even after collecting workers compensation benefits.

Opponents predict that passage of the vaguely worded but attractive-sounding amendments would lead to years of litigation as the state attempts to clarify their intent. The measures also are expected to provide a financial bonanza for defense lawyers bringing lawsuits against employers.

"They're draconian. They're horrific," Mr. Blake said. "We already know specifically of one company in California that's looking at moving here. Now they're saying, 'If any of these pass, we're not moving to Colorado.'"

Jess Knox, director of Protect Colorado's Future, and Ernest Duran Jr., president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7, who are both involved in the negotiations, could not be reached for comment.

That Colorado would suddenly become the focal point of union unrest is surprising, given the state's long history of uneventful labor relations. Credit belongs to the Colorado Labor Peace Act of 1943, a unique hybrid that requires two secret-ballot votes of all workers before the creation of a union shop.

However, Democrats rocked the balance in recent years with House Bill 1072, a 2007 measure that would have eliminated the second vote. The bill was approved by both houses before being vetoed by Mr. Ritter; a few months later, he smoothed over his relationship with labor by signing an executive order allowing state workers to vote for union representation.

Shaken by the apparent cracks in the state's labor truce, Mr. Coors and other business leaders moved to put the right-to-work measure before the voters. If passed, the measure would make Colorado the nation's 22nd right-to-work state.

The state's loaded November ballot includes two other measures disliked by unions: Amendment 49, which would bar governments from taking union dues directly out of workers' paychecks, and Amendment 54, which would ban sole-source government contractors from contributing to political candidates.

The labor coalition opposes both, but neither is receiving the same attention as Amendment 47. Since Colorado has never been a union stronghold, critics say labor may be more concerned about its national image than the particulars of the state's labor-business balance.

"Right-to-work, while I support it, isn't going to change things," Mr. Caldara said. "I think the national unions are worried that Colorado might give momentum to campaigns in other states, like Michigan. For them, right-to-work is the holy grail, or in this case, the unholy grail."