Labor issues may find ballot
'Right-to-work' measure, reins on firing workers and allowing
corporate fraud suits in mix
By Joanne Kelley and
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
The next showdown between
Colorado's labor movement and various
business interests may be decided by voters in November.
Conservatives have been collecting signatures for a
"right-to-work" initiative that would outlaw arrangements
requiring all employees to pay fees for union representation,
whether they are members or not.
A coalition backed by labor organizations is behind two other
recent proposals -- one to restrict the ability of companies to
fire workers and another targeting corporate fraud.
The three ballot proposals aim to alter
Colorado's Constitution and promise to
further politicize the labor environment in a state that's
increasingly a battleground for labor issues, despite the
lower-than-average percentage of residents who actually belong
"Colorado has long occupied a
middle ground on labor issues, and recent efforts to change that
balance are only stirring the pot," said William Berger, a Denver attorney who represents management in
labor matters. "We shouldn't use the constitution to voice
shifting political agendas."
Former Qwest employee Larry Ellingson, who signed on as one of
the main proponents of the corporate liability measure, said, "I
don't see how anybody can be opposed to holding people
But Denver-based business groups oppose the two measures being
floated by the organized labor advocates. "They're just
anathema to our notion of how business should operate in
Colorado," said Dan Pilcher, a spokesman
for the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry.
Tamra Ward of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce described the
labor-backed measures as "a direct assault on our business
climate. It's critical we do everything possible to keep
them from moving forward."
An attorney hired by the
chamber has been challenging the two labor-backed issues in the
ballot-approval process. The opponents say the "just
cause" measure eliminates the "at-will" system of employment
that governs working in Colorado. The fraud
initiative could be a bonanza for attorneys who could clog the
courts with suits against business.
CACI has supported the right-to-work concept in the past, but
its position on the ballot measure has been "neutral" so far,
according to Pilcher. The Denver Metro Chamber hasn't
taken a stand on it, either.
The effort to get a right-to-work measure on the ballot gained
momentum last year after Gov. Bill Ritter signed an executive
order giving state workers the right to organize, which some say
look like a less friendly place to do business.
"The unions are in the process of gaining more and more ground,"
said Curt Cerveny, the political consultant who is running the
campaign for the constitutional amendment. "This is all
about making Colorado a
But Colorado AFL-CIO Executive Director Mike Cerbo dismissed the
argument that the amendment could bolster the business
"Businesses are moving here," Cerbo said. "I've never
heard a prospective business come in here and say, 'How hard can
I screw my workers if I come here?' That's not on their
list of needs."
Supporters of the labor-backed initiatives have been moving
ahead on two fronts: vowing to fight the right-to-work
measure -- which they've dubbed the "work for less" measure --
while they push to get the two others on the state ballot this
"We plan on raising enough money to actually pass these two
measures into law," said Mitch Ackerman, Colorado State Council
president for the Service Employees International Union.
"Those very legitimate economic concerns are what we want to be
spending our time on. We want to be helping working
Ackerman said labor unions have provided the seed money for two
of the ballot proposals, but he expects a grass-roots
fundraising effort will emerge through the efforts of a loose
coalition calling itself "Protect Colorado's Future."
Documents filed with the secretary of state's office say that
group was registered by Julie Wells. According to
documents at the office and the Web site CampaignMoney.com,
Wells is also the registered agent for New West Fellowship Group
and the Alliance For Colorado's Families, two 527
political-issue committees funded in part by wealthy
progressives Tim Gill and Pat Stryker.
Via e-mail, Wells declined to comment, saying her work is
confidential and that she is "a bookkeeper/campaign compliance
person who has numerous clients."
Ackerman said the group has yet to tap those particular
activists for financial support but said they might be
approached as the campaign moves forward.
Some labor leaders say the ballot proposals detract from more
"People aren't talking about unionism, one way or the other,"
said John Fleck, who recently took over as head of the Denver
Area Labor Federation. "When contract negotiations come
up, people want to know, 'Are we going to get a raise? Or
is it all going to go to health care?' "
Most employees covered by labor contracts already have
protections against "arbitrary and capricious" firings, Fleck
"There's other public policy we need to be working on," Fleck
said. "Workers aren't talking about the 'right to work.'
They're talking about health care."
Still, he said he expects labor unions "to get behind the
(labor-backed) proposals 100 percent."
In a letter to members, the president of the Colorado arm of the American Federation of
Teachers cautioned that a right- to-work constitutional
amendment would override majority decisions in the workplace.
"We once again must fight a ballot initiative that would
undermine our union contracts," Dave Sanger wrote in his Feb. 11
letter. "We should let employees and employers negotiate
what's best for them in the workplace."
kelleyj@RockyMountainNews.com or 303-954-5068
Right to work
* Who's behind it: Chief proponent is Aurora City
Councilman Ryan Frazier.
* Where it stands: Moved to the petition phase;
signatures are being collected.
* Details: Would forbid workers from being forced to join
unions as a condition of employment, even though federal law
already prohibits such agreements. It would outlaw "union shop"
agreements that require employees covered by collective
bargaining contracts to pay fees for the union representation.
Applies to new contracts and renewal of existing ones.
* Who's behind it: Coalition of labor groups and
* Where it stands: Hearings this week at the secretary of
state's office and the legislature
* The details: Employees could be fired or suspended only
if employer can prove: incompetence, policy violations, willful
misconduct, conviction of a crime involving "moral turpitude,"
employer bankruptcy, or economic circumstances that provide for
layoffs of 10 percent. Would apply to for-profit and
* Who's behind it: The same groups behind the "just
* Where it stands: Moving through the title-setting
process and hearings
* Details: Private citizens could sue a business or its
employees after a corporate fraud.