Union-business political balancing act

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Just hours before the Oct. 2, 2008, deadline for withdrawing measures from the November ballot, labor unions leaders announced that they would be pulling four controversial measures from the ballot in exchange for business leaders signing on as active opponents of Amendment 47, including $3 million to help fund the opposition campaign.[1]

Attempts to strike a deal, led by Gov. Ritter, began early in the campaign but fizzled when Amendment 47 proponents refused to end their campaign and filed signatures to place it on the ballot. However, in mid-September, union and business leaders showed renewed interest in negotiating a deal to avoid the clash at the ballot-box.[2]

In the initial negotiations, before signatures were filed putting the Right to Work measure on the ballot, Gov. Bill Ritter offered to veto any future legislation that would change Colorado's existing labor laws if sponsors of the business- and labor-backed ballot initiatives will withdraw them from the ballot.[3]

If both sides withdraw their initiatives—the Right to Work Initiative and a series of labor-backed intitiatives regarding workplace conditions and employee benefits—Ritter would agree to veto any legislation that would change the Labor Peace Act, a 65-year-old series of laws that governs the way unions can organize workers in Colorado.[3]

Efforts to keep the "Peace"

John Brackney, president of the South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, which represents 1,600 businesses with 100,000 employees, said he was briefed on the plan last week (week of April 7, 2008) by the Governor's chief of staff. Union officials said they have also been informed of the plan.[3]

"Why do we need 'right to work' and why do we need the labor initiatives?" said Brackney said.[3]

Colorado's Labor Peace Act requires two separate votes by employees to create all-union workplaces, which has led to a relatively small number of union shops in the state.

Business groups and unions could end up spending millions of dollars to support their respective proposals and to fight their opponents if the measures make the ballot.

According to Joe Blake, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, "If you could preserve the Labor Peace Act, if that could be the whole outcome of this rattling of sabers, that would be the best outcome."[3]

But, according to Kelley Harp, spokesman for A Better Colorado, chief backer of the Right to Work Initiative, "At this point, the campaign is moving forward."[3]

Governor's meeting not enough to stop Right to Work

No one was talking after Monday's (April 9, 2008) closed-door meeting between Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter and proponents of the controversial Right to Work Initiative. The Governor called high-profile closed-door meeting in the hopes of averting a political showdown between business and unions at the polls this November.[4]

But the meeting was unsuccessful at getting Right to Work Initiative supporters to pull the initiative. Two days later, Right to Work Initiative supporters filed more than 133,000 signatures with Secretary of State Mike Coffman's office. Ritter also is asking unions to withdraw their ballot proposals.[5]

Initiative supporters need only 76,000 valid signatures to get the measure on the November 2008 ballot. Coffman's office has 30 days to certify the signatures.

"This is an exciting day for Colorado," Jonathan Coors, director of CoorsTek and a major supporter of the initiative, said in a release. "This amendment will give Colorado workers the freedom to decide for themselves whether or not to join a union and protect the rights of all employees in the state."[5]

Efforts at compromise continue but some are skeptical

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper said that he now believes it was too late to stop a showdown between business and labor at the ballot box in November and that he would focus his efforts on urging voters to defeat all the proposals backed by business groups and unions.[6]

"A couple of times we were quite close to getting everyone to put down their weapons and back off, but obviously that time has passed," Hickenlooper said. "The next step will be to get people to just say no to all the initiatives."[6]

"If (Ritter's) goal is trying to get business to back off right-to-work, I don't think he has the credibility to do it," said Katy Atkinson, a Republican political strategist, saying Ritter is seen as pro-labor.[6]

But Gov. Ritter hasn't given up, according to his spokesman Evan Dreyer, who also rejected suggestions that the Governor's meeting was a failure.[5]

"There are still opportunities to de-escalate this situation and avoid a bitter, ugly battle in November," Dreyer said. "We will continue to communicate with all the stakeholders. Gov. Ritter feels very strongly about doing what is best for the entire state of Colorado, and that means trying to clear all these measures off the ballot."[5]

In attendance at Monday's meeting were Jonathan Coors, of the famous Colorado brewery family and an executive with Coors Tek, and Joe Blake, chief executive of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. Both are major supporters of the Right to Work Initiative.[4] Some news reports say that Chuck Berry, president of the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, and former University of Denver Chancellor Dan Ritchie were also at the meeting.[7]

"Gov. Ritter met with several members of the Colorado business community this afternoon," said his spokesman, Evan Dreyer. "They have agreed not to talk about what they talked about. These are important and sensitive conversations, and it is best if they occur away from the spotlight, at their own pace and in their own way."[4]

What it's all about

The meeting was an attempt to head off a battle that most observers seem to believe will have no winners. Early skermishing began with introduction of the Right to Work Initiative —a traditionally sensitive issue between unions and business—followed by the introduction of several initiatives by a pro-labor group that would make it much harder to fire employees and would allow any Colorado resident to sue executives who do not stop or report corporate fraud.

When the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry announced endorsement of the Right to Work Initiative Friday, March 28, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7 fired back on Monday, March 31, 2008, with five initiatives of its own, which together, would provide every worker in Colorado with many of the things unions work to obtain for employees: guaranteed annual pay raises, health care, safe workplaces, and security against firings.[8]

Many of the political players aren't eager to see it play out at the polls, urging both sides to pull their initiatives to avoid a bloodbath.

With so many issues on the table in November, significant wins by either side—even by small margins—could mean a big shift in the balance of political power in the state. And if any of the union-pushed measures pass, it could reinforce a growing perception that Colorado is becoming less welcoming to business.

"We're in the place where we have guns pointed at each other," Ritter said. "If we want the best thing for Colorado, let's talk about how we move forward."[9]

"This is a very high-stakes game," said Joe Blake, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. "I liken it to World War I in the sense that all the countries had plans to mobilize but no plans to demobilize. The labor movement in Colorado has been a powerful constituency for the future of our state and keeping it competitive. But if (these initiatives) are rendered, plans for education, transportation and health care are going to be very seriously impaired."[10]

Part of an ongoing effort to thwart conservative and libertarian initiatives?

A just-released report (April 1, 2008) from the Capital Research Center, suggests that much of the recent union activity on ballot initiatives may be part of an overall strategy tied in with the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which attempts to block conservative activists from using the initiative process to achieve their goals:

Many ballot initiatives were sponsored and supported by labor unions, and often they received help from the little-known Washington, D.C.-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which quietly provides assistance in promoting ballot initiative campaigns in states where the initiative process exists. But the Center plays another increasingly important role for Big Labor and its allies. It devises tactics for blocking ballot initiatives by union opponents using aggressive methods....

BISC has strong union ties. Board members represent a who’s who of national union muscle from the AFL-CIO (which donated $25,000 in 2005), the International Association of Machinists, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association ($75,000 in 2005), the United Food and Commercial Workers, AFSCME, and the Service Employees International Unions (which donated $25,000 in both 2005 and 2006). The unions provided cash grants and contracted with BISC to assist them at the state level.[11]

James Dellinger at NewsBusters also ties the Colorado unions' recent flurry of initiative activity to a BISC-organized effort. "But what the Denver media are missing in their reporting of the controversy," Dellinger writes, "is that the AFL-CIO and labor ally United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCWU) are part of an ongoing state by state effort to thwart popular conservative and libertarian ballot initiatives by any means necessary."[12]

Background of union and business relations

The Right to Work Initiative would make it illegal for a collective bargaining agreement to requires all employees, union members or not, to pay union fees if covered by union contracts. Colorado law already requires an employee vote of 75% to approve such an arrangement. Colorado is the only state with such an arrangement, so to many, the measure seems mostly symbolic. But according to the Rocky Mountain News, "For those more closely involved, they are crucial."[10]

"Labor is in a very aggressive mood right now," said pollster Floyd Ciruli. "They feel we have entered a more liberal, progressive era. They feel they've won a host of smaller wars. Ritter's executive order makes it easier to unionize state workers, and they see him as not opposed to their concerns. Plus, there is a general labor view that a right-to-work initiative is a sort of nuclear action that justifies similarly wild gestures, like offering five amendments that will essentially socialize the state."[10]

He added that businesspeople are feeling that the upcoming Democratic National Convention is giving pro-labor folks "massive leverage."

"The business community sees the DNC as a choke point for organized labor to make demands that would otherwise be ignored," Ciruli said. "Put it all together and you can feel the anxiety in the business community."[10]

In the recent past, unions and business have worked together successfully on transportation, education, and health care. "We worked well with organized labor trying to move those issues forward," said Tamra Ward of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. "We've had this unique ability to work collaboratively. Unfortunately, where we're headed is mutual destruction."[8]

Business and unions come back to negotiating table

In mid-September, union and business leaders showed renewed interest in negotiating a deal to avoid the clash at the ballot-box.[2]

Colorado Concern, a new alliance, was a key player in the latest talks about the terms under which labor groups would pull their four measures if business leaders help them fight the Amendment 47 and two other measures they see as anti-union. Present at the negotiations for Colorado Concern were Walter Isenberg of Sage Hospitality Resources, Denver Performing Arts Center Chairman Dan Ritchie, and Oakwood Homes' Patrick Hamill.[2]

Talks broke off without a deal on Sept. 16, 2008, at the governor's mansion. But they resumed later in the week.[2]

Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce President Joe Blake attended the two meetings in mid-September and sits on the Colorado Concern board. But he said then that the Chamber will not spend any of its own resources to fight the three measures opposed by organized labor.[2]

In an address Sept. 17, 2008, at the chamber's annual membership lunch, Blake steered clear of talk about a compromise, instead calling on the audience to defeat the four proposals sought by unions. Blake later expressed pessimism that a compromise could be reached that would lead to the withdrawal of the measures.[2]

A source from Colorado Concern said Sept. 24, 2008, that they had pledges of $2 million from business interests toward the $6 million the union leaders say is necessary to convince them to withdraw the four anti-business ballot measures. That money would be used in the campaign to defeat Amendment 47 and two other measures the unions see as anti-union.[13][14] Amendment 47 supporters say they have no intention of dropping their proposal.[15]

Denver Metro Chamber President Joe Blake was asking companies that contributed to the chamber's issue committee, which was formed to oppose the labor-backed measures, not Amendment 47, to shift their money to fight the pro-business measures.[13]

Tim Jackson, president of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association and executive vice president of the Metro Denver Automobile Dealers Association, told Blake his members would not finance the fight against Amendment 47. "Although it's not finalized yet, my belief is that we would not allow our money to be forwarded to a campaign that would be opposed to what we would call the pro-business ballot measures," Jackson said.[13]

The metro Denver auto group has given $500,000 to the chamber's issue committee, while the state auto group has contributed $100,000 to the Amendment 47 right-to-work campaign.[13]

Coloradans for Responsible Reform said Sept. 26, 2008, that it would proceed with TV commercials opposing the union-backed measures (Amendments 53, 55, 56, and 57), since a deal for their withdrawal was not yet at hand. The campaign suspended the ads two weeks previous while business and union leaders worked on a deal.[15]

Todd Vitale, manager for Coloradans for Responsible Reform, said fundraising efforts slowed down during the negotiations.[15]

"Our research indicates that once voters learn about the real impact of these measures, they will vote them down," Vitale said.[15]

Vitale said his campaign had raised $1.6 million, compared to more than $6 million raised by organized labor to fight Amendment 47 and support the measures they are sponsoring.[15]

On Sept. 30, 2008, Walter Isenberg, chairman of Colorado Concern, announced that a deal between labor and a coalition of business leaders to pull four union-backed initiatives had fallen through.[16]

"A lot of progress was made over the last few weeks," Isenberg said in a released statement. "Unfortunately, we were unable to come up with a proposal to which union leaders would agree, and we have simply run out of time."[16]

The statement said there will be "no deal" with labor leaders, and business leaders will instead focus their financial resources on fighting the four union-backed ballot measures.[16]

But Jess Knox, a spokesman for Protect Colorado's Future, said there's "still time on the clock" and that a deal could still be worked out, noting that they "still have two days to pull this off."[16]

The group of business leaders reportedly had raised $3 million to oppose Amendment 47, short of the $5 million union officials reportedly wanted businesses to raise to fight Amendment 47. But Knox insisted the effort wasn't "just about money."[16]

"This is about running a joint campaign, and there are some complex details," Knox said.[16]

The deal was finally worked out during late-night meetings and announced Oct. 2, 2008, the deadline for removing measures from the ballot. Because the ballots are already being printed, the measures will still appear there, but no votes for the measures will be counted.[1][17]

Other measures filed by unions, pro-labor groups

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Denver Channel 7 News: "Labor Unions To Pull Ballot Measures," Oct. 2, 2008
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Rocky Mountain News: "Talks to resume to avert labor ballot battle," Sept. 18, 2008
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Denver Post: "Ritter wants to keep Peace," April 15, 2008
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Denver Post: "Closed-door confab seeks labor-business truce," April 8, 2008
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Denver Post: "Right-to-work petitions delivered," April 9, 2008
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Denver Post: "Right-to-work ballot battle builds," April 10, 2008
  7. Denver Business Journal: "Right-to-work meeting cloaked in secrecy," April 8, 2008
  8. 8.0 8.1 Rocky Mountain News: "Business, labor hope to avoid ballot clash," April 5, 2008
  9. Rocky Mountain News: "Ritter urges labor cease-fire," April 7, 2008
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Rocky Mountain News: "Stakes are sky-high in showdown over right-to-work issue," April 5, 2008
  11. Capital Research Center: "The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center," April 1, 2008
  12. NewsBusters: "The Media Ignore the Hypocrisy of 'FraudBusters' Allies," April 11, 2008
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 Denver Post: "Money tight as business pursues labor ballot deal," Sept. 25, 2008
  14. Rocky Mountain News: Opinion: "FOX: Labor-issues impasse at the precipice," Sept. 26, 2008
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 Denver Business Journal: "Ballot issues' TV ads back on," Sept. 26, 2008
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 Denver Business Journal: "Business-union pact: A dead deal?," Sept. 30, 2008
  17. Denver Post: "Ballot talks have evolved," Sept. 23, 2008