Economy & Economic Development  September 12, 2011

‘Right-to-work’ splits business groups

Amendment 47 aims to change Colorado’s 65-year-old law governing the relationship between employers, employees and unions. However, its appearance on the ballot has incited a political standoff that is forcing it onto the back burner.

The amendment – titled Prohibition on Mandatory Labor Union Membership and Dues but known as “right-to-work” – would eliminate any requirement that an employee pay for union dues or the cost of collective bargaining as a condition of employment.

The Colorado Labor Peace Act of 1943 currently governs the relationship between employers, employees and unions. In addition to the federally mandated majority vote for union formation, the Labor Peace Act requires a second vote to determine if employees who choose not to join the union will be required to pay for the cost of any representation that benefits them.

Larry Marquess, a labor attorney for the Denver office of Littler Mendelson P.C., explained that federal law, almost exclusively, governs union formation in the private sector. In cases where states have implemented regulations regarding private sector, the federal law is preemptive. However, federal laws do not encompass every element of labor-employer relations.

“One area that is exempted from that is the area we call right-to-work,” he said.

The Colorado Labor Peace Act creates a hybrid system, Marquess explained. The law allows for employers and unions to negotiate union security clauses, which would be disallowed under right-to-work provisions. The Labor Peace Act requires employers to provide notice to employees who would be affected by the security clause. If 20 percent of the employees request it, another vote will be held. In order for the security clause to go into effect, at least 75 percent of the employees who choose to vote or 50 percent of the entire employee unit must approve the clause.

“What (the Labor Peace Act) reflected, in effect, was a compromise,” he said. “It is where Colorado is different than any other state.”

Marquess, who has been practicing law in Colorado since the 1970s, said that he has seen few conflicts arise over union security clauses or the Labor Peace Act, especially in recent years.

“I saw more of them in the first 10 years of my practice than in the last 20 years,” he said.

Business-friendly or anti-worker?

Proponents of Amendment 47 – largely business owners and groups – argue that no one should be required to pay union dues to be employed. They also claim that states with right-to-work laws are viewed as more business friendly and have an easier time attracting new employers.

Opponents counter that right-to-work is geared toward weakening unions, and thus quashing worker rights.

“The Colorado Labor Peace Act has served Colorado well, but it’s in danger,´ said Kelley Harp, spokesman for A Better Colorado, which is focused solely on supporting Amendment 47.

Harp said that the introduction of Amendment 47 is directly related to several actions last year. Early in the 2007 legislative session, House Bill 1072 moved through the Colorado Assembly. The bill would have eliminated the second vote for security clauses.

Gov. Bill Ritter vetoed the bill following a loud outcry from the business community. He explained that he supported the idea of eliminating the second vote but that to do so in “a bitter, divisive and partisan battle” was not good for the state. Later in the year, Ritter passed an executive order granting state workers bargaining rights.

These actions, Harp said, showed that the current balance between business and labor interests in the state were shifting.

“The main idea is freedom of association,” he said. “No other private organization can compel membership.”

Jess Knox, executive director for Protect Colorado’s Future, said opposition to Amendment 47 is also about freedom – freedom from government interference in a private negotiating process between employer and employee.

Knox said that Protect Colorado’s Future, which formed earlier this year, has two goals – to expand access to health care and to increase the creation of jobs. Protect Colorado’s Future sponsored two initiatives that will appear on the ballot – Amendment 53, “Criminal Accountability of Business Executives,” and Amendment 55, “Allowable Reasons for Employee Discharge or Suspension.” Additionally, Knox said the group plans to vigorously oppose several amendments, including 47.

“Amendment 47 is an effort by out-of-state special interests to divide Colorado,” he asserted. “Colorado’s economy doesn’t need a derisive ideological crusade.”

At the same time, Protect Colorado’s Future is not supporting the status quo.

“This has nothing to do with the Labor Peace Act, per se,” he said, explaining that it is about maintaining a balance between the culture that has developed.

As of mid-September, A Better Colorado had raised about $750,000. Protect Colorado’s Future, just one of the groups opposed to Amendment 47, has raised more than $3 million.

“I think the fact of the matter is we will be outspent,” Harp said.

Knox said that week-by-week analysis will determine to which items Protect Colorado’s Future will allot its resources.

Tit-for-tat arguments

The economic argument is offered as tit-for-tat to the other arguments for and against Amendment 47. Each side, citing federal government data, claim that the economic benefits fall in their favor. Proponents point to more growth, on percentage basis, in real personal income, the number of employees and the number of people earning a bachelor’s degree in right-to-work states. Opponents show that in right-to-work states, ethnic minorities and women make less than in other states.

As with the economic argument, business groups are split on Amendment 47. Many of the state’s business organizations have put their support behind the right-to-work movement, with the exception of the Colorado Bankers Association, while the Denver Metro and South Metro Denver chambers have come out in opposition.

The Northern Colorado Legislative Alliance – a group representing the Greeley, Loveland and Fort Collins chambers of commerce and the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corp. – announced in July it would oppose Amendment 47, along with the labor-backed initiatives. Its official position was to support the Labor Peace Act.

Sandra Hagen Solin explained that the NCLA members support right-to-work, philosophically, in that it sends a message to business that Colorado is a business-friendly state. The organization joined with other business groups in opposing right-to-work in an effort to influence the groups supporting the labor initiatives to pull the measures. As of mid-September, no resolution had been reached.

“It’s been an evolving position,” Hagen Solin said. “We did in fact revisit Amendment 47 and right-to-work.”

The NCLA is now backing Amendment 47, in light of the impasse with the labor groups. She said that the NCLA will not provide any financial support to the effort, though.

If Amendment 47 were to pass, Marquess said there would be few variables in its implementation.

“The idea of right-to-work has been around a long time, and Colorado won’t be much different from the rest of them,” he said.

The only possible questions would be related to how the law would apply to existing contracts, and as with any amendment, language and interpretation could be called into question.

Amendment 47 aims to change Colorado’s 65-year-old law governing the relationship between employers, employees and unions. However, its appearance on the ballot has incited a political standoff that is forcing it onto the back burner.

The amendment – titled Prohibition on Mandatory Labor Union Membership and Dues but known as “right-to-work” – would eliminate any requirement that an employee pay for union dues or the cost of collective bargaining as a condition of employment.

The Colorado Labor Peace Act of 1943 currently governs the relationship between employers, employees and unions. In addition to the federally mandated majority vote for union formation,…

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