Government employees in more than half of Colorado counties on Friday won the right unionize and to collectively bargain over pay, benefits and working conditions.
Gov. Jared Polis signed SB22-230 into law in Pueblo. It’s set to go into effect on July 1, 2023.
The lead sponsor of the bill, Pueblo Democrat Daneya Esgar, has called the policy “monumental.”
Said Esgar Friday, “These workers staff our public health departments, maintain our roads, and keep our communities safe, and they deserve the right to join together to improve their workplaces and negotiate for better pay and benefits. This new law allows county workers to unionize if they choose to so that they can have a seat at the table to discuss decisions that not only impact their livelihood but the safety of the communities they serve.”
Esgar, the House majority leader, opened this year’s legislative session with sights on a much broader bill than the one signed Friday. Working with a coalition of labor organizations, Esgar sought to empower public workers across the state — not just at the county level, but in cities, in school districts and special districts, and at public colleges and universities — with new union rights.
The plan was to allow hundreds of thousands of these workers to form unions without needing permission from elected government leaders or from voters. They don’t have that right at present. The plan also involved conferring upon these workers the power to negotiate union contracts.
Though he declined for months to discuss specifics of that plan with reporters, Polis did make clear early in the session that the bill would have to be “much narrower” to win his signature.
After that, the first to go were workers in cities, special districts and K-12 schools. Higher education and county workers survived that cut because, at differing levels, each of those sectors is more closely connected to state budgeting than the other three. Counties, in particular, are often referred to at the Capitol as “arms of the state,” as they administer state programs in local communities.
But some labor leaders in higher education weren’t happy with where the bill was heading. Namely, they were concerned that the bill would offer no teeth to compel administrators to agree to contracts. In the closing weeks of the session, the bill was introduced such that it would apply only to counties.
The final version of the bill that Polis just signed leaves no question that county commissioners have final say over their own budgets. While they must negotiate with unions in good faith, the bill does not provide for binding arbitration — that is, a final resolution to force a contract agreement when two sides can’t reach a deal.
In that sense, county leaders can opt-out of agreeing to any new union contracts, even if they can’t stop workers from unionizing to begin with. The pro-labor advocates who backed SB22-230 are hoping that won’t happen so simply — that if and when unions form in anti-union counties, commissioners will be moved by public pressure to honestly negotiate with workers and to consider those workers’ asks.
But in the face of fierce opposition from Republican lawmakers and from many county commissioners, Democrats, who hold majorities in both legislative chambers, agreed to cuts that mean lots of counties won’t be subject to this new law at all. Denver and Broomfield counties were never going to be included, as they are combined city/county governments. A late-session amendment cut out every county with a population of 7,500 or fewer people, which lopped off about a third of counties in Colorado. The counties that remain included in the bill together employ the vast majority of the state’s county government workers.
The bill also allows for “home-rule” counties to ask voters to amend their charters to opt-out of SB22-230. For now Weld and Pitkin counties are the only two to which that provision applies, but conservative commissioners tell The Denver Post they plan to carefully consider seeking voter approval to declare themselves “home-rule” counties — a move that carries many more implications than exemption from the new labor law.
SB22-230 does not itself create any new unions, and those who crafted it don’t expect it’ll lead to a major swell of county-level labor organizing in the immediate future. The law merely opens the door for affected workers and lays out certain terms for how they and their employers must proceed if and when unions form.
Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who joined Esgar in sponsoring the policy, has for months said that while he wanted to pass a bill to empower as many public workers as possible, he always knew it would have to be compromised down. It was, after all, but Fenberg declared victory Friday.
“I am proud to have championed this new law that will give tens of thousands of unsung heroes the right to organize and negotiate for fair and safe workplaces — the same rights that nearly every private sector and state worker already enjoy,” he said in a statement. “This historic legislation will help improve lives and communities across our state, and I am pleased to see it get signed into law.”
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