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Labor issues may find ballot
'Right-to-work' measure, reins on firing workers and allowing corporate fraud suits in mix
By Joanne Kelley and David Milstead
Rocky Mountain
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 to unions.

"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 accountable."

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 Denver 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 makes Colorado 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 business-friendly state."

But Colorado AFL-CIO Executive Director Mike Cerbo dismissed the argument that the amendment could bolster the business environment.

"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 fall.

"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 families."

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, 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 pressing issues.

"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 said.

"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." or 303-954-5068

Proposed initiatives

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.

Just cause

* Who's behind it: Coalition of labor groups and individuals

* 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 nongovernment entities.

Corporate fraud

* Who's behind it: The same groups behind the "just cause" initiative

* 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.