Firefighters closer to collective bargaining

DENVER — Local control took a back seat in a Senate committee Wednesday when Democratic lawmakers approved a bill to give firefighters collective bargaining rights.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, would allow firefighters to form unions and bargain for their compensation.

It does not, however, give them the right to strike if they don’t get what they want, said Tochtrop, who said the measure brings fairness to all firefighters statewide.

A similar measure was approved during the 2009 session of the Colorado Legislature only to be vetoed by then Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat.

Mayors, local government officials and leaders with the Colorado Municipal League testified against the measure, but not because they necessarily oppose unions.

“The opposition from the municipal league has nothing to do with collective bargaining, and it has nothing to do with labor because it’s not a labor issue,” said Kevin Bommer, deputy director of the league. “It’s about local control. We do not believe that the state of Colorado should dictate to local governments in how they deal with local employment issues.”

Bommer and the other witnesses said some local governments already have granted similar union rights to their firefighters while others have held public votes expressly forbidding them. Approving such a measure, they said, disenfranchises those local voters.

Regardless, the three Democrats on the five-member Senate Business Affairs and Labor Committee approved the measure, sending it to the full Senate.

Although no one from the Grand Junction City Council came to Denver to testify against the measure, Mayor Bill Pitts sent a letter saying the city opposed it, calling it an unfunded mandate.

Pitts said city residents rejected a ballot question to alter the city’s charter granting such a right in 2000, and not by a close margin.

“Collective bargaining does not always lead to increased cooperation between employees and employers and can in fact create friction and distraction from the overall goal of ensuring the public’s safety,” Pitts wrote in the letter. “Pitting employees and employers against each other at the bargaining table can divert attention from the most important mission of public safety agencies: protecting the public with the highest quality service possible.”

In addition to forming unions with collective bargaining rights, the firefighters would have the right to have a union representative present during grievance procedures and other employer-employee-related issues.

In contrast, the same committee also rejected a measure Wednesday that would have prohibited employers, public or private, from not employing anyone if they don’t join a union.

Senate Bill 24, introduced by freshman Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, is similar to the right-to-work measures that have grabbed headlines nationwide.

Proponents said approving such a measure would boost job development because it helps states attract larger employers, particularly manufacturing companies.

“We suggest that lawmakers passed this because their states were strapped with massive budget deficits, falling revenues and stagnant economic growth,” said Mark Latimer, president and CEO of the Colorado chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors. “With the exception of New Mexico, all the surrounding states around Colorado have passed right-to-work laws.”

The measure still died on the same 3-2 party-line vote.


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