By JOE GARCIA, JOHN MARSHALL and TONY FRANK
Over the past year, colleges, universities and local governments in Colorado have been watching with interest as unions and legislative proponents have promoted a plan to unionize public employees in all corners of our state. Now that we have a draft of the bill in hand, we’re concerned — and parents hoping to afford sending their kids to college in Colorado should be, too.
Without sugar-coating it, students and families should understand that if a measure to unionize government and campus employees is ultimately successful, colleges and universities across Colorado face a no-win choice: dramatically raise tuition or cut academic programs to cover the substantial projected new costs associated with collective bargaining.
To their great credit, in recent years and including this new budget, the Colorado General Assembly and Governor Jared Polis have prioritized investment in Colorado’s high-performing higher education system over the past number of years. These investments have enabled institutions to minimize — or many cases avoid altogether — tuition increases.
These investments have also enabled our institutions to stand up new academic programs to meet society’s needs — training mental health professionals and frontline healthcare workers in rural areas, adding new nursing programs designed to address a troubling shortage of nurses and investing in programs designed to reach or provide alternative pathways to good careers. If our campuses are forced to focus resources on labor relations attorneys and new HR staff to navigate a wholly new management environment (as, indeed, has been the case in every state where such systems are at play for public universities), then unless the State of Colorado picks up these new educational expenses, the only option our governing boards will have to pay for these items will be tuition increases (conservative estimates could exceed 10% per year) or cuts to academic programs.
The truth is, our institutions were designed and built to be accessible for our most under-served Coloradans — i.e., students of color, low-income students and students who are the first in their family to go to college. Everything about how we operate reflects this fact, from programming, to faculty teaching loads, to finances. And there is no disagreement that our lowest paid employees should earn living wage. Indeed, most of our institutions have been working for over a decade with these employee groups to improve compensation, benefits and career ladders — exactly the sorts of outcomes unions promise.
The issue we have with this bill is not a difference in desired outcome, but in how best to get to that shared outcome in a way that doesn’t choke off access to public higher education. By adding this complex and costly new labor regime into our systems, we will make the cost of education more expensive for those families who can least afford it. Full stop.
In his State of the State address at the outset of this year’s legislative session, Governor Polis laid out an affordability agenda designed to save people money. We laud the governor’s goal here. We hope legislative leaders will resist the urge to push through a complicated bill designed to unionize campus employees at the 11th hour of the 2022 legislative session as its ultimate impact will be the exact opposite of saving Colorado students and families money.
Joe Garcia is the former Lieutenant Governor of Colorado and currently serves as Chancellor of the Colorado Community College System.
John Marshall serves as President of Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.
Tony Frank is the Chancellor of the Colorado State University System.