Unions are playing offense for the first time in quite a while.
A year ago, public employee unions appeared to be on the ropes in much of the country, with several Republican governors moving to abolish collective bargaining for state employees. But the unions had a good year at the ballot box in 2006, helping to elect allies in many states, tilting the balance of power their way in some places. Now, in states where Democrats have taken control, labor is pushing hard for long-sought priorities. But it is finding the pushback pretty strong.
Unions would especially like to ease some of the state "right to work" laws, which bar any "closed shop" requirement of union membership as a condition of employment. They thought they had a particularly good shot in Colorado, where Democrats control both legislative chambers and the governorship for the first time in 40 years. A bill moved swiftly through both houses, and needed only the signature of Governor Bill Ritter--who had just been elected with strong union backing--to become law.
The bill was actually fairly modest in scope. Colorado's labor relations act is an odd hybrid under which unions have to win two separate votes of the employees at any workplace to create an all- union shop. This year's bill would simply have eliminated the requirement for the second vote. Ritter had pledged his support during the campaign for such a move, so it looked like a done deal.
But the governor surprised everybody by vetoing it. He said that he wasn't against the bill in principle, but that the debate had become so rancorous that he had no choice. Business groups lobbied vehemently against the legislation, and Ritter, who enjoyed a considerable amount of corporate help in 2006, worried that its passage into law might poison his chances to win needed business support for other priorities, such as health care, transportation and higher education. "I realize how deeply disappointed my friends in organized labor will be with this decision," Ritter said.
Surprisingly, the main sponsor of the legislation, Representative Michael Garcia, agrees with Ritter's logic. "The furor over the bill created so much animosity," Garcia says, "that it really would have affected our ability to work on issues as important or more important."
Despite the wasted expenditure of political capital, Garcia still insists a new day has dawned for labor in Colorado. Unions clearly aren't going to win every fight, particularly when they need the support of a governor who is determined to maintain his ties to business. Still, Garcia feels his friends in the labor movement have a chance to help set the agenda. That hasn't been true in Colorado in a long time. How long? "Maybe since the Eisenhower administration," Garcia says.