In recent months, Democratic lawmakers in the state legislature have been negotiating over drafted legislation to impose new government union collective bargaining mandates on Colorado governments. This week, SB22-230 was officially released, providing more clarity on the situation.
On a positive note, the legislation is now focused on just Colorado counties. Prior drafts and outlines of legislation have included higher education institutions as well as all municipalities and local governments, meaning police, teachers, and virtually all Colorado public employees could have been forced to work under union contracts. That said, numerous entities at the county level, including members of law enforcement, are still targeted in the new bill.
Major concerning provisions in SB-22-230 include:
Most collective bargaining negotiations and information are mandated to be behind closed doors outside the jurisdiction of the Colorado Open Records Act.
Allowing for the expungement of some disciplinary records, meaning bad actors at the county level including some law enforcement can have important information withheld from the public that leads to problematic actions occurring that might have been prevented. Binding arbitration would also be used to settle contested grievances, meaning arbitrators could unilaterally expunge records and block discipline procedures.
Denying Colorado employees the right to a secret ballot, meaning our public servants are not afforded the right to vote with their conscience privately on union representation the way we as Coloradans vote for our elected representatives. Furthermore, workers have at best a mere 30 day window near the end of long union contracts to attempt to change union representation if they are dissatisfied, and only based on procedures that are not even set.
Minimal limitations on what can be demanded by union leaders, meaning counties will be forced to settle important decisions on county budgets and public services affecting everyone with union leaders instead of with Colorado voters.
Counties would have to provide union leaders with personal contact information such as personal emails, phone numbers, and addresses unless employees successfully push for opt outs. This could lead to intimidation and harassment by union leaders.
Why expanding mandatory union bargaining would undermine government accountability
Simply put, expanding mandatory union bargaining would undermine government accountability for Coloradans and choice for public servants.
Colorado’s governments and public education institutions must honor their contract with the people of Colorado to serve everyone’s interests and rights, but mandatory government union contracts directly undermine this contract with the public.
Where mandatory collective bargaining exists, important policies that impact the incomes of all Coloradans, and their quality and access to public services, become settled through approval of union leaders and/or arbitrators, which do not represent and are not accountable to the Colorado public.
Instead of retaining authority to make final decisions in the interest of everyone, and modify policies when conditions change such as the COVID-19 pandemic or rising inflation, Colorado governments would have to make decisions with union interest groups.
Mandatory bargaining is also unnecessary for public workers and is unfair to Coloradans. Government unions already enjoy the same first amendment rights as Coloradans and other interest groups without mandatory bargaining privileges.
For instance, the Colorado Education Association claims 39,000 members in the state, giving CEA significant financial resources and supporters to advocate for its preferred policies.
It can collect voluntary payments from supporters, lobby government for preferred policies, use media and public outreach to bring public attention to changes its leaders or members want just like other individuals and groups.
Unions can advocate for pay raises, changes in benefits, employee discipline procedures, school curriculum decisions, and countless other important matters of public policy all without collective bargaining.
Mandatory government union bargaining can lead to all kinds of harm
A 2016 study found that mandatory collective bargaining across state and local governments drives up the annual tax burden of a family of four by $2,300-3,000 annually. In Colorado specifically, where some local governments have implemented collective bargaining but the state and most local governments have not, the same study found that an expansion to all Colorado government employees would have cost taxpayers between $644 million to $1.4 billion annually.
In addition to overall rising costs, new administrative costs for government bargaining can be significant, such as an $8 million each two years for Colorado’s new state bargaining law covering under 30,000 employees. Colorado’s local governments employ over 400,000 people, meaning significant administrative costs across the state just to conduct the bargaining process.
Collective bargaining contracts and arbitration processes have been found to undermine accountability of public employees, including law enforcement, where union protections can prevent even egregious actions from being punished and union power is used to block policy changes around law enforcement practices.
Union contract requirements also undermine the autonomy of school leaders and teachers such as at Denver’s innovation schools that seek more flexibility to implement educational practices that differ from previous ones that were failing students. A new bargaining law could impose more widespread restrictions on innovation across Colorado government.
Colorado higher education institutions have made clear that collective bargaining would lead to increased administrative and operations costs, which would require more taxpayer funding and/or higher tuition.
Background on Colorado government unionization:
Today, around 18 percent of Colorado’s public employees are estimated to be government union members. Members include some police, teacher, and fire department employees among a number of local Colorado governments that unilaterally enacted bargaining measures, and the over 28,000 state employees as a result of a mandatory state bargaining bill enacted in 2020, HB 20-1153.