Joanne Kelley
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October 17, 2008
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Amendment 47 stirs costly, complex fight

A so-called right-to-work amendment on November's ballot comes down to this: Should workers be required to share in the cost of a union that represents them on the job and at the bargaining table?

The business interests backing an end to mandatory union fees say they want to give employees the freedom to choose whether to financially support a labor group.

Unions and their members who are fighting the measure worry some workers will try to avoid paying any of the cost of bargaining for wages and other benefits.

But when voters get their ballots, they will see Amendment 47 summed up in its title: "Prohibition on Mandatory Labor Union Membership and Dues."

"It's one of those things that sounds reasonable and fair on the face of it " why should anyone be forced to join anything?" said Philip Dine, author of the recently published book State of the Unions. "But it really is a lot more voluntary than it sounds."

- Federal law already bans compulsory union membership.

- In Colorado, mandatory fees can be imposed in the private sector only after 75 percent of workers vote in a special election to approve what's known as an "all-union" workplace. Even then, the employer has to agree to the arrangement during the collective bargaining process.

- Once an all-union workplace is formed, any employee can decline membership and pay partial fees that cover only the cost of representation instead of the full dues going to a variety of other activities.

- In the public sector, union fees are often optional, although certain contracts require some financial support.

Still, the right-to-work supporters want the financial relationship to be completely voluntary between unions and the workers they represent.

The fight over the measure has been one of the most costly and complex battles among this year's near-record number of Colorado ballot initiatives.

In all, the groups fighting for and against Amendment 47 have raised more than $15 million in campaign money so far. Part of the money will go to fight two other anti-union measures.

Amendment 47 has been among the most hotly contested of all.

First, labor groups fought back with a slew of their own ballot initiatives designed to be popular with workers, but costly for business owners. But an attempt to use them as leverage failed because "right-to-work" proponents went ahead with their ballot push anyway.

The strategy did attract some unlikely allies to labor's camp.

In an unprecedented move, several prominent business executives took the unlikely step of agreeing to fight the "right-to-work" initiative if unions withdrew their measures.

Other business groups, many of them in rural parts of the state, have jumped at the chance to endorse the measure.

"Right-to-work is neither anti-union nor pro-union; it is pro-freedom," according to Mark Latimer of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.

But Fred Feinstein, general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board during several years of the Clinton administration, pointed to what he views as a "fundamental flaw" in the right-to-work argument.

"The union is under a legal obligation to represent the non-dues payer," said Feinstein, now a senior fellow at the University of Maryland. "If you don't, you're violating the law."

The bottom line for him: "These are not forced dues but contributions to the expense of union representation, which is an employee benefit. A right-to-work amendment is really a proxy for whether you're for unions or not."

None of the main backers or proponents of the push to make Colorado the 23rd "right-to-work" state have agreed to be interviewed about their amendment over the past several months. They instead have referred all questions to campaign spokesman Kelley Harp.

Harp said he sees no difference between being a union member or what's known as an "agency fee payer" contributing a portion of the financial requirement.

"It's a distinction without a difference," Harp has said repeatedly.

Union member Linda Daniels agrees.

"Although I have the freedom of choice to join or not join a union, it's merely a distinction on paper," said Daniels, who works as a registered dietician at Kaiser Permanente.

Daniels said she has never tried to "opt out" of the union or stop paying the full dues amount. She just feels she would be better off without a union at all because of the "positive management structure" at Kaiser, an organization that has ramped up its emphasis on working closely with its unions.

In contrast, Littleton firefighter Joel Heinemann worries about what will happen if the amendment passes and begins to "fragment" the voice of workers across the state.

Among his own ranks, 100 percent of workers belong to the local union even though membership already is completely voluntary.

In many nearby cities such as Denver, however, firefighters are required to share the cost of unionization by paying at least a portion of dues.

In Heinemann's view, unity among firefighters gives them a greater ability to bargain for better emergency equipment and adequate staffing levels. And he sees that as crucial because departments in one town help out those in another so often.

"We need to speak with a single voice," he said. "It has more to do with the community's safety than my personal pay and benefit."

As union organizing activity in the private sector has declined over the past few decades, there have been fewer elections held in the private sector each year regarding whether workers should be required to share in union costs.

Colorado is the only state with a law requiring the second election process for "all-union" contracts, a distinction some argue already adds an extra hurdle for labor organizers.

Thirty years ago, during labor's heyday, the state's labor division presided over 63 such special elections. In each of the past several years, there have been only six or seven of them. And most of the outcomes have been overwhelmingly, if not unanimously, in favor of the concept of required union dues.

"Employees already have a choice - these things are only possible if the majority of employees want a union," said Richard Rosenblatt, a Denver- based labor attorney who represents the Communications Workers of America. "In this country we have a system where the majority rules. A requirement of 75 percent is a supermajority."

A Ciruli Associates poll from Oct. 3, completed for the Economic Development Council of Colorado, shows 39 percent of voters are for the amendment, 40 percent against, 17 percent don't know and 5 percent did not vote.

* A Better Colorado has raised about $1.2 million toward its campaign. The group is financed in part by brewery descendant Jonathan Coors and his family's company, CoorsTek. Other large contributions have come from the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association and a group called Coloradans for Economic Growth.

Two campaign groups

want to defeat it -

* Protect Colorado's Future, a union-backed coalition, has received about $7 million so far. Coloradans for Middle Class Relief, set up by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 last reported contributions of $4.8 million.

* A group of prominent Denver-area executives agreed to raise $3 million toward the effort when labor groups dropped four ballot measures thought to be damaging to businesses.

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The Summit Daily Updated Oct 17, 2008 07:28PM Published Oct 17, 2008 07:28PM Copyright 2008 The Summit Daily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.