After a bunch of cuts, what would Colorado’s public sector collective bargaining bill really change?

In the past five months, a proposal to grant new organizing rights to local Colorado public employees has been cut and cut again.

In the final days of the session it was cut once more, and even in its very narrow form the final passage is uncertain.

In a late-night session last Friday, Democrats agreed to exclude workers in the state’s 14 least-populated counties from the bill’s requirements. It was a compromise intended to dampen opposition from Republicans, who had prepared hundreds of amendments that could have swallowed up precious hours remaining in the waning legislative session.

“It was kind of a deal made between rural Republicans, rural Democrats and really pushing the majority,” said state Rep. Matt Soper, a Republican from Delta County.

Death by a thousand cuts

For some workers’ rights advocates, it was the latest of a thousand cuts that have slowly killed the bill’s promise to broadly empower public servants. From its beginnings with the enormous potential to rewrite the rules of organizing for hundreds of thousands of workers, its potential impact has been reduced to a few tens of thousands.

“It’s a small step forward,” said Jennifer Sherer, a labor scholar at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. But the bill “still leaves Colorado trailing the majority of states with stronger rights for public sector workers.”

Republicans and some county officials, however, view even the limited bill as costly and unnecessary.

“We have a part-time human resources person who is also our deputy county manager,” Park County Commissioner Amy Mitchell said at an earlier committee hearing. Facing collective bargaining could cost $400,000, she said — assuming the county’s 200 employees decide to unionize.

“That means we’ll have to spend money that we don’t have,” she said.

With barely 24 hours left in session, the bill still hadn’t gotten its last necessary votes. It passed the Senate but requires a final vote in the House. If it passes this stage, the Senate will have to consider the amendments adopted by the House.

So what does the near-final bill do?

In short, the bill allows workers to communicate freely and work together to raise concerns and organize. If they can get enough support, workers employed by most counties in the state can form “bargaining units” — essentially, adding part of the workforce to a union.

Counties must then recognize and negotiate “in good faith” with these bargaining units. Ideally, they would reach a compromise satisfactory to county leaders and their employees.

“It’s about power dynamics and making sure workers have a voice,” House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar said last month.

If the negotiations reach an impasse, the county and the union will have to go through mediation, and an “investigator” could possibly recommend an agreement. Some county governments argue that this process could cost millions, an expense that could reduce their ability to provide services to residents, while Esgar says it’s a crucial way to raise workers’ concerns and improve work place.

But there are limits to these new negotiations. County governments will not be bound to accept the results of the mediation process – in other words, there will be no “binding arbitration”. And workers will not be allowed to strike, which will limit their ability to pressure their employer for change.

This has led some advocates to complain that the counties might just continue to reject the results of the negotiations. That concern led members of Communications Workers of America Local 7799 to vote not to support the bill in the end, Vice President Alex Wolf-Root said.

“If you have nothing with binding arbitration and prohibit workers from exercising their power (through strikes), you are using all the leverage they have to get management and bosses to accept all of this” , Wolf-Root said last month.

EPI’s Sherer agreed that the absence of these powers will “limit” workers’ influence. But the process of negotiating and organizing could still give them a chance to win public support and political clout to strike a deal.

“It’s up to them to exert their collective pressure and, in some cases, muster allies among the residents and public they serve locally,” Sherer said.

Where will it apply?

With the latest amendments, the bill will guarantee certain rights to workers in 46 of the state’s 64 counties. Counties with populations under 5,000 were cut out to spare them the cost of possible union negotiations. Several others — Denver, Broomfield, Pitkin and Weld — were also left out of the mandate due to their unusual government structures.

The bill was originally drafted last year to allow “collective bargaining” for employees in cities, school districts and more – totaling more than 400,000 covered workers. That number has now fallen to less than 40,000.

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