After decades of heartbreaking misses, Colorado lawmakers appear poised to ensure collective bargaining rights for state employees—a move that would help alleviate a crisis in job turnover for critically important state services.
New legislation spearheaded by Colorado WINS, a statewide affiliate of both the AFT and the Service Employees International Union, would allow almost 28,000 state employees to come to the bargaining table and make their voices heard by negotiating a higher standard of living through safer working conditions, family-sustaining compensation, and innovations for the common good.
With the support of most lawmakers in both the House and Senate, along with Gov. Jared Polis, who threatened to veto the collective bargaining bill last session, the new legislation will have a good chance of passage. It is expected to be introduced in the Legislature any day.
Skip Miller, president of Colorado WINS, led a rally and news conference on Jan. 10 at which leaders from the state House and Senate, along with the governor, stepped forward and announced their support for the bill. Miller pointed out that state employee pay in Colorado is increasingly uncompetitive with the private sector; that gap was expected to widen to 11.5 percent by the next fiscal year. Close to a fifth of classified state positions remained unfilled as of last year—that’s more than a 70 percent increase in job vacancies over a decade, according to the Denver Post.
“This bill is going to be life-changing for state workers,” said Miller, noting that the state’s public employees maintain roads and bridges, safeguard the water supply, monitor air quality, and keep prisons and communities safe.
Polis said the coming legislation will not only reduce turnover but also support morale and help attract a new generation of state workers. Although the bill will let state employees bargain their contract, they still won’t be able to strike. Until the bill is signed, Colorado remains one of 14 states whose public employees are not allowed to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.
State Rep. Daneya Esgar, a champion of the bill and chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, praised the agreement as a labor-management partnership: “What an exciting day, right?” she exclaimed. “Who knows better what Colorado needs than the people on the frontlines doing the work. But we are so far behind when it comes to wages. Colorado does have a booming economy, and this needs to be reflected in the way we treat our public employees.”
Senate President Leroy Garcia lauded state employees as “some of the most hardworking, tenacious and dedicated workers in the country. Through their work, which often goes unnoticed, state employees consistently ensure the health, safety and stability of our families: They are the environmental stewards of our beautiful public lands. They are the strength of our economy.”
Professionals who make up the state’s “human infrastructure” shouldn’t have to worry about whether they can pay their bills on time, Garcia said, but should feel the same support and stability they provide their communities. He said the new legislation will give workers input on the job and help the state stay nimble in a rapidly changing economy.
Cassie Geremaia of Denver (pictured at right), a state healthcare employee, described how much the anticipated law will boost her quality of life: “Every day, I am fighting to make healthcare affordable for every Coloradan,” she said. As a child, she was homeless, living with her mother in a car. But through public education, she was able to earn a master’s degree in public health—a degree that landed her a job but also saddled her with more than $100,000 in student loan debt. Despite “checking all the boxes” to reach the middle class, she still can’t afford a modest lifestyle that includes saving for a down payment on a home or even having a dog.
“But that’s why I’m so happy to be with all of you here today, to celebrate collective bargaining for state workers,” Geremaia said. “Every person has the right to come together and stand up for their safety and economic well-being. Workers across the country are increasingly getting together to form strong unions. It doesn’t matter if you’re a state employee or an airport worker. When we come together, our voices will resonate,” she said to loud cheers, “and that means we’ll all be able to create a more fair and lasting future for every person in Colorado.”