State workers win bargaining rights in Colorado

State employees in Colorado have won a historic victory as the governor signed a first-ever collective bargaining bill June 16. The new law gives state employees the freedom to come together in a union and bargain for wages, benefits and working conditions to improve public services.

Colorado WINS

The Colorado Partnership for Quality Jobs and Services Act, H.B. 1153, passed the state House in February and the Senate on June 2, spurred on by workers and elected officials who recognize that public employees are the experts who know best how to improve public services and make their state a better place to live. It is the fruit of years of effort by Colorado WINS (Colorado Workers for Innovative and New Solutions), a joint affiliate of the AFT and the Service Employees International Union that represents about 28,000 public employees.

The bill was enacted Tuesday afternoon in an unprecedented virtual bill-signing by Gov. Jared Polis during a videoconferenced ceremony that included Colorado WINS President Skip Miller and the bill’s legislative champions, Rep. Daneya Esgar and Sen. Brittany Pettersen. Sen. Leroy Garcia could not attend.

“It’s just momentous, for us and for the people of Colorado,” Miller said in an interview before the signing. “We’ve been working on this since 2007, and I couldn’t think of a better time for it to come to fruition, with a public health crisis and a budget shortfall. For us, the essential workers who are providing these services, it’s extremely important that we have a voice in how we are providing these services.”

In the current coronavirus pandemic, Miller said, “we have a lot of employees who were deemed essential workers. Are they getting the PPE [personal protective equipment] they need—is that universal across the whole workforce? We want to protect our employees and the public at large.”

Another important result of the law will be more racial equity, he said.

“We feel like there are things we can do in the state to make for fairer hiring and a more equitable working environment for people of color, LGBTQ people and other marginalized people,” Miller said. “We’d like to bring these issues to the table, and the governor does, too.”

Colorado WINS

“Colorado has a reputation for responsive and efficient government, and state employees have gone above and beyond during this pandemic, making sure that the necessary business of government gets done,” Polis said before signing the bill into law. “To give our citizens the best bang for their buck, we need for Colorado to be a competitive employer, and this step we’re taking today is to make sure our state employees are treated with the respect they deserve.”

A history of wins

Colorado WINS, launched in 2007, has built up its influence in improving public services, working in partnership with the state, to make Colorado a prime example of innovation in public service.

The union believes that everyone benefits when frontline workers come together to find solutions so that their state is a place where all families and communities can thrive. For example:

  • In 2011, the union won safety mirrors and keys to dining halls for dietary staff to improve worker safety at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo;
  • In 2016, the union successfully defended staffing for the state’s clean air program; and
  • In 2019, the union fought for and won $15.6 million for direct care staff at veterans’ and youth residential facilities, plus more than $50 million to improve staffing, medical care and parolee caseloads in the state corrections system.

As union president, Miller is glad that the new law will standardize best practices across state government.

“The way Colorado WINS came into existence, with an executive order, it provided a partnership but it was all voluntary,” he said. “Some departments abided by the agreement, others didn’t. So to have a mechanism now where we can come to the table and both parties agree to be bound by that, it’s a game-changer.”

Moments before the signing, when participants erupted in virtual applause and the video chat exploded into whoops and cheers, the bill’s legislative sponsors expressed their excitement.

“I think about how long we’ve talked about this and what was needed to win,” Pettersen said, holding her baby, Davis. “I’m really proud to be a part of this work. It’s important to be here for workers in good times and bad.”

The law’s House sponsor agreed. “I’m so excited to watch you actually sign this bill into law,” Esgar told the governor. “I couldn’t be more proud of the team we pulled together. This is an enormous step forward. And we couldn’t have done it without the amazing folks at Colorado WINS.”

[Annette Licitra/Colorado WINS photos]