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A Shaky Foundation, A Potential Threat: Analyzing Colorado State Union “Employee Partnerships”

IP-4-2008 (April 2008)
Author: Ben DeGrow

PDF of full Issue Paper
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Executive Summary

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter’s November 2007 executive order that introduced union representation to state government through employee “partnership agreements” is misguided. The contradictions, omissions, and other fallacies promoted by defenders of the order show that the change really was not necessary. By issuing the unilateral order, the Governor prevented a full public debate, which would have addressed important flaws regarding the order:

  • The executive order clearly gave union leaders collective bargaining power: Since unions can act as “exclusive representatives” over state employees, the argument that “employee partnerships” are not “collective bargaining” is entirely inaccurate.
  • A failed union “partnership” in California nursing homes has been mostly ignored.
  • Union partnerships may bring improvements to workplaces embroiled in conflict-oriented collective bargaining, but these results are not transferable to Colorado state government, where collective bargaining did not exist before the order was issued.
  • Claims that unionization will improve government performance and efficiency have no basis in academic research.
  • The example of a successful “partnership” in Colorado state government shows that union representation is not needed to foster labor and management cooperation.

Despite Ritter’s statements that his order was designed to solve alleged inefficiencies, unions leaders and others have advertised it as a means to improve employee health insurance benefits. However, careful analysis likewise shows these claims to be exaggerated and misleading:

  • Colorado does not compare favorably to other states in employer HMO contributions, but most Colorado state employees choose the more generous PPO plan.
  • Even with the smaller employer HMO contribution, total compensation for Colorado state employees compares favorably with the private sector and other state governments.
  • Contrary to some claims, Colorado state government retains employees better than most of its neighbors—including four state governments with collective bargaining.

While seeking to solve a non-existent problem, Ritter’s order opens the door to other problems:

  • “Exclusive representation” likely will lead to costly binding arbitration.
  • Unions still have the opportunity to collect agency fees from non-member state workers.
  • The remedy for preventing disruptive state employee strikes is weak.
  • It provides momentum toward mandatory government union bargaining in Colorado.

The following measures would mitigate or prevent some problems created by Ritter’s order:

  • To ensure public accountability, enact a law that guarantees all negotiations—including actual meetings and their records—be open, accessible, and transparent to citizens.
  • To fulfill Ritter’s stated intention, enact a law that ensures a state employee cannot be forced to pay union fees without his or her consent.
  • To preserve public order, amend the no-strike law for state employees to include real and meaningful consequences.

Revoking the order would be the ideal policy outcome. True partnerships do not require giving exclusive representative status to third-party union officials.