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Unions: Minority Rule

Some pundits and hopeful partisans speculate that our upcoming national election may see less apathy among younger voters.

Coloradans might also wonder about the apathy among their state employees. When faced this year with deciding on union representation, two-thirds of state workers never cast a vote. Fewer than one in four affirmatively chose the union. All are stuck with the result.

Based on their job classification, 32,000 state workers across Colorado were eligible to participate in one of eight separate mail-in ballot elections to decide whether union leaders should represent them in all matters of compensation, grievances, and workplace conditions. The last two elections were decided on August 12.

Gov. Bill Ritter’s November 2007 executive order made the entire exercise possible. According to the order, a simple majority of votes cast in each occupational group decides the election. The “Colorado WINS” union organizing coalition prevailed in seven elections. A different group won the eighth vote to represent 700 state troopers.

Despite the low response, it’s easy to argue the unions fairly won a democratic process. Just like the Presidential election, every eligible person was given a chance to vote. Whether it’s college students or state workers, the fault is theirs if they didn’t participate. Right?

Not so fast. There’s more to the story: namely, two key differences between national elections and union elections like those recently held among Colorado state employees.

First, in national elections, Republicans and Democrats battling head-to-head each have a strong, shared interest to defeat the other. Because both John McCain and Barack Obama stand to gain much from a November victory, they ensure at least two sides to the debate.

In union elections, though, a well-funded and entrenched coalition like Colorado WINS essentially stands on its own to make its case. Union organizers contacted employees with multiple flyers, phone calls, and even personal visits.

The closest to an organized opposition emerged after six of the eight elections had been decided. Operating on his own initiative under the tongue-in-cheek name “Colorado LOSES,” state employee David Ohmart sought to tell his colleagues to think carefully about what union representation would entail and that sitting out the vote only helped WINS.

As evidence of some limited success, less than 30 percent of the total yes votes—but more than half the total no votes—were cast after Ohmart’s campaign.

Second, regularly scheduled elections give Americans the chance to vote for a new president. After four years, either Obama or McCain will have to run for re-election if he wants to stay in office. Our Constitution sets the limit to two terms.

But exclusive union representation offers no guarantee of a future election. If enough employees decide they want WINS out, an unorganized opposition has to collect signatures from 30 percent of eligible employees just to hold an election.

Under the terms of Ritter’s order, such a decertification election cannot be held for at least two years after a representative is voted in, or until 90 days before a three-year union bargaining agreement expires. Those workers who don’t like the representation must grin and bear it.

If enough state workers grow dissatisfied with union representation, they still will have to overcome more than apathy just to ask their colleagues whether the union should be voted out.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Daily News and Colorado Daily.