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Thousands Of County Workers In Colorado Could Force Collective Bargaining Under New Bill

DENVER (CBS4) - Dozens of county commissioners from across Colorado are opposing a bill they say would be financially devastating. It would require counties to participate in collective bargaining if enough workers vote to unionize.

Right now, most public sector employees can unionize, but their employers don't have to recognize the union or engage in collective bargaining.

colorado state capitol
(credit: CBS)

The initial draft applied to all public workers, including those in city government, higher education, and even some hospitals, but it was pared down to apply to counties only. Some commissioners call it election year pandering to unions.

Senate President Steve Fenberg, one of the bill's sponsors, says, in order to pass the bill, he had to prohibit both strikes and binding arbitration. County workers, he says, were the only ones who still wanted the bill after that.

"The bill does not force a union on workers, and it does not force a contract on a county. This bill says that if they can't come to an agreement on that contract, then they don't sign a contract. So a contract is only if two sides are willing to sign that agreement, and the county can always walk away and say, 'it's just not reasonable. We just don't have money to give those types of raises.'"

Fremont County Commissioner Kevin Grantham says the bill will require counties to spend money preparing for collective bargaining whether it happens or not.

"There's going to be costs up front for every single county regardless of whether it goes to vote or not. Every county will have to prepare for the eventuality that it does," said Grantham. "If we talk about the no strike provision and the fact that we can just do away with it and just ignore it at the end, it begs the question Shaun, why do we need to do this then in the first place? If  we can veto on the back end the only thing happens in that case is they force us to spend a lot of money on the front end for something that will never happen."

Under the bill, it would take 50% of workers, in any county department, to unionize. The county would then be compelled to engage in collective bargaining with the union. They would also be required to go to mediation in the event negotiations reach an impasse, but the mediator's decision would not be binding.

Fenberg says the bill simply gives public sector workers the same rights as private sector workers, with the exception of the right to strike. He says 38,000 Coloradans work in county government.

A law is already in place addressing collective bargaining by state workers.

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