The Sky Won’t Fall if More State Employees Join Unions

Originally appeared in Fort Collins Now

21 November 2007
Eric Fried

Listening to the hysterical over-reaction of Colorado conservatives to Governor Ritter’s recent executive order on state employees and unions, you would think he had unlocked the gates of the Tsar’s Winter Palace to allow rampaging Bolshevik mobs to seize power. Businessmen cried foul, Republican politicos began synchronized foaming at the mouth, and the anti-labor publisher of the Denver Post ran a screaming front page editorial calling our Governor a “toady to labor bosses.”

So what exactly did the Guv do? Did he require state employees to join unions? Mandate collective bargaining? Break the bank through secret agreements with public sector unions? No, no and no. State workers already have the right to join unions, and tens of thousands are currently members. All Ritter did, as his spokesperson Evan Dreyer put it, was to “create a framework for the state to enter into partnerships to discuss a variety of workplace issues.”

Unions are the most basic form of democracy for the majority of us who work for a living. Unions allow us to talk to each other, to organize a small counterbalance to the overwhelming power of management, and to improve wages, benefits and working conditions. If you prefer democracy to authoritarianism, what could possibly be wrong with that?

Will a more unionized state work force cost taxpayers more money? Maybe yes, maybe no. Budgets have to be approved by the legislature and the governor, and tax hikes have to be approved by the voters, so unions cannot unilaterally raid the piggy bank. Besides, they are prohibited from striking, so their power is quite limited. On the other hand, employees know best where to cut fat and increase efficiency. Empowered employees are productive employees. If management had listened to employees, they might have avoided the boneheaded information technology decisions that will wind up costing us hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace failed software in welfare, elections and other sectors of government. Most of us are workers as well as taxpayers, and when wages start rising in the public or private sector, we benefit from the overall rising economic effect. Unlike “trickle-down” economics, this actually works. It’s why you water a tree from the roots, not the crown.

Ritter’s critics claim he must be anti-business because he is pro-union. Why? Can’t you be both pro-union and pro-business? Are the interests of working people and businesspeople fundamentally irreconcilable? Who’s playing the class war card now?

Moderate businesspeople were part of the coalition that gave Ritter his electoral landslide, but union workers were more important when it came time to make phone calls, knock on doors, and get voters to the polls. Ritter has given business plenty of goodies, and he owes something to his labor supporters as well.

Are unions obsolete, as some ideologues claim? Have employers stopped shutting factories and shipping jobs overseas? Have they stopped shifting health care costs to employees, lowering wages, and reneging on pension obligations? Are the regulatory agencies steadfastly protecting consumers and the environment from unsafe products and industrial pollution? When we can answer yes to all those questions, THEN unions will be obsolete. Of course, pigs will fly before then. Indeed, the declining power of unions corresponds to the decline of the American middle class, and the increasing concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the top one percent. Not only are unions not obsolete, they are essential to restoring the American dream.

If Ritter really were in the pocket of government unions, “we would have seen legislation granting full collective bargaining rights,” as Jo Romero, president of the Colorado Federation of Public Employee, told the Colorado Statesman newspaper.

Governor Ritter, kudos for your executive order. Only next time, announce pro-labor policies proudly at a Monday-morning press conference, rather than sneaking them in late on a Friday afternoon. Unions are nothing to be ashamed of. They are something to be thankful for.

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