A noisy noon gathering at the state Capitol Tuesday drew around 1,000 union supporters, who rallied in solidarity with Wisconsin public workers who are protesting at their state Capitol to keep collective bargaining rights.
The rally, on the west steps of the Colorado State Capitol, faced a much smaller group of around 150 Tea Party and anti-union supporters, who were restricted to the public sidewalk along Lincoln Street because they didn’t have a permit to be on the capitol grounds.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker last month submitted a budget proposal to the Wisconsin State Legislature that seeks concessions on pension and health care costs from public employees, as well as eliminating most of the state’s collective bargaining rights for its state and municipal employees. The bill, Senate Bill 11, is stalled in the Wisconsin Senate because the body’s 14 Democrats fled the state to Illinois last week, depriving the 34-member Senate of a required 3/5 attendance needed for a quorum to vote on budget bills. And in Indiana on Tuesday, House Democrats fled their state Capitol to avoid voting on a “right to work” bill, and reportedly also headed to Illinois.
At least five Colorado Senate Democrats and one House colleague joined the Tuesday rally, which was organized by the Colorado AFL-CIO and supported by members of at least 10 other private and public union groups, including Colorado WINS; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the Colorado Education Association and the Teamsters.
House Democrats were unable to join the rally because of a lengthy House second reading calendar, but a dozen briefly appeared on the balcony outside the House that overlooked the rally, to wild cheering by the crowd.
Separating the pro-and anti-union groups Tuesday and keeping the peace was a thin blue line of Colorado State Patrol and Denver police officers — all union members — who faced the Tea Party crowd that waved Tea Party flags and signs and shouted that union members are “thugs” and “scum.” The rally was frequently marked by shouting matches between the two sides.
Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, had high praise for public employees while he criticized the unions to which they belong. “This is not an attack on public workers,” he said, more than once. “We value all workers, whether in the field, office or hospital. But it’s a tough economy, and respect is a two-way street, the public unions do not respect our wallets or our intelligence when they ask to be protected from the ups and downs of the economy… Public workers are better paid, have better job security and get better benefits, and that’s a situation we can no longer afford,” Mitchell said, to the cheers of the anti-union crowd.
But Greg Golyansky, vice president of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, drew boos from his own crowd when he called public employees “storm troopers of communism. We must defeat them. I never realized there was that much scum on the government payrolls.” Mitchell was heard exclaiming “No! No!”
“Colorado belongs to us, not them,” said Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. “We will not continue to protect this new elite class that believes their jobs are a civil right. Governor Walker is doing what’s right. John Kasich (Ohio governor) is doing what’s right. I hope John Hickenlooper will do what’s right for Colorado.”
Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, later issued a statement decrying Golyansky’s remarks, saying they did not represent the views of Senate Republicans and that his caucus values “the hard working state employees who serve the people of this state.” Kopp said Senate Republicans are concerned about the costs associated with state employee unions but that they also “cannot let the careless remarks of one individual take peoples’ attention off of the huge price tag public sector unions cost the taxpayers.”
Those standing with the union Tuesday included Congressman Ed Perlmutter, home from Washington on a President’s Day break, who wore a union t-shirt to Tuesday’s rally. He said he attended “to show my support for people in Wisconsin, [who are] hard working just like those in Colorado.” Perlmutter said organized labor has helped people get ahead, and for that state’s governor to go after labor, “and to do it on the backs of the middle class, is wrong, and the governor is wrong.”
One political science teacher, who had the day off, said she attended the rally because she believes what is happening in Wisconsin will come to Colorado. Bonnie Hutchins told The Colorado Statesman that “there is a war on public employees and we’re being scapegoated” for what’s going on around the nation and the economy, which she said is the fault of Wall Street, not public employees. “Removing collective bargaining is the first step,” she said, the next is to take away everything else: pensions, health benefits and other protections that help create a middle class society. And once public employees lose them, those in the private sector will, too, she said.
Doris Gonzales, a staff member with the Denver Classroom Teachers’ Association, said she also believes the same could happen to unions in Colorado. While she said it’s less likely now, “it’s only another election before it could happen” here.
Dwayne Stephens, president of Colorado AFL-CIO, said that for his generation, Wisconsin “is the shot heard round the world. Collective bargaining across the country is under attack, and it’s a core principle of unionism.”
While police were on hand to keep the peace, there were a few verbal and physical skirmishes between the two sides. In one, two people got into an argument that resulted in an anti-union man heatedly calling a union member a thug. That echoed remarks made by anti-union supporters in the days leading up to the rally. Mitchell’s Facebook announcement of the counter-rally drew this comment from Rafael Robles, who wrote that “any Union thug that gets on my face will be met with an elbow to their face UFC style.” And a union supporter claimed he was assaulted by three Tea Party members and thrown over a railing adjacent to the sidewalk on Lincoln Street, just as the rally was starting. Mike, who did not want to identify his last name, said there were no police present at the time of the assault. He later reported the incident to a Denver police officer.
In a statement Tuesday, Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, said “Governor Hickenlooper and Republicans in Colorado and across the nation are standing up to make the tough, but necessary decisions, to spend less now, balance state budgets, and put our state and nation back on track for economic recovery. It is unfortunate that the labor unions, along with many of our Democrat colleagues from the President to the state legislature, have chosen to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the economic reality of what is happening in our country.”
“For our economy to grow, employers can no longer afford to foot the bill for an ever increasing amount of spending. Public employee unions must be willing to share in the same sacrifices that have been made by Colorado’s families and job creators” said Joint Budget Committee member Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan. “When the protest is over and the signs are put away, we welcome our friends in the unions and across the aisle to join us and Governor Hickenlooper in providing the necessary leadership to get our economy back on track and begin creating private sector jobs.”
House Democrats claimed they were unable to attend the rally because the Republican majority was filibustering bills, including their own, to keep Democrats on the floor. “We’re giving fair hearing to all the bills,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs. Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, pointed out that when Democrats were in the majority they filibustered their own bills at times. “We can recognize when the majority is filibustering,” he said. That claim was angrily denied by House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, who told The Statesman that she is responsible for running the House floor efficiently, and pointed out that the House is on track and even ahead of schedule from last year, when Democrats were in charge. The House was on the floor until 3 p.m., and the committee hearings that followed ran late into the evening.