‘Poison pill’ measures pulled from ballot

Businesses pledge $3 million to fight 'right to work'

By Chris Bragg

Colorado labor and business leaders announced a deal Thursday morning to remove four pro-labor ballot initiatives that some feared would cripple the state’s economy.

In exchange, a coalition of businesses will provide $3 million to fight the so-called “right to work” ballot initiative and two others that are backed by some members of the business community, but which other members say would upset Colorado’s delicate balance between labor and business interests.

Photo by Cory Knight/The Colorado Statesman

Jess Knox, center, announces that four pro-labor initiatives will be pulled from the ballot this November. In exchange, business leaders including Pat Hamill, left, and Walter Isenberg, right, will fund the fight against the "Right to Work" initiative.

Jess Knox, the director of Protect Colorado’s Future, which led efforts to put two of the pro-labor measures on the ballot, said he still believes the stricken amendments would create solid public policy. But, Knox said, it was more important to play defense against the three measures targeting labor.

“What we’re faced with is an unprecedented attack on workers,” Knox said. “This is a matter of prioritization.”

Protect Colorado’s Future had backed two of the four “poison pill” initiatives, as opponents called them, and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7 had supported the other two.

The deadline to pull initiatives from the ballot was 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 2. The deal, announced a mere six hours before the deadline, removes Amendment 53, which would have made business executives criminally responsible for violations of law by their companies; Amendment 55, which would have required “just cause” for firing employees; Amendment 56, which would have required every business that employs 20 or more workers to provide health care coverage; and Amendment 57, which would have opened employers up to lawsuits if they failed to provide their employees with a “safe and healthy work environment.”

Because ballots already have been printed, the four measures still will appear on the November ballot, but votes on them won’t be counted.

In return for the concessions by labor, members of the business community have pledged $3 million to fund a new committee, Colorado Business for Sensible Solutions, charged with defeating Amendment 47. The “right to work” amendment would prohibit unions or employers from requiring union members to pay dues.

As evidenced by the agreement struck Thursday, that measure remains controversial within the business community. Some business groups, such as the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, support Amendment 47. Others, including the Denver Metro Chamber and the South Metro Chamber of Commerce, have opposed it and have worked to broker a compromise.

Joe Blake, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, expressed relief that the four pro-labor measures would be removed from the ballot.

“We are pleased with the effort on both sides of the issues to facilitate the withdrawal of the amendments with the recognition that they would have been devastating to Colorado’s economy,” Blake said.

With its pledged $3 million, Colorado Business for Sensible Solutions also will oppose Amendment 49, which would prohibit public employers in Colorado from using payroll deductions to benefit private organizations; and Amendment 54, which would make it illegal for holders of government contracts worth more than $100,000 to contribute to political campaigns or causes.

The deal struck Thursday dramatically alters the dynamics of the battle between business and labor that right-to-work backers contend began with the passage of pro-labor House Bill 1072. That bill, passed by the Legislature in 2007, would have amended the Colorado Labor Peace Act, which has governed labor relations since 1943. The act requires a 70 percent majority and two separate votes for a business to become a union shop. House Bill 1072 would have made it easier to form pro-union shops, but was vetoed by Gov. Bill Ritter.

Backers of Amendment 47 reacted to the deal announced on Thursday by arguing it proved the four pro-labor measures never were intended to create serious public policy. Instead, they argued, the measures were designed to be bargaining chips in a game of labor-business brinksmanship.

Backers of Amendment 47, however, would not budge, and it is now assured to go to the voters.

“The union bosses must have realized what we’ve known all along — that their poorly crafted measures had no support from voters and only represented a failed attempt to keep Amendment 47 off the ballot,” said Kelley Harp, spokesman for A Better Colorado, which backs the right-to-work campaign.

“It’s good news for Colorado that the union measures are gone, but it’s unfortunate that some members of the business community have caved in to the interests of union bosses in our state,” he added.

Backers of Amendment 47 argued that the pledged $3 million was essentially extorted from business leaders who feared the consequences if any or all of amendments 53, 55, 56 and 57 were to pass.

Jonathan Coors, 28, the director of government relation at CoorsTek and a member of the Coors brewing family, is one of the major backers of Amendment 47. Not everyone in the Coors family, however, is on board.

Bill Coors, Jonathan Coors’ 91-year-old uncle, appeared at the press conference announcing the deal between business and labor, and said he opposed the right-to-work amendment.

“Let me tell you this: The brewery is not for it. I am not for it,” said Bill Coors.

Bill Coors added his voice to those of other business community members at the press conference who said passage of Amendment 47 would destroy the delicate balance created by the Colorado Labor Peace Act.

Ritter, along with other prominent political figures including Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar and U.S. Reps. Ed Perlmutter and Mark Udall, led negotiations urging both sides to pull their ballot initiatives. Ritter said with the national economy in a state of crisis, this is no time to jeopardize Colorado’s business climate.

“It could absolutely weaken our economy at a time in Colorado when we can’t afford to lose an inch of ground,” Ritter said.

Colorado Senate President Peter Groff issued a statement hailing the deal as breakthrough.

“The challenges that Colorado faces were never going to be solved by a senseless battle between business and labor,” he said. “I’m thrilled that both workers and business owners have agreed to come together for the good of our state by defeating Amendment 47, which would lower wages, destroy good jobs and erode the basic rights of hard-working Coloradans.”

The $3 million that business has pledged to the campaign against Amendment 47 and the two other initiatives had been a point of contention in recent weeks. Some had estimated that $5 million would be needed to get the four measures pulled from the ballot. It also was rumored that, at the last minute, the National Education Association threw an additional $2 million into the pro-labor cause in order to sweeten the deal for labor.

Knox, however, said reports about extra money from the NEA, which had previously given $1 million to his campaign, were inaccurate.

Walter Isenberg, who heads Colorado Concern, a group of more than 100 business executives around the state, said he would raise “as much as we can” to fuel the anti-47 campaign.

The campaign has only 33 days from the time the deal was announced until the Nov. 4 election, and only 18 days until the time early voting begins. However, Colorado Business for Sensible Solutions has reportedly signed up 75 percent of Colorado business leaders for the fundraising effort, including the CEOs of Xcel Energy and Qwest Communications. In addition, Protect Colorado’s Future also reported more than $3 million in contributions from national labor organizations in September, for a total of $6.7 million as of Sept. 30.

Meanwhile, Harp said backers of Amendment 47 had raised at least $1.2 million and that it could handle the influx of cash in opposition to the amendment.

“This campaign will have enough,” he assured.

There’s also the question of whether the $3 million in funding, in exchange for the removal of four ballot measures, sets a bad precedent, in the sense that ballot initiatives can be used as bargaining chips rather than as sincere efforts to change public policy.

Isenberg dismissed that, however, saying that business leaders were motivated to fight Amendment 47 primarily because they oppose the initiative, not because they feared the pro-labor initiatives.

Isenberg added that backers of Amendment 47 cut off talks with Colorado Concern a few weeks ago. And since Colorado Concern wanted all of the ballot measures on both sides defeated, Isenberg said, business leaders who oppose Right to Work had little choice but to ally with backers of the pro-labor amendments.