Labor leaders say Gov. Ritter sold them out

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

In what many political insiders considered a surprise move, Gov. Bill Ritter vetoed House Bill 1170 late Tuesday afternoon, stopping a legislative action to give unemployment benefits to employees locked out during labor disputes.

Expectedly, union leaders, many of whom are currently embroiled in contract talks with grocery chains in Colorado, expressed outrage at the governor’s use of the veto pen.

“I’m appalled, I’m dismayed and I’m disgusted,” said Carol Farrell, a Safeway employee and a member of the local United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

“I voted for him and I contributed to his campaign,” Farrell said. “He spoke straight to us at (a) meeting at the time and said he was going to support the workers of Colorado. That is why I voted for him and, now he has sold us out.”

In his veto letter, Ritter said he came out against the bill because of the contract negotiations currently taking place between the grocery stores and the UFCW, and because the state’s unemployment fund is being strained by the poor economy.

“There are currently ongoing contract negotiations between the United Food and Commercial Workers No. 7 and several grocery stores, including King Soopers, Safeway, Albertsons, and City Market,” Ritter pointed out.

“The parties to these negotiations have been working hard for several months to try to reach an agreement,” he continued. “I believe it is ill-advised and counterproductive to enact legislation that materially impacts the relative bargaining position of parties in the midst of ongoing negotiations. In these troubled economic times, I am deeply concerned about the effect a strike or lockout of employees would have on grocery store workers and consumers across the state, and I am concerned that signing this bill into law will make a negotiated resolution of the grocery store contract more difficult, not less.”

The bill wouldn’t have affected grocery bargaining, a UFCW spokeswoman contended. “It would have taken effect on July 1, 2009, well past the current grocery contracts’ deadline on May 30,” Laura K. Chapin said in a prepared statement.

Union members like Farrell also disagreed with Ritter’s logic, saying the veto will give more power to grocery chains when they go to negotiate.

“He sold us out and we can’t figure out why,” Farrell said. “We’re not trying to make ourselves rich through this. We just want to improve our working conditions and get better benefits.”

HB 1170 would have reinstated unemployment benefits for locked out workers that were in place in Colorado until 1999 when the Legislature, led by Republicans and former GOP Gov. Bill Owens, took the provision out of law. For Farrell, who was locked out of her Safeway job in the mid-1990’s during labor disputes, the unemployment benefits then were a lifesaver.

“I can remember back then that many people’s cars and homes were saved because they were able to receive the unemployment benefits at that time,” she said. “Now, I don’t know what we are going to do.”

Mike Cerbo, a former member of the Legislature and current executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO, said he was disappointed by the veto when contacted by The Colorado Statesman Wednesday.

“It was a good bill and it had a lot of legislative support and a lot of leadership was put into it,” Cerbo said. “All that it did was change the way things were before 1999. It’s not like it was breaking new ground or working out an experiment.”

After the veto notice was released by Ritter’s office, the liberal blogosphere was lit up with comments expressing frustration and anger at Ritter’s apparent lack of support for workers in Colorado. Many commentators on some blogs said they would not vote for Ritter in 2010 because of the move.

When asked if he believed Ritter’s support among Democrats could be in jeopardy now, Cerbo seemed less unsure.

“When we endorse a candidate we do our best to mobilize and energize our activists to make our endorsement meaningful,” he said. “I can’t say how this will play out then because we still have a ways to go before the 2010 election. I don’t know though. We will cross that bridge when we come to it but I do know their are a lot of people who are upset by this.”

While labor leaders are clearly dismayed over Ritter’s action, the business community in Colorado is typically pleased. The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry congratulated the governor for his veto this week, calling it “a thoughtful and appropriate policy decision that protects the future of workers and their employers.”

“We’re pleased the Governor has listened to the business community on this issue,” said Chuck Berry, CACI president and a former speaker of the House in Colorado. In a letter hand-delivered Wednesday to the Governor’s office, Berry wrote that enactment of HB 1170 would have interfered with the progress of the contract negotiations between the unions and the grocery stores and could have “potentially incited a strike or lockout situation.”

Berry, however, also cautioned the Governor that CACI would oppose future attempts to pass bills similar to HB 1170. “As outlined in my veto request, CACI supports the balance in current law regarding Unemployment Insurance benefits, and we will continue to support that law which has helped avoid a lockout in multi-employer bargaining contracts during the last 10 years,” Berry wrote.

“The merits of this bill, however, are worthy of future discussion and perhaps future legislation,” Ritter stated in his veto message.