Spurned unions lash Ritter

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

If Gov. Bill Ritter is a friend to labor, some are wondering, what does an enemy look like?

After wielding his veto pen twice in three weeks to strike down two bills promoted by organized labor, Ritter finds himself taking jabs from self-proclaimed “friends” as he attempts to mitigate damages and mend important Democratic fences.

A firefighter who attended a pro-union rally last week at the headquarters of the Colorado AFL-CIO holds an anti-Ritter sign as he listens.
Photo by Jason Kosena
The Colorado Statesman

It hasn’t been easy. And, as Ritter is no doubt learning, it would seem that serving as the state’s governor while maintaining support from allied interest groups is never easy.

“There are going to be situations where people are just elated about the work that we do, and there is going to be disappointment,” Ritter said after learning of the excoriation his vetoes had drawn from Colorado labor leaders. “You can’t do this job without sometimes disappointing people who you care a great deal about and who you respect for the work they do.

“That is just leadership.”

The labor-backed bills Ritter vetoed this year were House Bill 1170, which stopped a legislative action to give unemployment benefits to employees locked out during labor disputes, and Senate Bill 180, which would have given firefighters the right to unionize without the approval of local government. SB 180 also would have established procedures allowing firefighters to unionize in municipalities where residents have voted against collective bargaining for city employees.

Ritter hasn’t ducked his critics.

In a letter to lawmakers signed last month, Ritter said HB 1170 would have offered an unfair advantage to grocery workers who are currently involved in contract negotiations at Safeway, Albertsons and King Soopers. And, during a press conference last week, Ritter defended his veto of SB 180, saying firefighters in Colorado already have the ability to collectively bargain through voter approval in local communities and noted that the bill would have overturned the will of voters who defeated collective bargaining measures.

Randy Atkinson, president of the Colorado Professional Firefighters Local 858 speaks during the pro-union rally last week. Behind him are Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, and Mike Cerbo, the executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

But those explanations didn’t satisfy those in labor, including Randy Atkinson, president of the AFL-CIO’s Colorado Professional Firefighters.

“We have been let down by someone who we thought was our supporter,” said Atkinson at a press conference, as he was surrounded by firefighters holding signs that read, “Why does Ritter hate firefighters?”

“Back in 2006, when Governor Ritter was running for governor, we decided to support him,” Atkinson continued. “We knocked on doors for him. We drove our fire trucks around for him. We supported him in large part because we thought that he supported statewide collective bargaining for firefighters. With this veto, he broke that promise.”

‘Support would be difficult’

When asked specifically if the firefighters would support Ritter’s 2010 re-election campaign, Atkinson all but promised that the answer would be “no.”

“I think firefighters would find it difficult to support any candidate that doesn’t believe in the firefighters core issues and who doesn’t believe in collective bargaining,” Atkinson said. “I think we have plenty of friends out there who support our issues and who we will be supporting. We support our friends.”

When Ritter was informed of Atkinson’s comments, he dismissed the notion that organized labor’s support was failing and asserted that he continues to back issues important to unions — his two vetoes this year aside.

Listing a myriad of labor-friendly bills he has signed into law, Ritter touted measures aimed at helping those dealing with the threat of foreclosure and rising health care costs as examples of his friendliness towards working families. He then took direct aim at the firefighters’ claims that his allegiance to them has failed since he took office in 2007.

“The thing the (firefighters) told me (in 2006) that was their number one issue that they cared about was the incidence of cancer among firefighters,” Ritter said. “And, in 2007, a bill came to my desk that changed the presumptive eligibility for workmen’s compensation for firefighters that had cancer. I signed that bill.”

Then, perhaps in an effort to begin mending his fences, Ritter reiterated his belief that true leadership requires tough choices.

“And, what I said yesterday is that leadership sometimes means saying ‘no’ to a friend. But in my way of thinking, the firefighters have been a friend of me and of my administration and (despite) this veto ... I look forward to an ongoing relationship with them,” Ritter said. “And, at the end of the day, I have great respect for firefighters and the work they do and the public service they perform. And nothing about the Senate Bill 180 veto says anything different.”

But Mike Cerbo, the executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO, disagreed with Ritter’s assertion that turning down friends equates to good leadership. Cerbo, a former Statehouse lawmaker, said Ritter had done a poor job of promoting labor bills this session.

“The governor said that leadership means that sometimes you have to say ‘no’ to your friends. That is a basic difference that we have with the executive branch,” Cerbo said.

“That is not leadership. Leadership is bringing the right people together and making an honest attempt to work through concerns,” he continued. “There was never a willingness on the part of the executive branch to engage in any meaningful discussion to address this issue, and that is where the disappointment comes in the veto of this bill.”

Rep. Ed Casso, D-Commerce City, holds back tears as he expresses his frustration over Gov. Bill Ritter’s veto of Senate Bill 180.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Ritter’s vetoes haven’t burned bridges with everyone though. The business community expressed gratitude to the governor this week for what it said was smart governing to block bad policy.

“We were very delighted about both vetoes,” said Kate Horle, the communications director for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. “House Bill 1170 was a very poorly constructed policy and was written for one particular interest group. The truth is, Colorado’s unemployment fund is at risk of being depleted by next year and is there for people who pay into that fund, and unions don’t pay into that fund. It’s for people who are unemployed by no fault of their own.”

Horle said the Chamber agreed completely with Ritter’s reasoning to veto SB 180, adding that voters who have turned down collective bargaining for firefighters shouldn’t be overruled by the Legislature.

Communication breakdown

Lawmaking is about communication and compromise. In the wake of last week’s veto, however, questions arose about who knew that Ritter planned to veto SB 180 and when they knew it.

Although most Statehouse regulars say Ritter telegraphed his punches before vetoing HB 1170, which would have benefited the grocery workers, some say his veto of SB 180 came as a surprise.

The bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thronton, said she received no indication from Ritter’s office while the legislation was being moved that it would be vetoed. The House sponsor, Rep. Ed Casso, D-Commerce City, said the same.

Firefighters stand tall at a pro-union rally last week.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

“When I introduced the bill, I never heard from the governor’s office up or down on it,” Tochtrop said.

However, Tochtrop said, when Ritter vetoed HB 1170 late last month, she began to worry that her bill was in danger.

“When Representative Casso and I met with Governor Ritter a couple of weeks ago, when he vetoed 1170, I asked him what he was going to do with 180, and he said he had not made a decision,” Tochtrop said.

“He said that he was talking to the (Colorado Municipal League) about it.”

Union leaders also said they didn’t learn of Ritter’s veto plans until the last minute.

“No one from the governor’s office told me that the governor was going to veto this bill,” Atkinson said, adding that Ritter’s office canceled two meetings where a discussion of concerns about the bill was on the agenda.

Instead, Ritter told labor leaders before the session to talk with the Colorado Municipal League about the bill and to work through any problems their organization had with the legislation. Those discussions never happened, Atkinson said.

“We feel the governor failed to show leadership on this issue,” he said last week after the veto. “He could have brought the (two) sides together and discussed the issues of the bill, but he didn’t.”

Others say that account is lopsided. Ritter said he communicated his concerns over the bill from the onset and was surprised to learn that his veto came as a shock to anyone.

“I was clear with Randy Atkinson that (he needed) to talk with (CML) and discuss this with them,” Ritter said. “There was a clear consensus that we were going to veto this bill if they couldn’t get that worked out.”

Going even further, Ritter said his office made it clear during discussions with House leadership that he was planning to veto the legislation if the differences couldn’t be worked out.

“If you ask the speaker of the House, if you ask Terrance Carroll, what he believed about 180 when it got to my desk, he would say that it was clear that it was going to be vetoed,” Ritter said.

However, when contacted by The Colorado Statesman this week to confirm Ritter’s assertion, Carroll’s office refused to comment and would not say if Carroll knew the veto was coming.

Horle, of the Chamber, said she wasn’t as surprised by Ritter’s veto of SB 180 as she was with the shock shown by some Democrats and union leaders when it occurred. Although the Chamber learned of the official veto through a press release issued by Ritter’s office, she said she was aware of discussions that were occurring long before.

“I know that the governor had conveyed to labor and to Representative Casso that he was considering a veto on that bill,” Horle said. “It’s hard for me to believe that Representative Casso was surprised about that veto, because I know that the governor’s office expressed its concerns about that legislation to him early on.”

No surprises here

Not everyone believes Ritter’s vetoes of the labor bills should have been a surprise.

One of Ritter’s first official actions was vetoing a labor bill that would have benefited state employees, and that was fast-tracked through the Legislature in the winter of 2007. At the time, Ritter said his office was not consulted about the bill, and many political experts saw the move as a sign that the newly elected governor was letting it be known that he would not blindly sign anything the Democrat-led Legislature passed his way.

“I think this latest veto confirms what Ritter has said from the outset,” said Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer. “And that is that he is a moderate and drives by his own compass.”

Nevertheless, Straayer, who has followed the Legislature for more than 40 years and has published two books on the inner workings of the Statehouse, said Ritter’s vetoes will have repercussions.

“It does give labor another reason to be upset with not getting what it believes it should get from a Democratic hat trick,” Straayer said. “But, Ritter is a guy who walked away from a career — at least temporarily— to go and do human improvement work in Africa. So no one should be surprised if his personal and moral compass trumps conventional political wisdom.”

Jason@coloradostatesman.com