Employee partnerships: What they do and what they don’t do

The Colorado Statesman

The employee partnership agreements were authorized by Gov. Bill Ritter on Nov. 2, 2007 through Executive Order D 028 07. The order allowed classified state employees to choose a union that would represent them on workplace issues, such as efficiency, safety, or training, through “negotiating units” for each of the state’s job groups or agencies.

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The order expressly forbid union employees from striking, and that was later codified through legislation passed in 2008 and which Ritter signed. The executive order also said compensation and matters related to PERA were not subject to negotiation under the partnerships.

Two unions were elected in 2008 to represent the classified employees: the Association of Colorado State Patrol Professionals, which represents public safety employees; and Colorado WINS, which represents all other state classified employees. In choosing Colorado WINS, 30,497 classified employees were sent ballots for the 2008 election: less than 11,000 were returned, and of those, just under 7,700, or about 71 percent, voted in favor of being represented by WINS.

Colorado WINS was formed through a secret agreement between three previous state employee organizations: the Colorado Association of Public Employees (then part of Service Employee International Union), the American Federation of Teachers Colorado chapter (AFT), and Council 76 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. AFT was affiliated with the Colorado Federation of Public Employees, but CFPE refused to endorse WINS and voluntarily dissolved, leaving AFT with a name only and no members to bring to the WINS table. The agreement, signed Nov. 6, 2007, is a five-year agreement and is up for renewal next year. According to the WINS website, SEIU is now its only “parent union.”

In union terms, an employee partnership is also referred to as “interest-based bargaining.” In that system, employees and management each list and explain their needs, and the discussion that follows revolves around ways to meet those needs. It is different from a collective bargaining agreement, which also allows for negotiations around workplace issues, but where the primary purpose is to get better salaries and benefits. The WINS agreement talks at length about the eventual desire for a master collective bargaining agreement that would allow for negotiations exclusively between WINS and the state.

Should either state union take the steps toward a collective bargaining agreement, what’s at stake could be millions of dollars in fees paid for by state employees who are not members of the union. These are known as “agency fees,” and are allowed under numerous U.S. Supreme Court decisions, most recently in 2009 in Locke v. Karass. The Locke case was brought by non-union state employees in Maine, who argued that their First Amendment rights were being abridged by the requirement that they pay agency fees for litigation costs borne by the union for collective bargaining purposes. The court, in a 9-0 decision, rejected that argument.

The Ritter executive order never addressed the issue of agency fees, and a 2008 report from The Independence Institute said that if Ritter had intended to block the unions from ever collecting agency fees, the order would have explicitly done so.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com