DENVER – A proposal to allow collective bargaining for Colorado firefighters without local government approval is coming back to the Legislature, four years after a contentious battle led to a governor’s veto and acrimony from Democrats and unions.
Democratic lawmakers and firefighters said Monday they’re reviving the idea, and introduction of the bill is anticipated Wednesday, the first day of Colorado’s 120-day lawmaking session.
Democratic Sen. John Morse said the measure should again clear the Legislature, controlled in both chambers by his party.
“It’s probably got a pretty good chance of passing. It has broad Democratic support,” Morse told The Associated Press.
The bigger question was whether Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper would agree. His predecessor, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, was dogged by firefighter protesters when he vetoed the union bill in 2009. Union groups felt betrayed by the man they’d helped elect.
“We have heard that local government has deep concerns about the proposal, and we’ll need to hear their objections before making a decision,” said Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown.
The bill’s anticipated sponsor, Democratic Sen. Lois Tochtrop of Westminster, declined to elaborate on the firefighters’ bill Monday. She said she’d detail the measure after it’s introduced.
Firefighters argue they need stronger bargaining rights to negotiate for things such as safety upgrades and technology, said Mike Rogers, president of the Denver-based Colorado Professional Firefighters Association.
“When you’re working a dangerous job, and it comes to working conditions and safety equipment, it’s important to have a say at the table,” Rogers said.
The union represents about 3,800 professional firefighters, most of the state’s force. Only 14 of the union’s 40 locals have collective-bargaining rights now, Rogers said.
The anticipated measure would affect only professional firefighters, not volunteer firefighters or any other public employees, including police officers. The bargaining rights would not include binding arbitration.
“For public employees, it’s very rare they would ever strike, anything like that,” said Phil Hayes, political director for the state AFL-CIO. “The value (of bargaining) is: Do we have enough people on every shift? Do we have the equipment and technology they need to do their jobs?”
The firefighters will likely again run into powerful opponents, including the Colorado Municipal League, which has said union decisions should be made locally.
“It’s not a labor issue for us; it’s a local control issue. The General Assembly shouldn’t be acting like the city council,” said Kevin Bommer, CML’s deputy director.
The firefighters’ group says the main question for this year’s effort is whether Hickenlooper will sign.
“We’re very interested in what he has to say about it,” said Rogers, who worked with Hickenlooper on a contract for Denver firefighters in 2003, when Hickenlooper was mayor and Rogers led the city’s firefighters’ union.
Republican Sen. Greg Brophy said the proposal can prove costly for municipalities.
“It’s just a bad idea, and I guess it’s not surprising that it comes back up. I get the sense the Democrats are going to go after their full agenda in the next couple of years, just out of fear that they lose control of either chamber of the Legislature again,” he said.
Brophy also said the bill, if it gets to Hickenlooper’s desk, will test the governor, who hasn’t had to take many stances against fellow Democrats because of split control of the Legislature during his first two years in office.
“This is where we find out whether he’s truly the moderate that he claims, or more of a partisan leftist,” Brophy said.