Firefighters to try again on union bill

Bill would affect only professional groups

DENVER Ė 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 governorís veto and acrimony from Democrats and unions.

Democratic lawmakers and firefighters said Monday theyíre reviving the idea, and introduction of the bill is anticipated Wednesday, the first day of Coloradoís 120-day lawmaking session.

Democratic Sen. John Morse said the measure should again clear the Legislature, controlled in both chambers by his party.

ďItís probably got a pretty good chance of passing. It has broad Democratic support,Ē 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 theyíd helped elect.

ďWe have heard that local government has deep concerns about the proposal, and weíll need to hear their objections before making a decision,Ē said Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown.

The billís anticipated sponsor, Democratic Sen. Lois Tochtrop of Westminster, declined to elaborate on the firefightersí bill Monday. She said sheíd detail the measure after itís 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.

ďWhen youíre working a dangerous job, and it comes to working conditions and safety equipment, itís important to have a say at the table,Ē Rogers said.

The union represents about 3,800 professional firefighters, most of the stateís force. Only 14 of the unionís 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.

ďFor public employees, itís very rare they would ever strike, anything like that,Ē said Phil Hayes, political director for the state AFL-CIO. ďThe 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?Ē

The firefighters will likely again run into powerful opponents, including the Colorado Municipal League, which has said union decisions should be made locally.

ďItís not a labor issue for us; itís a local control issue. The General Assembly shouldnít be acting like the city council,Ē said Kevin Bommer, CMLís deputy director.

The firefightersí group says the main question for this yearís effort is whether Hickenlooper will sign.

ďWeíre very interested in what he has to say about it,Ē said Rogers, who worked with Hickenlooper on a contract for Denver firefighters in 2003, when Hickenlooper was mayor and Rogers led the cityís firefightersí union.

Republican Sen. Greg Brophy said the proposal can prove costly for municipalities.

ďItís just a bad idea, and I guess itís 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,Ē he said.

Brophy also said the bill, if it gets to Hickenlooperís desk, will test the governor, who hasnít had to take many stances against fellow Democrats because of split control of the Legislature during his first two years in office.

ďThis is where we find out whether heís truly the moderate that he claims, or more of a partisan leftist,Ē Brophy said.