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Firefighter union bill clears panel

By Joe Hanel Herald staff writer

DENVER – Durango Fire Chief Dan Noonan spoke out against a bill to unionize firefighters Wednesday at the state Capitol, during a Senate hearing that signaled a flare-up in Colorado’s labor wars after a few years of relative peace.

Senate Bill 25 passed the Business, Labor and Technology Committee on a 3-2 vote. It allows firefighters in any department to take a majority vote to unionize in order to bargain for better pay, benefits and working conditions.

Cities and fire department leaders oppose the bill, saying it takes away their control over their own affairs.

Noonan said the bill could sow dissension in departments such as Durango Fire & Rescue Authority that use a blend of professional and volunteer firefighters. Durango has worked hard to build a department that respects both volunteers and professionals, he said.

“It creates an unfunded mandate and creates an unfair advantage for career firefighters,” Noonan said.

But other Front Range firefighters testified in favor of unions.

Ron Taylor, a Westminster firefighter and union official, said right now, many firefighters lack a forum to bargain overstaffing, workers compensation and health care.

“When this bill passes, firefighters – the ones who crawl through the smoke and through the dark – they will have a voice,” he said.

But passage is not guaranteed. The sponsor, Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, said she is not rushing the bill and is willing to work with opponents.

The issue has a painful history, especially for Democrats.

Labor issues haven’t been on the front burner for the previous two years, when Republicans controlled the House. Now Democrats control both chambers and the governor’s office. The last time that happened, the party suffered through a nasty internal battle over unions.

Former Gov. Bill Ritter vetoed a bill in 2007 that would have made it easier to unionize workplaces of all sorts. He tried to make up to labor-friendly Democrats by allowing state employees to unionize, but that upset business owners and Republicans.

Tochtrop tried a similar firefighter bill in 2009. It passed the Democratic-controlled Legislature, but Ritter vetoed it, which led to protests by the firefighter’s union – once a staunch ally. Later that year, Ritter decided not to run for re-election.

Gov. John Hickenlooper is trying to avoid the same trap.

“We are reviewing the proposed legislation and working with interested parties to find common ground,” said his spokesman, Eric Brown.

In the same committee Wednesday, a Republican labor bill died on the 3-2 party-line vote. SB 24 was a “right to work” bill that would have undermined union workplaces. House Republicans have a similar proposal that also faces long odds.

The firefighter bill’s next stop is the full Senate.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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