Jan 24, 2022 - News

Colorado front and center in new era of labor fights post-pandemic

Percentage of workers who are unionized, 2021
Note: Unionized workers are members of a labor union or similar employee association; Data: Bureau of Labor Statistics; Map: Baidi Wang/Axios

The labor fight that recently hit Colorado grocery stores may soon extend to local coffee shops, classrooms and city hall.

Driving the news: Echoing the concerns that led to union picket lines outside Denver-area King Soopers and City Market stores, other private and public sector employees are demanding better working conditions.

  • Baristas at a Starbucks near Superior have petitioned federal authorities to join the Service Employee International Union and organizers say workers at more locations will soon join the effort.
  • At the Capitol, state lawmakers are considering legislation to give employees at public hospitals, schools and local government agencies more negotiating power.

The big picture: The pandemic-induced frustration in the workplace is generating an opportunity for unions to find new life, even as their membership ranks have stagnated.

  • Early in the pandemic, union workers held onto their jobs at higher rates than non-union members, and surveys have shown a steady rise in interest among workers, Axios reports.
  • Len Harris, a Denver-area union organizer at Starbucks, told the New York Times she was inspired by progressive lawmakers like U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

By the numbers: In Colorado, 6.3% of workers were unionized in 2021, compared to 10.3% nationwide, according to new numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What to watch: The battle at the statehouse to expand bargaining power for public employees is emerging as the most contentious issue of the legislative term β€” even before the introduction of the bill.

  • Employees for public entities, whether school districts, local government or hospitals, can form unions but most aren't recognized by their employers so they don't have much power.

State of play: In Colorado, where local authorities hold control, municipalities are pushing back and the private sector is worried it could get pulled into the debate.

  • Democrats β€” who are politically aligned with unions β€” are split on the issue, with Gov. Jared Polis threatening to veto the current draft authored by his party's legislative leadership, CPR writes.
  • Conservative groups are threatening lawsuits and an expensive advertising campaign against the bill, the Colorado Sun reports.

What they're saying: "It is really about a conversation around … a lot of the public sector workers who frankly got us through this pandemic, whether its teachers or city workers or nurses," Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg (D-Boulder) said at a recent forum hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

  • "How far will this go?" countered House GOP leader Chris Holbert (R-Parker). "And also how does this work with local control? It could be statewide preemption on local leaders."
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