The Strange Case of the Colorado Labor-Business Coalition

With markets plummeting, financial firms failing, and both presidential campaigns running television ads vilifying corporate executives, it seemed like a natural time to pass the nation's strictest ever corporate malfeasance laws.

That's what pro-labor groups committed over $3 million to do this year in one of the most watched swing states of the 2008 election cycle, Colorado. Protect Colorado's Future, an AFL-CIO backed coalition, placed two aggressive anti-corporate initiatives on the November ballot. The first would have made business executives personally financially liable to employees, shareholders, and the state if their companies broke the law. The second initiative would have made it illegal for employers to fire workers without cause. Polling conducted by Protect Colorado's Future indicated that as many as 80 percent of Coloradans supported the anti-CEO measure, according to the group's spokesperson, Wendy Greenwald.

"There are other states that are seeing this as a role model," Greenwald told the Prospect. "An attorney general's office in a southern state wanted to borrow the language."

But in an unprecedented deal between labor and business, those initiatives, and two others backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers, were pulled from the ballot last Thursday, just hours before the Colorado secretary of state's deadline for Election Day changes. Seventy-five executives at local companies, including powerhouses Excel Energy and Qwest Communications, agreed that in exchange for labor pulling the measures, business would raise $3 million to fight Amendment 47, a "right-to-work" ballot initiative that would make it more difficult for unions to collect dues from their members, effectively ending the growth of organized labor in Colorado.

The commitment from business leaders is extraordinary. Chambers of commerce and corporations traditionally support right-to-work measures, which exist in 22 states and have sharply curtailed workers' ability to unionize in the South and West. But under the deal, Colorado executives have promised to publicly campaign in opposition to right-to-work.

The down-to-the-wire negations between business and labor opened up a rift within Colorado's wealthiest and most powerful conservative family, the beer brewing Coors clan. The family's scion, 29-year old Jonathan Coors, heads the coalition promoting the right-to-work measure, A Better Colorado. But the Coors patriarch, Jonathan's great uncle Bill Coors, backs the labor-business compromise and opposes right-to-work. Bill Coors says that Colorado's existing Labor-Peace Act, which requires two separate votes by workers to form a union, is enough. On the books since 1943, the Labor-Peace Act predates right-to-work and is considered less harsh. But in practice, Colorado's relatively small union presence is attributable to the law, the only one of its kind in the nation.

At a press conference announcing the deal, Bill Coors, 92 years old, looked bemused, calling his great-nephew little more than a "front man" for interests that don’t have Colorado's best interests at heart. "I'm sure there are members of our family who support him," Bill said of Jonathan, who has worked for both Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Family Research Council President Gary Bauer. "But I can't find them."

The business-labor compromise is all the more notable considering the contentious nature of industrial relations in Colorado over the past two years. In 2007, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, who promised on the campaign trail to roll back the Labor-Peace Act, vetoed a bill that would have done just that. He did so in large part to discourage hard-line union foes from resorting to divisive ballot initiatives. Regardless, national unions were irate, and threatened to pressure the Democratic Party to relocate its 2008 convention from Denver.

Ritter's veto ended up being irrelevant to the Democratic National Committee -- but it was also irrelevant to Jonathan Coors and his supporters, who have resisted all calls to give up on right-to-work, even those made by kin. To these hold-outs, pulling Amendment 47 from the ballot would have been little more than a weak-kneed capitulation to the unions, which they contend floated the anti-corporate initiatives only to create bargaining chips in their attempts to fight right-to-work.

"When the labor unions decided to file these measures, they made a really big mistake and assumption, that they would force the proponents of right-to-work to pull it from the ballot," said Dan Pilcher, senior vice president of the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, which continues to support Amendment 47. Jonathan Coors sits on the group's board of directors.

"By and large there will always be a certain element of the business community that wants to make Colorado a right-to-work state," Pilcher continued.

Indeed, business leaders supporting the deal with labor say their anti-Amendment 47 position should be understood as a one-time compromise, not a forfeiting of what they see as a key anti-union principle.

"We didn't consider 47 on its own merits," said Kate Horle, a spokesperson for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. "We considered it as part of a group of measures. Because of the Colorado Labor-Peace Act, Colorado doesn't need to have right-to-work to be successful. But we can't have these four business-killing initiatives."

The four labor-backed ballot measures, in addition to punishing wayward executives and making it more difficult to fire workers, sought to expand employees' rights to sue in cases of on-the-job injury and require all firms with more than 20 workers to provide health insurance. The business community, including those who eventually negotiated with the unions, called them the "poison pill amendments."

But labor leaders dispute the notion that they put the measures onto the ballot only to bring business to the table in opposition to right-to-work. Last April, Joe Nacchio, the former CEO of Colorado-based Qwest Communications, was convicted of insider trading and sentenced to six years in prison. The scandal transfixed the state. Qwest had over 50,000 employees during Nacchio's fraud, which led to job losses and depleted pension and stock values.

"The issue of corporate fraud is right on everybody's tongue. We just had to prioritize our fight," said Jess Knox, executive director of Protect Colorado's Future, the backer of the anti-CEO initiative. "We'll certainly revisit our agenda items after this election."

Polling by pro-business groups suggests Amendment 47 will fail, preserving the status quo between business and labor in Colorado. That means, at least for the time being, that unions will find it difficult to increase their presence in the state. That remains their goal, however, suggesting Colorado's labor fight will continue long after this November's ballots are counted.

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