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Colorado’s fight over collective bargaining rights could hinge on education

A silhouette of Denver teachers walking the picket line during the 2019 teachers strike.

Denver teachers secured pay raises and other changes in their 2019 strike.

RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

Education has become a critical fault line in the fight to secure collective bargaining rights for Colorado’s 250,000 public sector workers.

The debate has divided groups that are often allies at the Capitol and could leave employees of K-12 school districts and those who work for public colleges and universities with different rights — or no new rights at all.

Building off legislation last year that gave state employees union rights, Senate President Stephen Fenberg of Boulder and House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar of Pueblo want to expand those collective bargaining rights to people who work for other government entities, including K-12 schools, charter schools, and higher education institutions. State law allows government entities to enter into collective bargaining agreements with employee groups, and many large school districts already do. But the law doesn’t require it.

The goal “is to make sure collective bargaining is an essential right for all workers, whether you work for a private entity, which is the case now, or a public entity,” Esgar said.

The proposal faces an uncertain path. Gov. Jared Polis has made clear the bill will need to be narrowed significantly if it is to win his support, with K-12 schools a sticking point. School district representatives say it’s not just bad policy to require school boards to negotiate with employees — it’s unconstitutional and they’ll sue if it becomes law. 

And university leaders have their own concerns about costs in a state that already funds higher education at very low rates.

Opponents ask if the bill would be constitutional

More than half of states already require school districts to engage in collective bargaining if a majority of employees vote to unionize, while six more make it illegal. After a decade of setbacks, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus decision, public sector unions won a limited victory in Virginia last year.

Unions representing education workers — the Colorado Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers Colorado, United Campus Workers — have set securing collective bargaining rights as one of their top priorities this session. 

“I’m hopeful that the legislature, as well as the public, sees and understands the value that our public service workers provide to our communities and understands that we need to have a voice in our working conditions,” CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert said. 

Opponents, who include the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards, and the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance, say consent between both parties is key to successful collective bargaining. They say the proposed bill gives too much power to employees and could be devastatingly expensive. 

“The reason collective bargaining works in most cases is that they were invited to be part of the process,” said CASE Executive Director Bret Miles. 

More critically, they say requiring school boards to recognize unions and engage in bargaining tramples on local control provisions enshrined in the state constitution, a legal interpretation that CEA attorneys dispute. 

“In our mind, the constitutional issues far outweigh anything else,” said Michelle Murphy of the Rural Schools Alliance. “You can’t make an unconstitutional bill better by reducing the burden.”

Educators and college leaders concerned about what the bill won’t include

A recent draft of the bill guarantees the rights of public sector workers, including those who work for K-12 school districts, charter schools, and public colleges and universities, to form unions and engage in collective bargaining over pay and working conditions, with recourse to binding arbitration — a major concern for opponents — if they can’t reach an agreement with management.

But the bill hasn’t been introduced yet, as the sponsors continue behind-the-scenes negotiations in search of something that might pass and secure the governor’s signature. 

“We hope to get there soon,” Esgar said this week, while a spokesman for the governor would say only that conversations with the sponsors are ongoing. 

But it’s not clear what a compromise would look like — or if the bill will come forward at all.

The Denver Post reported that Polis may be more open to extending rights to higher education workers than to their K-12 counterparts. Public colleges and universities aren’t separate government entities like school districts and home-rule cities, and university leaders haven’t raised the same legal objections.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned. 

College and university leaders have sent a letter warning the cost of implementing collective bargaining agreements could be prohibitive and tuition could rise.

University of Colorado System Interim President Todd Saliman said in a statement the bill would need to include funding or he would request higher education be excluded.

“We are all working hard to keep tuition in check and if this bill passes it would make it even harder,” Saliman said. “We have also indicated that institutions would welcome an increase in state funding to increase employee compensation this year, which can be done without a bill.”

United Campus Workers Colorado founding member Alex Wolf-Root, a CU Boulder adjunct professor, said collective bargaining benefits college and university staff, especially adjunct professors, who work on short-term contracts and lower pay.

Organizing workers would also create a unified voice to lobby the state for more funding. Wolf-Root said despite higher education potentially seeing a clearer path to getting collective bargaining rights, his organization will continue to fight for K-12 workers.

Teachers say bargaining rights are subject to political whims

The push to expand union power comes amid rising labor activism and pandemic-induced staffing shortages in nearly every sector that has empowered workers. At the same time, two years of disrupted schooling have heightened tensions between educators and the general public.

A recent Cygnal Poll commissioned by the conservative education advocacy group Ready Colorado found support for teachers unions among likely voters had declined considerably since 2019, though national polls have found support to be more steady

Several dozen Colorado school districts already have collective bargaining agreements with employee unions, but those rights aren’t guaranteed. Securing statewide rights would help protect against political shifts, union leaders said. 

“Shouldn’t we be the canary in the coal mine?” asked Kallie Leyba, former president of the Douglas County teachers union and current head of AFT Colorado. 

A previous conservative Douglas County school board stopped recognizing the teachers union, and a more progressive board didn’t restore collective bargaining. Now conservatives control the board again, as they do in a host of school districts after last fall’s contentious elections. Some Douglas County teachers feared retaliation after they called off work and forced schools to close for a day to protest the impending firing of the superintendent without cause.

Leyba said teachers in other districts are scared they’ll lose rights due to “political winds, which are blowing really strong.”

Kendra Gish, a Douglas County teacher for 24 years, said the district was once a great place to work, but the loss of union representation has changed that.

“From where we were to where we are today, we are definitely not better off,” Gish said. 

Collette Simkins, a teacher at The New America School, a charter whose board has refused to recognize the union, said employees have ideas that could reduce teacher turnover and improve conditions for students.

“We’re not listened to,” Simkins said. “And they don’t have to engage with us in those conversations.”

Miles said most school boards and district administrators want employees at the table, but may disagree on solutions. He bristled at the suggestion that school boards might be withholding pay increases when schools are not fully funded.

“This will not put more money into teachers’ hands,” he said. “It is not the lack of collective bargaining that is contributing to low teacher salaries. It is the size of the pot.”

Brad Marianno, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said there’s a large body of research that shows unions improve teacher pay. Their effect on student learning is less clear. 

But regardless of their impact, unions need collective bargaining rights to really operate like unions.

“Collective bargaining rights are the principal act of local unions,” he said. “Without them, they are membership organizations that can advocate, but that’s all they are.”

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at emeltzer@chalkbeat.org.

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