Firefighter labor bill heads back to Senate

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A bill that seeks to expand labor rights for firefighters has passed the Colorado House, and has headed back to the Senate — where it passed earlier — for approval of amendments.

But the ultimate question is whether the amendments will be enough to please Gov. John Hickenlooper, who threatened to veto the bill earlier this session.

Senate Bill 25 passed the House on April 19, following a party-line vote of 35-28. Democratic Rep. Claire Levy of Boulder joined all Republicans in opposing the bill.

The current version of the bill — which was amended after Hickenlooper expressed concerns in February — would allow firefighters across the state to be able to have discussions on job safety issues, regardless of whether municipalities prohibit collective bargaining.

That’s a change from the original bill that passed the Senate earlier this legislative session, which would have guaranteed bargaining rights on compensatory matters, such as salary.

The bill also requires any county or municipality to put labor rights issues on the ballot, so long as an employee group receives approval from 75 percent of its workers to form a union that seeks collective bargaining rights on matters such as salary.

The bill’s sponsors argue that the legislation does not mandate collective bargaining. They say the bill prohibits strikes and provides a ballot process for local control.

Republicans argue that the bill usurps the authority of local governments to make bargaining rights decisions on their own.

“It’s an overreach of power,” said Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton. “If you’re a city out there and you have a moratorium against collective bargaining, guess what? You won’t after this bill passes.”

Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, said the bill is “designed to promote unions.”

“This is not a public safety bill. This is a union bill. Plain and simple,” Scott said.

But Democrats say the bill does not take away local control, and that voters in those areas simply will have a chance to determine what is best for their communities.

And they argue that firefighters should be able to negotiate matters pertaining to their own safety.

“What are we afraid of here?” said Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster. “Are we afraid of the professionals we hire to come and have a chance to say what it is they think will make their jobs better?”

The bill also allows firefighters to participate more openly in the political process, which are either limited or prohibited by some municipalities.

“Off duty and out of uniform, they are denied the right to participate in the political process,” said Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City. “You can’t even put a yard sign in your front yard for your favorite candidate. That’s not fair.”

Democratic Sen. Lois Tochtrop of Thornton, the bill’s Senate sponsor, told Colorado Community Media that she doesn’t know whether Hickenlooper will sign her bill. But she believes that the current version is a good piece of legislation.

“There’s been a lot of negotiations going on and we think this is one that will suit many people’s needs,” she said. “This bill concerns safety and this is going to go a long way to helping firefighters, so that they have a place at the table when it comes to safety issues.”