Memo to Colorado Lawmakers: Collective Bargaining in Government Different than in Private Business

Slipping under the radar late in Colorado’s legislative session (sine die is tomorrow, hallelujah!) is House Bill 1320 — sponsored by two conservative Republicans, Rep. Janak Joshi and Sen. Bill Cadman — a rare two-page piece of legislation that would essentially outlaw collective bargaining in state and local governments. It’s not going to pass, and concerned citizens and political observers rightfully are paying attention to Colorado’s redistricting debate instead, so it’s not worth expending too many pixels.

However, I found the apparent reason for HB 1320 being held up on the House floor a bit disheartening — albeit not surprising, given the unimpressive record of the new Republican majority:

Rep. Keith Swerdfeger, R-Pueblo West, who owns a heavy construction company, said he can’t vote for the bill.

“I have been a union contractor the entire length of our contracting for 40 years,” Swerdfeger said. “We always came to the table and were able to reach an agreement.

“I would not support the bill. Our relations with the unions have been pretty good over the years.”

Getting a controversial bill to pass can be very challenging with the narrowest of majorities in the state legislature’s lower chamber (33-32). But then again, a little education might help. For the sake of Rep. Swerdfeger and any other policy makers who might be willing to listen: There is a significant and substantive difference between the dynamics of collective bargaining in the private sector and in the public sector. Check out this recent op-ed of mine for some basic background.

Then, even more to the point, read this great column by David Denholm:

Government is inherently a monopoly. If you don’t like a decision of government, you can’t check with the competition to see whether you can get a decision more to your liking. Business, on the other hand, is competitive. If you don’t like the cars being made by one manufacturer, you can check with another to see whether you can find one you like better.

In business, the bottom line is dollars. No matter how politically popular a business decision might be, if it bankrupts the company it is a failure. In government, the bottom line is votes. No matter how financially ruinous a decision might be, if it gets you re-elected, it is a success.

More importantly, government is sovereign, while all other institutions in our society depend on free choice. Sovereignty is the right to use force to enforce decisions. We may not think about it in our everyday lives, but lurking in the background behind every government rule or regulation is the fact that government has the right and the power to use force to enforce it.

So, I’m sure there are some good reasons to consider voting against HB 1320. But making a personal observation that union bargaining has worked in a business context truly misses the point — and plays right into the hands of those pushing to expand the size and scope of government.

Currently, Colorado is one of 11 states where collective bargaining for government employees is permitted. In 34 states plus D.C., government bargaining is mandatory. To pass HB 1320 (which right now appears to be stuck in limbo only to die as the clock runs out) and prohibit public-sector bargaining would put Colorado in the ranks of five other states: Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

Leave a Reply