Hickenlooper threatens veto on firefighters’ collective bargaining bill

DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper put his cards on the table Tuesday, issuing a letter threatening to veto Democratic legislation that would make it easier for Colorado firefighters to unionize and force municipalities to recognize them.

In a letter to House Speaker Mark Ferrandino and Senate President John Morse, Hickenlooper said he can’t support Senate Bill 25 “in its current form” and urged lawmakers to consider alternatives “that respect both the political rights of firefighters and the ability of local governments to make locally accordant decisions regarding collective bargaining.”

Gov. Bill Ritter, Hickenlooper’s predecessor, vetoed an almost identical bill in 2009, angering labor unions, a cornerstone of the Democratic base.

Hickenlooper, who had avoided difficult veto decisions on partisan bills with split control of the legislature the past two years, is now dealing with Democratic leadership in charge of both legislative chambers and attempting to maintain a moderate, business-friendly brand.

“As a former mayor, I respect the positive good that can result from collective bargaining,” Hickenlooper said in the letter. “In Denver, we successfully negotiated collective bargaining agreements with the firefighters’ union. In those negotiations, we operated with the mutual understanding that we must take into consideration the shared interests of making responsible use of taxpayer funds, prioritizing the well-being and safety of the public and ensuring the safety of the firefighters themselves.

“We understand why some firefighters view organizing within a collective bargaining unit as a fair channel of meaningful communication with their employers.”

But, the governor, recognizing that municipalities from Boulder to Colorado Springs are united in opposition to S.B. 25, argued that cities should still be able to decide whether or not their firefighters can form a union.

“In this regard, we do not believe it is a matter of state interest to require mandatory bargaining between a locality and its firefighters,” Hickenlooper said. “It is a matter of state interest, however, that the political rights of firefighters to engage in meaningful dialogue with their local elected representatives, including petitioning for local elections, be fully protected.

“Firefighters ought to have the opportunity to meet with their employers and discuss work conditions, safety, equipment and other issues that impact their lives, families and future well-being without intimidation or fear of retribution.”

Only one Democrat, Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, voted against the bill when it cleared the full Senate earlier this month.

It’s awaiting its first hearing in the House.

“We have said from the beginning that we will work with all stakeholders on this critical issue,” said Ferrandino. “I’m calling on all the involved parties to come together in the coming days to find common ground. Through constructive dialogue I know a good path forward can be found that addresses many of the concerns raised by all sides. Our firefighters deserve our very best efforts.”