Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Senate Passes Strike Ban Bill

The Senate gave initial approval Tuesday to a bill that would prohibit state employees from going on strike, but not without a fight from Republicans.

HB 1189 would make striking a misdemeanor. It also applies to encouragement or incitement of a strike. The measure applies to work slowdowns as well as full-fledged strikes.

The criminal penalty could be imposed both on individuals and a labor organization. Individuals could be fined $50 per day for violating the law, while organizations could be hit with a $1,000 per day fine.

GOP senators offered numerous amendments in an attempt to impose tougher penalties for going on strike. Republicans had offered a separate bill earlier in the session, since killed, that would have made public employee strikes a felony and barred strikes by other public employees including teachers and RTD drivers.

All of the Republican amendments failed, despite GOP arguments that stronger penalties are needed to protect taxpayers from interruptions of vital public functions that Republican senators said might result from Gov. Bill Ritter's autumn 2007 executive order allowing formation of some employee bargaining units in state government.

"We wouldn't be having this debate in the first place if the governor hadn't opened up this can of worms with his executive order," Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, said.

Democratic sponsor Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, argued that the bill does what is necessary to protect against state employee strikes without interfering with Gov. Bill Ritter's efforts to improve working conditions for state employees and government efficiency.

"This is about ensuring we have decent salaries and we have decent health insurance,” he said. “This is not about striking. This is about quality of life.”

In the end, Republicans supported the bill on grounds that it was a better alternative than having no prohibition against strikes in state law.

"It's not a terribly strong bill, but it's the only bill in front of us to try to accomplish what needs to be done," minority leader Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, said.

The bill faces a final vote in the Senate before going to Ritter.

Evan Dreyer, a spokesperson for Ritter, said the governor is likely to sign the bill.

"He has said repeatedly he would sign it," Dreyer said. "We don't think it's necessary, but if the legislature thinks so, he'll sign it."

Dreyer also said that Ritter does not consider the strike ban bill to be inconsistent with his executive order authorizing some collective bargaining activities by state employees.

"It is in keeping with the executive order," Dreyer said.

Attorney General John Suthers said shortly after Ritter's executive order was issued that it did not and could not prohibit state employees from striking.