In the News

Colorado lawmakers pull plug on union lockout bill

Source: Denver Business Journal

Grocery workers will not be able to receive unemployment benefits during defensive lockouts this year, after the sponsor of a bill to make that major change to state labor law killed her proposal Friday rather than pass it and have it get vetoed by Gov.John Hickenlooper.

Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, said that while it was tough to give up on House Bill 1304 even though it had not lost the support of any Democrats in getting through the House and through a Senate committee, she felt it pointless if it was destined to be struck down by the Democratic governor’s pen. Instead, she hopes to sit down with union leaders, grocery officials and the governor’s office this summer and come up with a compromise plan.

“We did a lot of work on it, and it really wasn’t moving forward. We lacked the support of the first floor,” Guzman said of the floor in the Capitol that houses Hickenlooper’s office. “I believe that the better thing would be if we had more time to sit down and work out the problems.”

Business groups, meanwhile, cheered the decision, saying that it would help not only unionized businesses that might be involved in a defensive lockout but all businesses that could lose money if such work stoppages drained funds from Colorado’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund (UITF).

“This bill came pretty late during the session. We obviously thought it had strong impacts on the trust fund,” said Loren Furman, senior vice president of state and federal relations for the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry. “We just need to spend some time to sit down and talk it out.”

The bill’s largest impact would have been upon the state’s two largest unionized grocers, where a defensive lockout last occurred in 1995. At that time, King Soopers workers from United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7 (UFCW) went on strike, and Safewaylocked out its workers from the same union rather than have them continue to collect paychecks and funnel dues to the King Soopers workers, fearing that they would turn around and strike Safeway next.

A court ruled at that time that Safeway’s workers could collect benefits from the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, as they were kept from working by no fault of their own. But business leaders worked with Republican legislators in 1999 to rewrite the law and ban such benefits in the event of defensive lockouts such the 1995 scenario.

Contracts between the two large grocers and UFCW workers are up for negotiations again in 2015.

Phil Hayes, legislative and political director for the Colorado AFL-CIO, testified during a hearing Monday in the Senate Judiciary Committee that the definition of defensive lockout in state law is so broad that almost any labor stoppage could fit under it. If an employer locks workers out offensively, they are allowed to receive benefits.

But opponents, such as Colorado Competitive Council director Miz Cordero, noted that such benefits could drain $3.4 million a week out of the UITF, which went broke from overpayment of benefits in early 2010. The state had to raise unemployment taxes on all employers — sometimes by as much as 300 percent — to repay the federal government to make the trust fund solvent again, and doing so again would burden every employer at a fragile time for the economy.

“I think this bill is going to extend problems by producing a more attractive atmosphere in which to strike,” said Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud. “And it’s at the expense of every employer in Colorado, not just the 7 percent involved in union negotiations.”

Guzman and Hayes did not immediately identify an area of compromise between paying defensively locked out workers benefits and not paying them benefits — a chasm that continued to divide the two sides since the bill was introduced on April 11. Hayes suggested that the two sides may need to change the definitions of offensive and defensive lockouts in order to equalize the playing field.

“The union is pretty adamant that locking out the employees, the workers, is absolutely something that is unacceptable if they don’t get benefits,” Guzman said. “But all sides are in agreement to sit down.”

Even with talks in the offing, Diane Mulligan, spokeswoman for King Soopers, said she is glad the fast-moving effort behind HB 1304 ground to a halt.

“This bill was introduced very late in the session and rushed through the House with minimal dialogue between the unions and the impacted employers,” Mulligan said. “So, we really appreciate the leadership of Senator Guzman in pulling back on a bill that was hastily put together. We hope that if the bill is resurrected, it is done with cooperation and working with the employer community.”

Ed Sealover covers government, health care, tourism, airlines and hospitality for the Denver Business Journal and writes for the “Capitol Business” blog. Phone: 303-803-9229.