A full-scale labor war is less likely in Colorado than Wisconsin. Colorado is a modified right-to-work state with low levels of private sector unionization. That is not to say business activists and labor leaders would not try to change the balance of power in Colorado if they had a chance. Rather, the partisan balance at the State Capitol makes legislation weakening or strengthening the respective positions of labor and business unlikely.
Labor wars broke out in 2007 when Democrats took over the governorship and had majorities in both houses of the legislature. Although the short-term impact was to strengthen state employee unionization, the ultimate effect was to contribute to Gov. Bill Ritter’s political troubles and launch an expensive ballot war in 2008 over right-to-work, which left the state’s labor/business balance of power unchanged.
Although conservatives would like to challenge public sector unions, especially the teachers union, at the moment cutting K-12 budgets is harming the teachers union more than changes in collective bargaining could. Anti-union interests are also benefiting from the well established, including among liberal urban Democrats, school reform movement with its preference for independent charter schools and hostility to teacher seniority and job protection rules. The most aggressive manifestation of the momentum of the reform movement is a voucher system’s recent boost in Douglas County.
Because of the ease of access to the Colorado ballot, the battle over the size and expense of the state’s public sector will likely be waged around questions of new taxes in 2011. But, creative political operatives will likely think up new measures for voters to consider if not this year, then 2012. Questions related to the political influence and the budgeting impact of the public sector will likely dominate this decade as the recession throws public revenue and expenditures in sharp relief.