One little bill, but so much controversy

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

Could there be anything more fun than the uproar over HB 1072, the recently-passed bill that amends the so-called “Labor Peace Act” of 1963?
If political junkies were film buffs, it’s like seeing the original cut of “Casablanca.” Labor dinosaurs do battle with business troglodytes! Sinister labor barons threaten the free enterprise system! Democratic pols, flush with labor dollars, crush the GOP defenders of truth, justice and the American way! The fearless advocates of working Americans fight the evil minions of millionaire monopolists!
Imagine it! And to think, we thought that stuff had disappeared decades ago …
For those of you who haven’t been following this little hoo-ha, some background.
The Labor Peace Act requires that, in order for a business to be unionized, two votes have to be taken. The first requires a simple majority of workers voting; the second, by secret ballot, calls for a majority of all workers or 75 percent of those voting.
HB1072 eliminates the second vote, arguably making it much easier for unions to successfully organize workers at a non-union business.
The business community has not, to put it mildly, embraced this bill.
Chamber of Commerce President Will Temby thundered that “The free enterprise system is under attack!” and Republicans in the legislature, eager to prove their pro-business bona fides, staged a futile little filibuster, submitting as many as 300 amendments to the bill. The Dems squashed them like flies (or, like union organizers at Wal-Mart), and rammed the bill through with contemptuous ease.
So here are a couple of questions: If this bill has such awful consequences, why did our newly moderate, pro-business Democrats pass it and will our moderate, pro-business governor sign it?
And here are a couple of answers.
The Labor Peace Act has been in effect for 44 years. And during that time, in case you hadn’t noticed, our state has grown and prospered. It doesn’t matter what metric you use — education, income, home ownership, net worth, longevity, workplace access, diversity — we’ve done well, but unions haven’t.
Less than 8 percent of the state’s work force is unionized, somewhat less than 44 years ago. Unions are desperately searching for ways to increase their membership — so removing this procedural roadblock seemed like a good idea.
And Democratic legislators probably assumed that this was a harmless little bill, a bone that they could throw to labor without any nasty political consequences. After all, one election, two elections — who cares? It doesn’t really change things, does it?
In all likelihood, it won’t make a bit of difference. No one seriously believes that companies won’t move here/will move away/will stop hiring just because of an obscure change to an obscure law. And labor unions won’t reverse their decline because organizing has become marginally easier.
Consider a typical union shop. The roles of managers, of labor and of supervisors are carefully spelled out. Employees have clearly defined responsibilities, working hours and work procedures. It’s a static, hierarchical universe, one in which each working day is very much like every other.
It’s the universe of the assembly line and the manufacturing floor, where opposing negotiators spend their time in petty quarrels about, for example, bathroom breaks. It’s a job environment where productivity is still defined by time-on-task, not by creative problem-solving in unstructured cooperative units.
Now let’s consider a non-unionized business, such as, for example, the feisty little business weekly newspaper located in downtown Colorado Springs that you’re reading right now.
We’re not much for hierarchies. People have titles and responsibilities, but everybody is expected to do whatever they can to advance the goals of the company. And we all understand that we need accurate, timely, useful and entertaining reporting, as well as an energetic, motivated sales force, great graphic designers, great customer service, efficient administration, continuous engagement with our readers and the entire business community, a publisher who never slows down and brilliant editors … I’m out of breath! That’s what we need, and that’s what we’ve got — and the better we do our jobs, the more ads/papers we’ll sell, and we’ll all do better.
In agile, relatively boss-less business environments like ours, a union would be an archaic waste of time. One of the basic tenets of modern capitalism tells us that, in a competitive labor market, companies that stiff their employees lose the good ones, and eventually go broke. That might not be universally true, but the union model, one which has historically pitted employer against employee, is not the way modern businesses function.
The notion that unions can somehow re-invent themselves and once again dominate the American workplace is, I think, nonsensical. But it’s amazing to watch these ancient fights between business and labor suddenly re-appear, and actually be taken seriously. The Labor Peace Act? C’mon, guys, before you know it we’ll be arguing about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930.
And will the governor sign it? The fact that he even allowed it to get to the legislative floor shows that he has some things to learn about hardball politics. He’s been a career prosecutor, putting away murderers, methamphetamine cookers and armed robbers. Dealing with such innocents, he wasn’t prepared for the ruthless nastiness of your run-of-the-mill state legislators.
The Dems, giddy with victory, couldn’t wait to please their friends and humiliate their enemies. The GOPsters saw an opportunity to drive a wedge between the Dems and their new friends in the business community — and neither of them spent one minute thinking about the bill itself.
And why should they? The bill has no actual content — its purpose is merely symbolic. It slightly alters the playing field, but who cares? It’s a playing field without teams — a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Boston Braves.
But even though it’s content-free, it may have real-life consequences. Suppose the business community, now apparently as panicked as a flock of plump turkeys being pursued by a fox, decides to spend millions trying to pass a “Right-to-Work” amendment to the Colorado Constitution? Now that’s hardly the outcome that either the Dems or their labor buddies want, is it?
If the governor has any sense, he’ll wait till the end of the session and quietly veto the bill — thereby keeping faith with the business community, at no particular political cost. If he allows it to become law, nothing will be achieved — except that business will be convinced that he doesn’t listen to them.
Maybe he needs to think about business as he would about a 5-year-old, who’s sure there are monsters under his bed. You don’t just say he’s imagining things, and turn out the light — you get rid of the monsters.
And if all you have to do to get rid of the monsters is not sign a bill … well, make the kid happy so he can sleep at night.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.