January 27, 2013
The liberal mayor of Boulder and conservative mayor of Colorado Springs walked into the Colorado Legislature and agreed to agree. It sounds like a joke, but it’s not.
Boulder Mayor Matthew Appelbaum and Springs Mayor Steve Bach on Wednesday urged the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee to defeat Senate Bill 25, which would mandate union bargaining for firefighters in Colorado Springs and throughout the state. The committee passed it on a party-line vote.
The bill enjoys enthusiastic support from Senate President John Morse, a Colorado Springs Democrat who believes we’d all fare better if state government made most of life’s decisions for us.
SB 25 would grant collective bargaining rights even in jurisdictions, such as Colorado Springs, where voters have opposed the idea. Morse wants the Legislature to impose on residents of Colorado Springs an arrangement with employees we have soundly and repeatedly rejected.
Voters spoke in 1979 when they defeated by 58 percent a charter amendment that would have forced city politicians to bargain with a union. Union proponents tried again in 1979 but failed to submit petitions to get the measure on the ballot. They tried again in 1999, initiating a proposed ordinance that voters defeated by 57 percent.
Get that, Legislature? Colorado Springs doesn’t want to unionize the Fire Department. If residents wanted that, they would vote for it. This is a home-rule city, meaning we are supposed to make our own decisions.
It’s not as if voters have starved local firefighters by opposing unionization. A Firefighter 1st in Colorado Springs — the rank of most firefighters — earns $61,000 a year. His or her peers in Boulder earn $67,000, and in Denver the comparable firefighter earns $70,000. All receive enviable employee benefits most private-sectors workers would trade for.
Though it appears a firefighter is paid less in Colorado Springs, the raw number deceives. Sperlings Best Places, which analyzes government economic data by cities and regions, finds that Boulder’s cost of living is 46 percent higher than the cost of living in Colorado Springs. A home owner in Colorado Springs would pay 130 percent more for a comparable home in Boulder. Crunching costs of food, housing, utilities, transportation, health and miscellaneous expenses, a firefighter in Colorado springs would have to earn $88,811 in Boulder to enjoy a comparable lifestyle.
A Colorado Springs firefighter would need to earn $67,479 in Denver to live as well as he or she lived on $61,000 in the Springs. So, our firefighters receive considerably higher compensation than their Boulder colleagues and slightly lower compensation than their Denver peers when we adjust with cost-of-living data. Don’t think this data doesn’t matter. Our city’s enviable cost of living explains why so many people leave Denver to relocate here. Doing so can mean enjoying a larger home and having more disposable income. Public employee compensation decisions must account for cost of living variables.
Union or no union, Colorado Springs residents pay generously for good fire protection. A study by Summit Economics, in collaboration with Regis and Webster universities, compared Colorado Springs government spending in 1950 and 2008. Adjusting for inflation, the study found taxpayers in 1950 each spent $304 for city government. By 2008, the number had grown to $570. Per-person spending on streets and public works dropped from $101 in 1950 to $72 in 2008. Capital needs fell from $89 to $24. Public safety spending, by contrast, went from $88 in 1950 to $275 in 2008. Clearly we don’t need cop and firefighter unions to make public safety our top priority.
Furthermore, Colorado Springs has no difficulty attracting great firefighters. The city plans to hire 30 firefighters this year and has 1,850 fresh applications.
“It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government. Unions, as well as employers, would vastly prefer to have even Government regulation of labor-management relations reduced to a minimum consistent with the protection of the public welfare,” said the late William George Meany, who was president of the American Federation of Labor from 1952 to 1955.
Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, patron saint of organized labor, warned against unionizing public employees.
“All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service,” Roosevelt said. “ … The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives.”
We should pay our firefighters generously. They have difficult and important jobs that benefit us all. It is probably time to raise their pay. We’ll do our firefighters a favor by keeping the union at bay. Unfortunately, if Morse and other legislative Democrats get their way, it won’t be up to us.