Mar 19, 2021 | NEWS | By Esteban Candelaria | Photo by Maren Greene

When Colorado Springs voters rejected unionizing the city’s fire department in 2019, many might have thought the issue had been put to bed.  

But at least one candidate in the 21-person race for city council wants to bring the idea back if elected April 6. 

Garfield Johnson, an Army veteran who founded a drone company and is challenging incumbent city councilman Mike O’Malley in the District 6 race in the northeast region, indicated he would propose another unionization effort for firefighters if given the chance. 

“It will pass the second time,” Johnson said in an interview. “We need to protect our workers here, so that it makes it attractive for other people from other states to come here.”

Two years ago, a hard-fought campaign for collective bargaining rights for firefighters failed 67% to 32% at the ballot box. The Professional Firefighter’s Association, IAFF Local 5, had championed the campaign, saying that the Fire Department was understaffed and overworked, and that collective bargaining would help that.

Mayor John Suthers, along with Councilmen Merv Bennett and Andy Pico, had opposed the move, arguing that collective bargaining would create annual confrontations over negotiations. 

Kevin Bommer, who directs the Colorado Municipal League, a statewide organization dedicated to the issues of local governments, said one way Colorado cities and towns have established collective bargaining has been through charter amendments posed to voters. This is exactly what happened in Colorado Springs in 2019.

Another way to unionize is for members of a city council to pass an ordinance themselves through a majority vote. These legislative powers, Bommer said, are possible because of a state constitutional provision about “home rule” municipalities. 

Home rule, which was established in Colorado in 1912, gave such cities and towns the “power to make, amend, add to or replace the charter of said city or town, which shall be its organic law and extend to all its local and municipal matters.”

Colorado Springs is one of them. 

The fact that an effort to unionize firefighters in the state’s second-largest city emerged in 2019, Bommer said, could be traced to more recent legislation for collective bargaining. 

In 2009, Colorado’s Democratic governor, Bill Ritter, vetoed a statewide proposal to allow collective bargaining rights for Colorado’s firefighters. However, in 2013, lawmakers reintroduced a similar bill, which was ultimately signed by former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper; however, Bommer said, that bill was modified to include a petition process. 

Bommer said in 2019 local firefighters in Colorado Springs tried to invoke that statute outright, but the Colorado Springs City Clerk denied the move, claiming the statute didn’t apply to the city’s status as a home rule municipality. That prompted firefighters to push to include the issue of collective bargaining on the ballot in a city election. 

“They bypassed the statute, which has never really been invoked, or put to the test whether it’s constitutional or not,” Bommer said. “And did what home-rule municipalities can do and they put the question on the ballot for voters to vote on in 2019.”

Voters ultimately rejected the idea. 

In the U.S., comprehensive, state-wide legislation for unionization rights is generally confined to northern and eastern regions in the country. Here in Colorado, municipal legislators have faced difficulties in implementing state-wide collective bargaining laws, although some studies have shown that state legislations have begun to evolve and expand labor laws in the U.S.

Still, Bommer said that the possibility for collective bargaining for city employees like firefighters is not gone forever, thanks to the second form of legislative power home-rule municipalities have at their disposal to enact union rights.

“One of the ways municipalities in Colorado have done this, as part of their authority, local controls — they passed ordinances,” Bommer said. “The majority of council will vote for an ordinance to create collective bargaining rights and recognize organized labor.”

James Michael “Mike” O’Malley, the incumbent in the District 6 election running against Johnson, did not respond to several requests for comment.

Still, fellow city council members who selected O’Malley to replace Andy Pico, a conservative councilman who left to join the state legislature in January, have said they expect him to continue Pico’s opposition to unionizing city employees. 

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