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‘Shame on Polis’: Why the Colorado labor movement is so mad at the governor

Polis vetoed six bills last week, three of which were priorities for state union leaders
Demonstrators at a rally outside the state Capitol on Thursday blasting Gov. Jared Polis for vetoing bills that were priorities for the labor movement. (Jesse Paul/The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado labor movement held a Jared Polis hate-fest Thursday on the west steps of the state Capitol.

“Shame on Polis!” about 200 demonstrators shouted. Some were wearing “POLIS FAILED WORKERS” T-shirts. A banner hanging above their head said “GOVERNOR POLIS TURNED HIS BACK ON US.” Expletives flowed freely.

Union leaders are livid at Colorado’s governor for vetoing a trio of their priority bills last week, but they used Thursday to air broader grievances against Polis, including that he hasn’t joined workers on a picket line since becoming the state’s chief executive.

“The end of the school year report cards are going up,” Dennis Dougherty, head of the Colorado AFL-CIO, told rallygoers. “Jared Polis, you got an ‘F.’ But here’s the thing: there’s two more years of report cards left. You’ve got a chance to do right by Colorado workers.”

A who’s who of Democratic leaders were at the rally, including Secretary of State Jena Griswold, Treasurer Dave Young, Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Shad Murib, House Majority Leader Monica Duran and Senate Majority Leader Robert Rodriguez. About two dozen other Democratic state lawmakers also attended.

The labor movement has been the backbone of the Democratic Party nationally for decades. But union leaders in Colorado have complained in recent years that Democrats haven’t done enough with their historic majorities to benefit workers. And if Polis, who has two years left on his second and final term as governor, has future political ambitions – his name is often floated in presidential conversations – a rift with labor could haunt him.

The spark for the rally was ignited earlier this month, when the governor issued six vetoes at 6:20 p.m. The timing had the effect of minimizing media attention heading into the weekend. The labor movement is angry about three of them:

  • House Bill 1008, which would have created new wage theft protections for construction workers, making general contractors liable for wages owed by their subcontractors. Polis argued it would have let subcontractors off the hook for bad behavior, and increased the cost of construction by passing the financial burden on to general contractors.
  • House Bill 1307, which would have prohibited school districts from using federal money to hire HVAC contractors who aren’t certified by the state Department of Labor and Employment. Polis said it would have made it harder for rural schools to apply for grants, noting in his veto letter that more than a dozen counties lack state-certified electrical or plumbing contractors in their area. He also told The Colorado Sun he would have signed it if lawmakers had agreed to provide waivers to schools that made good-faith efforts to meet the new standards.
  • House Bill 1260, which would have prohibited employers from disciplining workers who refuse to attend an employer-sponsored meeting that involves religious or political matters, with some exceptions. Polis said the bill was so broad it would have created a chilling effect on free speech and could have limited even businesses’ basic operational functions and work meetings.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis climbs stairs after arriving at Union Station on a Regional Transportation Authority light rail train to sign into law a surface transportation infrastructure development bill to help connect the state with a passenger rail system May 16 in front of Union Station in lower downtown Denver. Polis signed the historic legislation to expand the state's transportation network along with measures to improve the air quality as well as impose fees on oil and gas production. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

Polis, through a spokesperson, defended the vetoes in a statement to The Sun, saying he supports worker rights and is open to negotiating a compromise on the measures between now and the 2025 legislative session.

“The reality is, Gov. Polis has expanded collective bargaining rights for tens of thousands of workers, including bargaining rights for state employees and local government workers,” spokesperson Shelby Wieman said in a statement. “Gov. Polis was clear in his vetoes that while each of the bills had good aspects, the bills in their final form were not in the best interest of the state, and our requests to the legislators to improve the bills were rejected. He remains open to working on each of these policies ahead of the next session to craft laws that support the objectives of the sponsors and organizations.”

Dougherty, the AFL-CIO leader, said the compromises that were on the table “would have gutted our bills.”

“We’re not budging,” he said.

Dennis Dougherty, who leads the Colorado AFL-CIO, speaks at a rally outside the state Capitol on Thursday, blasting Gov. Jared Polis for vetoing bills that were priorities for the labor movement. (Jesse Paul/The Colorado Sun)

Business interests this week proactively issued statements supporting the governor and his vetoes, apparently aimed at providing him some cover ahead of the Thursday rally.

The Associated Builders and Contractors Rocky Mountain Chapter said House Bill 1008 and 1260 were both problematic.

“We support the veto of House Bill 1008 because it went awry in targeting a single industry and inflicting consequences on all participants – even the 99-plus percent of good actors,” said the group’s president, Jack Tate, a Republican former state senator. “Simply, to use a metaphor, such a law would bruise every apple in the barrel to manage a couple of bad apples at the bottom. Finally, these consequences would have manifested themselves in higher construction costs to customers and the squeezing out of small businesses – many of them minority-owned.”

Tate said House Bill 1260 was so broad that it would have prevented employers from talking to their workers about candidates, legislative policy and ballot initiatives. He said it was “anti-free speech.”

The Hispanic Contractors of Colorado sent Polis a letter Wednesday thanking him for vetoing House Bill 1008, saying under the measure “general contractors would bear the weight of wage theft claims across all subcontractor tiers, despite all their proper process.” The Colorado Chamber of Commerce said 1008 was a job killer that wouldn’t solve wage theft.

Progressive lawmakers and groups, however, are still piping mad.

Duran was a main sponsor of both 1009 and 1260. She said at the rally that she was disappointed and upset with Polis.

“All of these bills would have been monumental strides to support our working families and ensure that Coloradans are treated with respect, dignity and paid the wages they are owed,” she told rallygoers.

Colorado state Rep. Monica Duran speaks before Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs a for-cause eviction protections bill April 19 in the state Capitol in Denver. The for-cause eviction protections bill is one of the most sweeping pro-tenant bills passed in recent years and is the product of 18 months of lawmaking and organizing. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press file)

State Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat who sponsored all three of the union-priority bills vetoed by Polis, said the governor sided with Republicans and lobbyists in rejecting the measures.

“The Democratic Party is currently in a fight for its soul,” Bryan Lindstrom, a Democratic state House candidate, said at the rally, “a fight between those champions fighting for the working class and those who sell out to corporate interests.”

Rep. Javier Mabrey, a Denver Democrat, told The Sun in an interview that the governor’s vetoes – coupled with the legislative defeats of a number of consumer protection-oriented bills at the state Capitol this year – show the ongoing “power of the corporate lobby” in an era of Democratic majorities.

“Other states have protections that we’re looking at bringing, and the sky hasn’t fallen on business,” Mabrey said. “The forecast of the economy halting if we pass basic consumer (and labor) protections isn’t borne out when you look at what happens in other states.”

The governor’s six vetoes this year (so far) are the second most since he took office in 2019. His record was 10 in 2023. The lowest number was three in 2020.

Polis’ 2024 vetoes may not be over, however. He has until June 7 to decide whether to sign or veto any bill passed by the Legislature this year, or let measures become law without his signature.

Polis also vetoed three other bills last week that would have imposed new regulations on certain businesses.

House Bill 1010 would have prohibited health insurance providers from limiting access to certain prescription drugs covered by their plan or charging additional fees for using an out-of-network pharmacy. It would have applied only in cases where the patient’s drugs are administered at a medical office to treat chronic, rare or life-threatening medical conditions.

In his veto letter, Polis said there was no evidence the measure would have actually reduced drug prices or ensure that savings would be passed along to consumers.

House Bill 1080 would have required private youth sports organizations to have at least one adult certified in first aid, CPR and AED treatment at each event. Employees and volunteer coaches would also have to obtain a criminal-background check if they travel for games with an overnight stay. Polis said the medical certification rules placed “unrealistic and counterproductive expectations and undue burden on coaches and chaperones – many of whom are volunteers or family members.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs House Bill 1313, the so-called transit-oriented communities measure, into law on May 14 at Evans Station in Denver. (Jesse Paul/The Colorado Sun file)

However, Polis signed into law a separate measure, Senate Bill 113, which contains similar requirements related to background checks.

Finally, Senate Bill 150 would have made municipal solid waste combustion facilities ineligible for state tax incentives, with some exceptions. Such facilities generate electricity, but also produce pollution. Polis wrote in his veto letter that the blanket prohibition on combustion was “inconsistent with how our state incentive programs work,” and could stifle the development of future clean energy technology.

The Legislature can override the governor’s vetoes by a supermajority in the House and Senate, but it must be in session to do so. The 2024 lawmaking term ended May 8. The governor often waits to veto bills until after the session has ended, making overrides impossible.

The General Assembly isn’t scheduled to return to work until January.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.