Department

Business: Labor's New Boss

Can Mike Cerbo, the new executive director of Colorado's AFL-CIO, make labor's voice heard in a state that's notoriously hostile to unions?

By
June 2008

The aging Crowne Plaza just off I-70 near Denver International Airport may not be a place of religious worship, but on a winter Sunday at sunrise it is hosting a revival of sorts, with Mike Cerbo, the new head of the Colorado AFL-CIO, playing the preacher.

Dressed in gray pants, a brown jacket, and tie, the jovial, 54-year-old Cerbo looks like a better dressed, more svelte version of Peter from Family Guy—if Peter were a powerful labor leader and felt at home at functions like this morning's training session for unionized letter carriers. One moment this morning, Cerbo touts organized labor's track record of electing union-friendly candidates to public office. Another moment, he urges those in the audience to run for office themselves. And then, in a crescendo, he slices apart Republican plans to put new anti-labor initiatives on Colorado's 2008 ballot. "Colorado is a working families' state," Cerbo says to the assembled crowd. "And it is not hostile to unions."

Cerbo's optimism is a shot of early-morning caffeine, but it masks the precarious reality for the state's labor movement—one that is as difficult to predict as the weather on the Front Range. When Governor Bill Ritter signed an executive order late last year that gave public employees the right to collectively bargain—a right they have in most other states—the barrage was ferocious. The Denver Post published a front-page editorial likening Ritter to Jimmy Hoffa. Republican legislators like Senator Shawn Mitchell accused Ritter of "paying off labor bosses."

Now, Cerbo must contend with both an anti-labor culture and a forthcoming legislative onslaught. Conservative operatives are preparing a 2008 ballot initiative to restrict unions' ability to collect dues through a so-called "right to work" initiative. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers have kept the issue of restricting public employees' right to strike on their agenda.

"Colorado is particularly hostile to unions and has been for many, many years," says Raymond Hogler, a management professor at Colorado State University. "Employers here are very resistant to unionization, and they have become sophisticated at dealing with organizing attempts in the workplace." Hogler's Union Opposition Index, which charts unfair labor practices related to union organizing drives, shows Colorado is the fourth most anti-labor state in the country, behind only West Virginia, Indiana, and North Carolina.

Cerbo, who assumed his post at the AFL-CIO last October, was a natural pick to become Colorado's top labor leader. His father was a member of the meat-cutters' union, and Cerbo has been a union member since he was a 19-year-old hotdog vendor at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. After moving to Colorado in 1974, Cerbo tended bar at haunts like Denver's Trader Vic's. Six years later, he was elected business manager of the local hotel and restaurant workers' union, and eventually earned his law degree at the University of Denver. In 2007, Cerbo gave up his seat in the Legislature, to which he'd been elected in 2003, to take the AFL-CIO position.

Heading Colorado's most powerful union federation is no small task, and Cerbo is aware of what he's up against. Ninety-four years ago, Colorado made national headlines as the site of the Ludlow Massacre—a labor struggle that resulted in the murder of more than 18 striking mine- workers. In 1943, Colorado passed the notorious Labor Peace Act, which served as a model for the federal Taft-Hartley Act, a law that severely restricts unions' right to strike and is roundly considered the most anti-union statute in the last century.

Though the times have evolved, the union-averse culture in Colorado politics remains a powerful force. Cerbo is prepared for the battles ahead and believes that organized labor "can get the mainstream business community to oppose the right-to-work measure" that will likely appear on the November ballot. He notes that the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce has already said it is unnecessary. If the initiative does go forward, he says, "it will give us an opportunity to highlight working families' issues and the benefits of unions." As just one example, he notes that wages in "right-to-work" states are far lower than in other states.

Similarly, Cerbo relishes a fight over the right of public employees to collectively bargain—a right Ritter gave state workers and that labor is now asking the Denver City Council to give to municipal workers. Cerbo says most Coloradans are paying attention to other issues, even with Republicans speculating that such rights mean public employees are certain to strike. "The only people talking about strikes are anti-union legislators," he says. "The more they talk about it, the more out of touch they look."

Cerbo, in fact, sees a big potential for union expansion in Colorado's booming service sector, some of which he has already organized. It was Cerbo's hotel workers' union that ran successful drives to organize service workers at Denver's professional sports venues, and that most recently began organizing the Hyatt Regency Denver, the hotel that will play host to the Democratic National Convention.

"Janitors back in the '80s and '90s proved you can organize the service industry," he says. "We can keep building on that today, even if we face the kind of opposition we've gotten used to."

Back at the letter carriers' breakfast, one of the chief concerns for Cerbo is the possibility of recession, which is likely to intensify business' push to cut labor costs. "The anti-union hysteria has gotten worse in the last few years, and that term 'bad for business' is going to start coming up if the economy goes south," Cerbo says, his face dimming.

For the first time all morning, his warmth dissipates, and a hint of anger appears. "The folks who use the phrase 'bad for business,'" he says, "are the type of folks who would be upset about the 13th amendment"—the one that outlaws slavery.

But just as Cerbo is about to dial up some more old-fashioned, fist-shaking outrage, a group of letter carriers asks him to pose for a photo, and the smile is back. "I wish this was all I had to do in my job," he tells me. "I just love being around working people."

That blue-collar solidarity is what will carry Cerbo in the day-to-day slog that comes with leading a labor movement in an anti-union state. Ultimately, his success will depend on whether he can make the same sense of solidarity mutual all over Colorado.