The Colorado AFL-CIO has decided to stop donating to the Colorado Democratic Party and committees that help elect Democrats to the Colorado General Assembly, what one expert said is a “rare step” for organized labor.
The unusual rift means a union that represents 130,000 Colorado workers and donates more than $100,000 every election year has placed a moratorium on its own donations until next May, sending a message while also leaving itself time to reenter politics before the 2022 primary and general election.
“At a time like this, the labor movement and the Democratic Party should be operating as close partners to meet this moment and address (economic) issues,” Colorado AFL-CIO executive director Dennis Dougherty wrote in an email to fellow union leaders this week.
“But rather than connect to move us out of the clutches of poverty, we have instead been excluded from caucus discussions about policy creation in favor of bringing business and opposition groups to the table, disregarded as allies and relegated to afterthoughts,” he added.
Dougherty did not cite specific legislation or statements that led to the rift. Reached by phone Wednesday, the union leader declined to comment or answer questions about his email.
Union membership ticked up nationally between 2019 and 2020 but only after decades of decline, corresponding with a decline in organized labor’s political power. Unions are often dissatisfied with the Democratic Party but feel tied to a party that is more aligned with them than Republicans, said Ryan Lamare, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois.
“Unions don’t typically take such a concrete step,” Lamare said. “What they tend to do is express their dissatisfaction vocally, to say, ‘here’s what we want’ or ‘here’s how we want you to improve things.’ They don’t usually go so far as to formally withdraw financial support for the party … that’s quite a rare step.”
The Colorado AFL-CIO’s timing is important to keep in mind, he said.
“Unions are very strategic with what they do and they are likely to have timed this to send the Democratic Party in Colorado a message,” Lamare said, “but to not necessarily send them a message that is going to undercut the electoral aspirations of the party.”
The Colorado AFL-CIO has donated about $500,000 to Democratic candidates and left-leaning causes the past three election cycles. The vast majority of the money went to issue committees rather than candidates, in part because the committees can legally receive far larger donations. In 2020, it gave $27,300 to an issue committee pushing for paid family leave and $25,000 to an issue committee opposing a state income tax cut, among other donations.
It’s not clear if the union will stop donating to issue committees. Dougherty’s email states that the union won’t contribute directly to the party, political action committees that aid Democratic candidates for the legislature, party events “or any other channels/events.” Dougherty also declined to clarify that Wednesday.
It’s also unclear whether the rift has expanded or will expand to other unions. Dougherty’s email calls on fellow labor unions to join the Colorado AFL-CIO in stopping donations but several large unions in Colorado declined to comment or did not respond to requests Wednesday.
Of the $128,400 the union donated in 2020, only $2,500 went to candidates. Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat, received $1,200. When asked Wednesday about the AFL-CIO’s decision, Esgar did not address it in her statement.
“Southern Colorado is union strong,” the statement said. “My door is always open to our partners in organized labor, and I stand with them in our fight to boost workers and protect their rights. I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish together.”
The union publicly expressed frustration at statehouse Democrats as recently as last month, calling out five Democrats who voted against SB21-176, which would have made it easier for workers to file harassment claims.
“Workers across Colorado elected democrats to stand up for racial and economic justice,” the union tweeted June 8, claiming the bill would have been “good for Colorado workers and racial justice” but “was killed in the House Judiciary Committee by five Democrats.” In 2020, the union donated to two of the five Democrats who voted to kill the bill and endorsed four of the five.
One of the groups that the Colorado AFL-CIO will stop supporting is the House Majority Project, which works to elect Democrats to the Colorado House. Chairman Chris Kennedy, a Democratic state representative from Lakewood, said House Democrats “will continue to view the AFL-CIO, their affiliates and other labor organizations as crucial partners with the House Majority Project.”
Colorado Democratic Party chair Morgan Carroll said in a statement that the party “will always stand in solidarity with our union brothers and sisters.” Colorado Republican Party chair Kristi Burton Brown said hers “is the real party of the working class.”
“We will work with all people to empower them to rise, to choose their own path forward, to open jobs and career growth, to support industry and trade schools, and to pursue their own American Dream,” Burton Brown wrote on Twitter Tuesday.
Staff writer Saja Hindi contributed to this report.