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Ellen Golombek has one of the most thankless jobs at the Colorado Legislature.
The 44-year-old flight attendant serves as the main lobbyist for the Colorado AFL-CIO, the federation of state labor unions. With the election of Bill Owens as Colorado's first Republican governor in 24 years, as well as Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature, Golombek has been fighting a slew of anti-labor bills.
So far she has been surprisingly effective.
Golombek claims to hate lobbying, but she is often seen among the legions of lobbyists with cell phones who mill around the legislature--she's a sprightly presence surrounded by dozens of men in dark suits. Golombek says most people don't realize how corporate interests set the agenda in the state legislature.
"Probably 80 percent of the people in Colorado have no idea what's going on up here," says Golombek. "How many even know who their representatives are?"
Business interests employ countless lobbyists at the capitol and in political campaigns regularly outspend labor by as much as ten to one. Golombek's commitment to the rights of working people has impressed even those legislators who sometimes oppose her.
"The rest of the lobbyists are hired guns who do what they do for the money," says Ken Chlouber, a Republican from Leadville. "Ellen believes in what she's doing. She has a passion and dedication to those issues she believes are either good or bad for the working people of Colorado. There wouldn't be enough money around to pay her to go lobby on the other side of the issue."
About 150,000 of Colorado's workers belong to unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, making Colorado's labor movement small compared to states in the East or on the West Coast. The state's largest union is the Colorado Education Association, with 32,000 members, but the CEA is not a member of the AFL-CIO. Only 10 percent of Colorado's workforce is unionized--but the state's union membership is still the largest in the mountain West.
Golombek insists labor's presence at the capitol is the only thing protecting Colorado employees from draconian cuts in workers' compensation and unemployment benefits. Changes to the workers' comp system in 1991 made it more difficult for injured workers to collect benefits and have a say in their medical care ("Still Hurting," March 28, 1996). Last month, a bill that would slash workers' comp benefits for severely injured employees narrowly passed the state Senate, but only after a shouting match between Senate Minority Leader Mike Feeley and Assistant Majority Leader Ken Chlouber, who had to be separated by their colleagues.
Feeley and his fellow Democrats had been angered by a visit to the Senate chambers by Vickie Armstrong, the newly appointed director of the state labor department. Armstrong, a former lobbyist who worked to cut workers' comp benefits, had promised during her confirmation hearings not to lobby the legislature. For years, Armstrong and Golombek battled on opposite sides of the workers' comp issue, and Armstrong's appointment by Governor Owens was seen as an affront to the state's labor unions.
The unions lost the most recent battle over workers' comp. The new law will reduce benefits to severely injured employees. For example, a farm worker who loses four fingers and injures his shoulder will see his benefits for permanent partial disability reduced from $66,757 to just $21,372. Since workers' comp is a "no fault" system, injured employees can't sue their employer for maintaining an unsafe workplace.
"Nobody cares about workers' comp until they get injured," says Golombek. "There are people out there who lose their homes and even their families." Many of these people are forced onto the welfare rolls, adds Golombek, so that the public ends up paying the cost.
"It's a form of corporate welfare," she says.
Without a governor friendly to labor, Golombek expects that Colorado's unions will have to do regular battle at the legislature for the next several years.
The most emotional issue for labor currently is the "right-to-work" legislation. The proposed bill would have prohibited unions from collecting dues from all the workers represented at a job site, instead making payment of dues optional. Union members say this would have allowed "freeloaders" to enjoy the benefits of a union contract without paying for its costs. Under Colorado law, no workplace can become a "union shop" without the support of 75 percent of the employees.
Supporters of right-to-work say that being required to pay union dues is unfair to workers who don't support the union. But Golombek says the true aim of the legislation is to undermine unions and make them less effective in defending workers.
"The real purpose of right-to-work is to bust unions," she says. "That's the bottom line. If we have to negotiate agreements for people who don't pay dues, we'll go bankrupt."
Golombek succeeded in defeating that legislation with the help of three Republican moderates and solid support from Democrats, but she says that defending labor unions is still a struggle in Colorado.
"I don't think I've ever worked harder and felt like I was losing more ground," says Golombek. "It amazes me the amount of money our opponents will spend trying to squelch less than 10 percent of the population. What are they afraid of?"
Golombek's work at the legislature has earned her the respect of her colleagues.
"It's a hard job defending unions in a state that's less than 10 percent unionized," says Leslie Moody, president of the Denver Area Labor Federation. "Ellen is incredible; she's a woman in a man's field. As a flight attendant, she had to smile and grit her teeth and ask if they want coffee, tea or milk. But she's as tough as nails."
It was her experience with "bad management" at United Airlines that inspired Golombek to become active in her union in the first place.
Just after starting to work as a flight attendant in 1977, Golombek helped board a quadriplegic man in a wheelchair. She had to help empty his catheter, and in the confusion before takeoff, she didn't perform a seat-belt check on him. It was a technical violation of safety rules.
"I was brought up on probation," she says. "The union defended me."
Golombek's involvement in the Association of Flight Attendants deepened, and she eventually started traveling to Washington, D.C., to work on legislative issues--including the ban on smoking in airplanes--for the union.
Golombek's mother was a Democrat and her father was a Republican, so she grew up listening to partisan debate. While neither of her parents was a union member, her grandfather's life story convinced her of the importance of labor unions.
"My grandfather was a coal miner in West Virginia who died of black lung disease," she says. "My grandmother said the only thing that allowed her to live independently were the benefits she got through the union."
Golombek is still a member of the flight attendants' union and is officially on leave from her job at United. She works one flight a year to maintain that status (her husband also works as a flight attendant).
Moody notes that service industries such as the airlines are now the main target of union organizing drives. As a result, more women and minorities have been brought into unions, and they are increasingly taking on leadership roles.
And with a political atmosphere that's suddenly grown hostile to labor, the state AFL-CIO is trying to get its members directly involved in politics. Organizers say 200 union members showed up at a House hearing on the right-to-work legislation, and members of the legislature have been bombarded with letters and calls from union members in their districts. Moody is now organizing a network of 1,000 union members who will pledge to be available at a moment's notice to contact legislators.
"There haven't been members flooding the capitol in the past," says Moody. "It's because this is an urgent fight, and the members are demanding to participate. Ellen is focusing on making sure the members get information about what's happening."
Golombek, who was elected secretary-treasurer of the state AFL-CIO two years ago, finds it ironic that business lobbyists like to paint her as some sort of bully.
"I've been called a union boss, a union baron and a labor czar," she says. "Our union leaders are elected just like legislators. Labor unions aren't perfect, but neither are politicians.