Up the Organization
A maverick Denver labor leader has launched a campaign to topple the president of the state AFL-CIO, calling for dramatic change to turn around Colorado's sleepy labor movement. The dispute over leadership of the state labor federation has also become an issue in Colorado politics, and the chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party has been drawn into the fracas.
Jack Hawkins, president of the Denver Area Labor Federation, is challenging state AFL-CIO president Bob Greene. Hawkins's candidacy marks the first time in years that the presidency of the Colorado AFL-CIO has been contested. Greene will be running for a second term at the Colorado AFL-CIO convention in September, but Hawkins vows to stage an upset and take charge of the 160,000-member federation.
"It's driven by a difference in style," says Hawkins. "I'm much more aggressive than Bob is."
The forty-year-old Hawkins wants labor to adopt a higher profile in Colorado by aggressively organizing workers in areas like the ski industry and taking a more active role in state politics. He believes that Greene is part of labor's old guard and that he doesn't understand how the work world has changed in recent years.
"Workers are not benefiting from all those wonderful economic reports we see," says Hawkins. "CEO pay has gone up 124 percent since 1992, but workers haven't even kept up with inflation."
Greene, elected president of the state AFL-CIO in 1993, declines to respond to Hawkins's comments. "I'm not going to play this out in the press," says Greene. "Hawkins can say any damn thing he wants to."
Hawkins is no stranger to controversy or to politics: He spearheaded an unsuccessful 1994 ballot initiative that would have reformed Colorado's workers' compensation law; he also pushed last year's initiative to raise the minimum wage in Denver, another losing effort. Hawkins says organized labor must start taking chances to reverse its slide into irrelevance.
"We have to start organizing more people into unions," he insists. "We need to make that happen. Otherwise, there will be nobody speaking for working people."
Hawkins's own allegiance to labor, he says, stems from watching the shabby treatment his father received in the workplace. His dad was abruptly fired from a Ford Motor Co. dealership in Lamar after years of service, an experience that Hawkins says devastated him.
"My dad worked for Ford for 22 years," he says. "He went out to California for two weeks' vacation, and when he came back, his job was gone. He worked the rest of his life at a minimum-wage job."
Years later, Hawkins's voice still rings with anger over the injustice to his father.
"I couldn't believe it," he says. "He died a couple of years later of a heart attack. The deal with my dad changed my life. I carried a bitter torch toward that employer for a long time."
After getting a job with the telephone company in Denver, Hawkins became active in the Communication Workers of America. He rose through the ranks of that union and was elected head of the Denver Area Labor Federation in 1992. The large majority of unionized workers in Colorado live in the metro area.
While Colorado has never been a strong union state, it still has more of a labor presence than most of its neighbors. Hawkins wants labor to focus on organizing service employees, including those who work in Colorado's most glamorous industry.
"At the ski areas you have folks making $5 an hour, and they have to live in Leadville, commuting 100 miles because they can't find anyplace they can afford to live," he says. "It's our job to bring those wages up. The only way we can do that is by aggressively organizing workers into unions."
Hawkins's challenge to Greene bears a striking resemblance to the election of national AFL-CIO president John Sweeney two years ago. Like Hawkins, Sweeney challenged the incumbent, Lane Kirkland, with a call to transform the labor movement. Since that time, he's shaken up the AFL-CIO's national staff, devoting far more resources to organizing and engaging in high-profile political battles with congressional Republicans.
Sweeney will be in Denver this week for a regional organizing conference. Hawkins says he's more in tune with the agenda Sweeney has set for labor, including a new emphasis on building coalitions with civil-rights and environmental groups. Hawkins says he is also willing to work with groups traditional labor leaders would avoid, like Greenpeace.
"We are not big enough to effect change by ourselves," he says. "We need allies all over the place."
A recent political tiff between Greene and Democratic state chairman Phil Perington shows how the Hawkins-Greene fight has spilled over into Democratic Party politics. Greene angrily denounced the state party because a telemarketing script used to solicit funds seemed to support a bill in the state legislature that called for converting Front Range power plants to natural gas. Unionized coal miners on the Western Slope waged an emotional campaign against the legislation, which they believed would cost them their jobs.
Greene refused to comment on the dispute, but Perington says the telemarketing script was simply a mistake and that Greene wants to take him on to impress union members.
"I think it's just politics," he says. "He's trying to exert his power within the AFL-CIO."
Perington says the upcoming election will determine the future of labor in Colorado. And he makes no secret of his admiration for Hawkins.
"He understands how to get out of his car and pick up a sign and stand outside," says Perington. "He's not afraid to take a stand on issues. He's a tough guy but a fair guy."
Talking about unions in Colorado, Perington even sounds like Hawkins, pointing out the plight of workers in Colorado's resorts.
"I would like to see labor get more involved in the ski industry," he says. "[Former Vail owner] George Gillett is nothing more than an environmental extortionist. They use public land to get rich and then don't pay a fair wage. It's a classic example of corporate welfare."
As for Hawkins, he believes he'll be elected president of the state AFL-CIO next month. He's already playing down the conflict with Greene and promises that the Colorado labor movement will be more visible than it's been in decades.
"I don't want to trash Bob--on a personal level, he's a good guy," says Hawkins. "But we have some differences in approach, and we're taking two different routes.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.