Aurora city councilman Ryan Frazier has been the unions’ punching bag ever since he co-sponsored the initiative to put Amendment 47, the right-to-work measure, on next week’s ballot. He’s faced lawsuits and attack ads, and, as came to light this morning, he even received a vulgar e-mail from a union legal advisor that called him a "f-- sell-out" and a "House N--," according to the Denver Post.
But depending on what happens next week, maybe union interests should pack away the vitriol and plan a ticker-tape parade for the much-maligned Frazier. After all, if Amendment 47 fails – and some polls suggest it’s likely to do so – Frazier could turn out to be the best thing to happen to unions in quite a while, in Colorado and beyond.
"If this is a significant defeat for right to work, this will change the unions’ playbook for a long time to come," says Ray Hogler, a management professor at Colorado State University. "If they win big against 47 in Colorado, they think it may have national implications, and frankly so do I."
Unions could certainly use a new strategy against right to work laws, which prohibit payment of union dues as a condition of employment. It’s long been hard for unions to convince people to vote against something that ostensibly promotes "rights." While such "rights" may hurt labor interests, unions have been relegated to such a marginal place in American society (just 8.7 percent of Colorado workers are in a union, slightly lower than the national average) it’s hard to get voters to care.
That’s why labor interests developed a new strategy for their anti-Amendment 47 campaign: Don’t talk about right to work at all. "I think what’s interesting in this campaign is they aren’t even mentioning right to work," says Hogler. Ads against the ballot measure feature firefighters and police officers – some who possibly wouldn’t actually be affected by the measure -- talking about how it would make communities less safe. There’s hardly a mention of unions or union dues.
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According to recent surveys, it’s worked.
Labor has also learned another trick in their battle against Amendment 47: the strong-arm approach. In exchange for removing four dreaded "poison pill" measures which they’d placed on the ballot as a response to Frazier’s measure, unions obtained unprecedented support from business leaders who are normally all about right to work. "In states where people can put things on the ballot with a fairly low threshold, unions are going to pick up on this idea. They proved they could use threats to get business to not back right to work," says Hogler. "They learned they don’t just have to play defense, they can play offense."
These new strategies could prove advantageous at a time when labor is prepping for a comeback, what with union-friendly Democrats seemingly poised to sweep the elections and the specter of Depression-era conditions spurring renewed interest in the spread-the-wealth promise of organized labor. Who knows, says Hogler: If these tactics prove successful here, Big Labor may try to use them to change federal law to abolish right to work once and for all.
If that comes to pass, unions should give part of the kudos to Frazier for starting it all. Who knows, maybe they’ll send him a nice e-mail. -- Joel Warner