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Ryan Frazier puts his job on the line with Amendment 47

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Over the past seventy years, nothing has been quite as divisive in labor issues nationwide as the question of whether employees can be required to pay union dues in order to work at a unionized workplace.

Federal law passed in the 1940s left it up to individual states to decide whether unions could require all employees to pay dues. Since then, 22 states have passed right-to-work laws, which make obligatory union dues illegal, usually over vocal objections from unions that such regulations are businesses' attempt to divide and weaken workers. Most of the rest are "union security" states, meaning that union dues can be a condition of continued employment.

The Colorado Labor Peace Act, however, makes this state unique. Here, unions can make dues obligatory, but only if three-quarters of the employees in a workplace vote to allow it. So while both unions and employers like to grumble about it, everyone can agree that the 1943 act, actively enforced since the 1970s, is at least well named: For decades, it's helped keep relative peace.

"[The act] was a compromise everyone was willing to except," says Ray Hogler, a management professor at Colorado State University and a right-to-work opponent. "Nobody wanted to open that can of worms."

At least until last year. Emboldened by newly won majorities in the state legislature, Colorado Democrats pushed through House Bill 1072, which would have gutted the Colorado Labor Peace Act and made Colorado a "union security" state, allowing unions to require dues without a special vote. Infuriated, business interests and conservatives mobilized against it, and in the fracas, Governor Ritter vetoed the bill, incurring the wrath of labor and his own party. But the move wasn't enough to wholly pacify those irate over HB 1072. Even though he vetoed the legislation, the governor indicated that he agreed with the principle of dismantling the Colorado Labor Peace Act, and two months later, in November 2007, in a conciliatory gesture to labor, he allowed state employees to unionize. To some observers, the message seemed clear: It was only a matter of time before Colorado became a union-security stronghold.

It was against this backdrop that Frazier and others decided something had to change. "I was having some conversations with a group of individuals about the recent labor situation in the state," he says. "We were seeing more and more of a growing trend by labor leaders to push the envelope and to make this state more unionized."

He won't name those colleagues, aside from Cole and Republican state senator Ted Harvey, who has tried several times to pass a right-to-work law. "Whether or not this state becomes more unionized, we thought workers should have the choice as to whether they wanted to unionize," Frazier continues. "So right-to-work was born." And when it came time to decide who would actually put their names on the initiative to put the matter on the November 2008 ballot, Frazier stepped forward: "Sign me up. The rest is history."

Cole is owner of the Golden consulting firm Cole Associates, which, according to its website, "has a superior track record in defeating union organizing attempts and in winning union elections."

"I've never heard him say one bad things about unions," Frazier says of Cole. "I don't believe he's motivated by spite or hatred for unions, but rather because he believes right-to-work is a good thing."

As for Jonathan Coors, an executive with Coors spinoff CoorsTek, which contributed $200,000 to the Amendment 47 campaign, Frazier says, "He and I are vastly different, but one thing we have in common, among others, is his commitment to freedom."

Cole and Coors have kept mum about their involvement, however, and didn't respond to requests for comment. But Jake Jabs has embraced the spotlight by running commercials for Amendment 47. At an October press conference, he told reporters he wanted "to frankly hurt the pocketbooks of the unions."

Frazier, though, insists that right-to-work isn't about busting unions. While many right-to-work supporters have focused on the idea that the legislation encourages business and job growth, for Frazier it's about freedom. "It's been over ten years now that I've been a supporter of right-to-work," he says. "If you want to join labor unions, I believe you have that right. But you should also have the right not to join unions or pay union dues."

To bolster his point, he mentions a friend and former union steward at a company where union dues were required, a guy who tells stories of workers not having enough money for both mandatory union payments and medicine for their sick kids.

Frazier notes that some strong Colorado unions are already voluntary, like the Colorado teachers' union, Aurora's plumbers' union, and even his critic Randy Rester's Aurora firefighters' union. "I believe that as long as a labor union is providing value, their members will continue to be part of that union," he says. "And they will pay their dues."

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner