The Magazine

A Matter of Principle

Colorado's right-to-work law champion.

Aug 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 45 • By FRED BARNES
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Jonathan Coors was outnumbered when he met with Colorado governor Bill Ritter Jr. last April. Ritter wasn't alone in his office. The governor's secretary of labor and chief of staff were there, along with several business leaders opposed to the effort by Coors to put a right-to-work referendum on the ballot this fall. Ritter was eager to make a deal.

If Coors would abandon his referendum, the governor would persuade labor leaders to drop their plans for ballot initiatives regarded as detrimental by the business community. Besides that, Ritter promised to protect the state's venerable Labor Peace Act, which makes union organizing difficult. A year earlier, the Democrat-controlled legislature had passed a bill gutting the 1943 act. Ritter had vetoed the bill.

Coors--yes, he's a member of the beer family--declined the offer. His position is "philosophical," he explains, a matter of principle, not politics. He believes a worker's right to refuse to join a union or pay union dues is not negotiable. "How do you negotiate a philosophical debate?" Coors asks, rhetorically.

He and his allies had little trouble getting enough signatures on a petition to get right-to-work on the ballot. Its official name is Amendment 47. But winning a majority won't be easy. At least one private poll shows the measure with better than 70 percent support. That's an illusory number, however, because it's all downhill from here. The natural evolution in the case of ballot initiatives is this: Though they often start out on top, voters find it easier to vote against than for them, particularly when there's strong and noisy opposition to the measure.

There will be plenty in Colorado. Organized labor is expected to spend millions to make sure Amendment 47 fails and that as many as four union-backed ballot initiatives pass, including one requiring businesses with 20 or more employees to provide health insurance and another making it harder to fire employees.

Labor, of course, regards right-to-work laws as practically a death sentence on the prospects for organizing workers. Twenty-two states have such laws, including all the states in the South, Texas, and Florida. The last state to pass a right-to-work referendum was Oklahoma. It passed in 2001 with strong support from then-Governor Frank Keating and a majority of state legislators.

That level of political support is absent in Colorado. In 2006, when Republicans controlled the legislature, they came within a single vote in the state senate of passing a right-to-work law that Republican governor Bill Owens was ready to sign. Now Democrats run the legislature. Ritter, too, is a Democrat.

Colorado business leaders are divided. The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry favors the amendment, but the influential Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce doesn't. Nor does Coors Brewing, whose former president Leo Kiely wrote a newspaper article attacking it.

Business critics of Amendment 47 insist the Labor Peace Act, which they regard as a modified right-to-work law, has worked fine. Only 8 percent of the workforce is unionized, and Colorado rose to sixth place this year in the Forbes ranking of the "best states for business." The act requires an onerous second vote of 75 percent to create a "union shop" in which all workers must join the union or at least pay dues. The bill Ritter vetoed in 2007 would have killed the second-vote requirement.

The amendment has the backing of the National Right to Work committee. But its officials are skeptical of the chances of passing a referendum, and they fear a defeat would take right-to-work off the table for decades. Instead, they believe the most fruitful route to passage is through state legislatures.

Coors, 28, is undeterred. He is the son of John Coors, who left the brewery in 1992 and joined Coors-Tek, which makes ceramic and plastic products and had once been part of the Adolph Coors Company. John Coors and the Coors family bought out shareholders in 2003 and took CoorsTek private.

Despite his last name, Jonathan Coors is not a political powerhouse in Colorado. He spent 2004 and 2005 working on the advance team of California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. He left, a friend told the Denver Post, after concluding the governor is a pragmatist and not a principled politician. Since then, he's studied at the University of Denver and will receive an MBA this summer.