Jabs sheds camouflage, shows right-to-work stripes

By Chris Bragg

In his autobiography, An American Tiger, Jake Jabs writes that he briefly explored a bid for the U.S. Senate in 1985, only to decide against it.

In retrospect, wrote the iconic owner of American Furniture Warehouse, he probably wasn’t cut out for the job.

“Those who know me understand I’m very outspoken,” Jabs said. “I would not have the stomach nor the patience for politics. I’ve called my own shots since I was 24, and you can’t do that in politics.”

Photo courtesy of Face The State

Jake Jabs, owner of American Furniture Warehouse, speaks of his support of Amendment 47.

Now, however, Jabs has stepped back into the political spotlight as the pitchman for the campaign favoring Amendment 47, also known as the “right to work” initiative, which would prohibit unions or employers from requiring union members to pay dues or to join a union.

“I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to step out and be a spokesman,” Jabs said, “But with unions spending so much money (to fight Amendment 47), I felt I had to do it.”

Jabs’ arrival on the scene came in the wake of a deal between pro-labor groups and a coalition of businesses, under which businesses will provide $3 million to fight “right to work” in exchange for the removal of four pro-labor ballot initiatives.

And, true to his self-assessment, Jabs said what was on his mind during a sometimes-rambling half-hour press conference Tuesday morning at the corporate headquarters of American Furniture Warehouse in Englewood. He kicked off the session by telling the assembled reporters that he isn’t a particularly big fan of the media.

Just a day before Jabs’ press conference, fellow right-to-work supporter Ryan Frazier, an Aurora City Councilman, had said Amendment 47 is meant simply to give workers the right to choose whether to join unions and pay dues to them — not to bust them.

“We simply feel an individual ought to have the freedom to make that choice themselves,” Frazier said in a debate at the University of Denver.

Maybe Jabs didn’t get the memo, but he wasted no time putting his own agenda on the table.

Jabs said unions “pay people to sit around and not work” and that he hopes Amendment 47 eradicates them from the state. Eventually, Jabs said,
he hopes to see their nationwide demise. He also believes unions exert undue influence on
Colorado politics.

“In my opinion, the union model is broken,” he said. “In the 21st century, it’s just broken.”

But Jabs believes his own brand is far from broken. And he says he took up the cause because he believes he can call on his personal popularity to rally the public in favor of Amendment 47.

“People love me. People love American Furniture Warehouse,” Jabs explained.

And they have reason.

His rise to wealth offers a personal story that’s pure Horatio Alger. Jabs was born to Russian immigrants and grew up poor in rural Montana. The Colorado furniture icon has given millions to such charities as Easter Seals and the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

And, of course, there are those adorable tigers that playfully wrestle Jabs during his TV commercials, which run with ubiquity rivaled perhaps only by ads from car salesman Dealin’ Doug and personal injury attorney Frank Azar.

For Jabs — who, reportedly, hates shooting the commercials and isn’t particularly fond of animals other than puppies — the ads have been public relations gold.

And now he wants to use his power to influence public policy.

In three new commercials that look and sound exactly like his furniture commercials, Jabs pitches “right to work.” The pitch, in fact, looks so familiar that the ads seem to be as much about Jabs’ own brand as they are about any political argument. The pitch seems to be for both a successful consumer product and a political issue that, for many, is unknown or poorly understood.

“Hopefully, I have some credibility,” Jabs said.

No wild beasts were running around American Furniture Warehouse on Tuesday, unless you count the media, which was indeed hungry to ask Jabs a few questions about the mysterious “right to work” campaign.

Jabs is, after all, one of the few people who has gone public as a backer of the initiative. (Jonathan Coors, a member of the Coors brewing family, is another.)

The campaign’s financing is structured in a way that its donors are not disclosed, and the assembled media representatives had lots of questions.

Who else is funding the campaign? How much money has Jabs put into it? Are its backers a broad coalition, or just a fringe group?

For the only time all day, Jabs held back.

“We’re not going to talk about money today,” Jabs said. “I’m not going to tell you how much money I’ve put in.”

According to reports, however, Jabs has given at least $20,000 to the campaign. Besides Jabs, American Furniture Warehouse Executive Andrew Zuppa, who was present Tuesday, Sen. Ted Harvey, who attended the DU?debate on Monday, and management consultant Julian Jay Cole are also reportedly involved in the campaign.

There may be good reasons the Amendment 47 campaign doesn’t want to reveal its donors, but their refusal feeds the argument advanced by its opponents — that “right to work” is funded by a narrow group of supporters.

Protect Colorado’s Future, the group that opposes Amendment 47, taps that suspicion in ads showing a shadowy businessman smoking a cigar and plotting in some back room.

Could that shadowy businessman be modeled on Jabs?

“I’ve never smoked a cigar in my life,” Jabs said.

Jabs, of course, has built a furniture empire in Colorado without the benefit of a “right to work” law. So opponents of Amendment 47 want to know why he would pursue a cause that could upset the balance struck by the Colorado Labor Peace Act, which has governed business-labor relations in the state since 1943.

“Jake Jabs has made millions of dollars in Colorado over the last 30 years,” said Joel Heinemann, a Littleton firefighter who is against Amendment 47, in a statement. “There is no logical reason why he would want to upset the unique balance that has existed between employers and employees for more than six decades in our state.”

Jabs says his involvement isn’t based on selfish interest and that has no current financial stake in “right to work.”

Rather, Jabs says his animosity toward organized labor is based on events that occurred more than 30 years ago.

From 1975 to 1978, American Furniture Warehouse employees were organized by the Teamsters Union. Jabs forced an election, however, and his workers voted the union out.

“I think if we would have been a union company, we wouldn’t be here today,” Jabs said.

Jabs says unions only get in the way of the relationship between workers and business owners, and he prefers a hands-on, “man of the people” approach. Jabs has an open-door policy for any employee who has a grievance, for instance, and says he even approves raises himself.

“A company with a union deserves one,” Jabs said. “Companies need to take care of their employees.”

Jabs says he treats his employees so well, in fact, that there’s no way they’d ever again choose to organize.

Rather than enriching himself, Jabs says, he’s simply trying to do what’s best for the people of Colorado. And he says “right to work” states attract more business than states where businesses are constrained by organized labor.

But does Jabs’ ideological quest mean fewer people will shop at American Furniture Warehouse because they disagree with Amendment 47?

If so, it’s OK with Jabs.

“That’s a decision I made, too,” Jabs said. “I’m putting principle, I think, above money.”