Stop Saying ”Right-to-Work”
Standing up to deceptive branding
The ultimate goal of political persuasion is to convince you that the knife in your back is just a free knife that you didn’t have before. And that is what Republicans have succeeded in with the spread of “right-to-work” laws. While the laws themselves are harmful enough, the language that popularizes them is potentially even more so. Now that Republicans have scored their biggest victory yet with Janus v AFSCME, it is time for Democrats to fight back. But this can’t be done without acknowledging the language that built this movement in the first place.
What is “Right-to-Work”?
When people refer to “right-to-work” laws, they are referencing legislation that was made possible by the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Taft-Hartley was the first in a series of anti-union laws passed after WWII, a long-term effort by the organized business and Republicans to reduce the power of organized labor which had been institutionalized during the New Deal. Businesses felt that unions held them back from being as profitable as possible, and Republicans felt that unions provided an unfair level of support for Democrats during elections.
The crucial part of this law is Section 14(b), which states:
Nothing in this subchapter shall be construed as authorizing the execution or application of agreements requiring membership in a labor organization as a condition of employment in any State or Territory in which such execution or application is prohibited by State or Territorial law.
This means that any state can pass a law which bans union contracts that require everyone to pay dues. While this seems innocuous enough, it’s an inherently ridiculous idea. Unions are required to negotiate for every member of the workplace by law, and that’s not as cheap as it sounds. On top of simply negotiating, smaller workplace unions are part of larger organizations which guarantee legal counsel, arbitration, and a variety of other things. It costs money, but the effects are clear. Unionized workplaces have higher pay, more job security, and better benefits.
What union dues don’t do is support political campaigns. Federal law prohibits the use of member dues to support political purposes, and even union PACs must explicitly get permission from individual members to provide any money that can be used for political purposes.
The result of the ban is that unions are expected to support every employee, but not every employee is expected to support the union in return. It would be like not being required to pay your utility bills but still expecting water and electricity. Essentially, it’s a classic free-rider problem. As a result, states that pass “right-to-work” laws consistently see a drop in unionization rates, wages, benefits.
Why Shouldn’t We Say “Right-to-Work”?
Language is important. While we may think that reason will prevail in discovering the truth, the fact is that that’s not how humans think. Politics in America tends to be driven by repetition. If an idea is stated over and over on the national stage, it will eventually become a part of the conversation, regardless of whether or not is has any business being there. A perfect example of this is Trump’s name-calling. When he gave Hillary Clinton his chosen nickname, he repeated it over and over and over, to the point where it painted how everyone, even Clinton supporters, viewed her flaws and weaknesses. Even a name as silly as Little Marco haunts Rubio to this day.
Of course, politicians have been doing this since the beginning of time. It just happens that Republicans tend to be better at it, with “Right-to-Work” being one of the more successful examples. The name itself is completely non-sensical. Union dues don’t take away your right to work any more than a Netflix subscription takes away your right to watch movies. Initially, the term was coined by a Dallas editorial writer who termed it as a shortening of “right to work with or without a union membership” in 1941. But if you don’t want to work with a union membership, you can simply work at one of the 90% of workplaces that don’t have unions.
But that doesn’t matter to most people; “right-to-work” sounds nice on its surface. It accomplishes this false positivity by tapping into two concepts. The first is the importance of rights in America. By framing this economic legislation as an issue of rights, it automatically frames those who oppose it as oppressors. That’s why the Democrats’ response to say “Right to work for less” is inherently flawed: it still accepts the premise that this is a right, which always leaves opponents at a disadvantage.
The second concept that this phrase taps into is the nobility of work. It fits perfectly into a wider Republican message of Democrats as big-government dictators who just want to give handouts to poor people. Would it be better if we had the right to work instead?
Frustratingly, this is something that doesn’t actually have anything to do with the policy. But it is has deeper political consequences than the actual effects of the law itself. Republicans say “right-to-work”, Democrats say “right-to-work”, Independents say “right-to-work”, and these positive ideas that are built into the phrase become associated with a harmful policy without anyone thinking twice about it.
What Should We Say Instead?
As I mentioned earlier, I am not a fan of the phrase “Right to work for less”, which is the current favorite Democratic line. It still contains the concept of this law increasing rights. Even if there are two clearly defined choices, good and bad, people will still want the ability to choose the good thing over the bad thing rather than having the good thing forced upon them.
The two concepts that should be built into a new phrase would be the concept of free riders and the concept of restriction of choices. Free riders are important, as they lie at the core of the argument against this type of legislation. However, it is equally important to talk about the restriction of choices, which strikes back at the core of the argument for this type of legislation: the claim that it increases choices. It turns out that the law itself actually does the opposite. Free-rider contracts are 100% legal in the existing system, but you also have access to classic union-shop contracts. Under “right-to-work” that choice is taken away, and all unions and employers must operate under the free-rider contracts rather than union-shop contracts.
My suggestion would be to use the term “free rider mandate”. It uses the already tainted word mandate (see: Obamacare) and combines it with the idea of free riders that was mentioned before. More importantly, it is also an accurate description of what the legislation actually does: restrict the type of contracts that unions can make.
It should be noted that I am hardly a messaging expert, and free rider mandate might not necessarily be the most effective term. However, I hope that I showed that Democrats are losing the war of language in this particular area, and identified the areas which can be infinitely improved. Whether you say free rider mandate or something else, it’s time that we start sharpening our own language to start saying what we really mean.