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A ‘right to’ words that work

Posted: December 21, 2012 5:35 p.m.
Updated: December 24, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Words have power. If anyone wonders whether conservatives have taken the lead in effective political catch phrases, the term “right to work” should remove all doubt.

The phrase has popped up a lot in the news lately after Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill that made Michigan the 24th state to enact “right-to-work” legislation. Since major labor unions hotly oppose such legislation, many people wonder, why do we call them “right to work” laws?

The simplest answer: it is because they allow you to work through a strike. They mainly forbid unions from requiring workers to pay union dues, even in a union shop. But the biggest impact of such laws always has been in their power to weaken the effectiveness of strikes, the most powerful leverage that unions have.

That’s why unions, in their attempt to come up with a catchy comeback, refer to right-to-work legislation as “union-busting laws.” Or, as President Barack Obama put it to a cheering crowd of workers outside of a Michigan engine plant, “the right to work for less money.”

That’s pretty good, but it is hard to beat “right-to-work” as a catchy phrase that clearly implies quite the opposite of what it actually means. George Orwell, the creator of the up-is-down, black-is-white “Newspeak” in his novel “1984,” would be impressed.

The phrase stands with modern masterpieces of spin by pollster-wordsmith Frank Luntz, who gave Republican talking points the “death tax,” which put a particularly menacing cloud over the estate tax, and “job creators,” which gives a downright heroic gloss to employers even when they’re cutting jobs or moving jobs overseas.

“Management has clearly won the battle of semantics with labor,” wrote William Safire of “right to work” in his “Political Dictionary,” first published in 1968, “while labor has won the more substantive victories.”

Unfortunately for the labor movement, those substantive victories have gotten fewer and farther between. That’s what makes the Michigan story historic. The birthplace of the powerful United Auto Workers Union, among other labor movement milestones, Michigan follows Indiana as a big falling domino in the industrial Midwest in an age of union power in decline.

Here’s the big irony: the very benefits that unions brought have led to the undoing of unions. Unions helped to raise working-class wages, benefits, work rules and the living standards that became the envy of the world. But rising global competition in recent decades has caused industry to move overseas -- taking those good-paying jobs to where the cost of labor is a lot cheaper.

That’s why Michigan’s Republicans, including Gov. Snyder, pushed to join Indiana and other states, mostly in the South, to improve their ability to attract industry. It remains to be seen whether political backlash results in a swing back toward Michigan’s Democrats, the traditional party of labor. But for now, the victory for “right to work” laws in Michigan suggests that labor unions are losing the war of words and images.

Significantly, a similar point was made in the early days of the right-to-work phrase.

Ray Stannard Baker, a progressive-era journalist, reported the abuse endured by strikebreakers in a coal miners’ strike in a 1903 McClure’s magazine, titled “The Right to Work: The Story of the Non-Striking Miners.” The magazine noted that “clear-headed labor leaders” denounced the violence but also noted that the public is “the final arbiter.”

Today’s labor movement faces a similar public relations challenge. Like many other Americans, I appreciate what unions have done to raise wages and standards for all American workers, whether they belonged to unions or not. Unions brought us “the weekend,” their ads point out, and indeed they did -- among many other fine benefits that we mostly take for granted today.

But as the income gap widens between those Americans who have some schooling beyond high school and those who don’t, today’s public is asking today’s unions, what have you done for us lately? I believe the unions can come up with some good answers, as soon as they find the words.

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