Framing and Right to Work

This post is more than 3 years old.

WorkerThe Indiana General Assembly is advancing the so-called "Right to Work" legislation, with the state Senate expected to vote on the proposal Wednesday that the state House approved a version of last week.

Putting aside the substance of the legislation for a moment, the whole debate has been a fascinating exercise in political framing:

Using "Right to Work" as a label is a clever and strategic way to frame what the legislation is about.  If you are "for people having jobs," how could you dare be against their "right to work"? Any critic of "right to work" laws has to try to find some other meaningful label to use for themselves that isn't derived from the original name, but in doing so they lose some of the attention of voters.  (From what I can tell, the phrase "right to work" was introduced when a group of business owners in the southern U.S. formed the National Right to Work Committee in the 1970s to try to work against union efforts.)

The "Big Labor" bashing that happened last year across the Midwest set the stage for the "Union" label itself to be tainted to some degree in the minds of many voters ("Wait, are those unionized teachers really just trying to squeeze out every last taxpayer dollar while they sit around in luxury doing nothing? Golly!"), and so at least in part because of this association, I don't think unions have succeeded in being the rallying point for those who oppose these proposals.

A related frame that gets invoked all the time around this legislation is "creating a pro-business climate."  If you are for "right to work" then you are for creating an atmosphere where businesses can thrive.  If you are against "right to work," you must hate commerce, capitalism, business and the American Dream.  Of course we know that "pro-business" doesn't have any particular meaning; someone who traffics in human slaves can say they are "pro-business" but that doesn't mean they're operating in the interests of most people.  But again, critics haven't succeeded in presenting a suitable alternative theme - being "pro-worker" or "pro-living-wage" - and so the debate is framed around whether you are for or against business, period.

Another frame that's emerged in Indiana is the idea of Democratic state representatives who have used procedural moves to prevent a quorum for voting on this legislation as "cowards" who are "shirking" their duties and who don't have the courage to just come and vote.  Democrats have argued back that they are trying to stand up for the interests of their constituents, but it's so effective for Republicans to use the image of "we showed up to do the business of the people and guess who didn't?" to beat up on Democrats as insolent children, and so they've used it every chance they get.

In a culture that generally celebrates "fighting back when you're being bullied" instead of "call out the bully for the chaos and disrespect they bring," Democrats haven't been very effective at calling those fouls.  The closest they've come (as seen in e-mails I get from my state rep) is talking about how the legislation was "rushed" and "rammed through" and then about how "disappointed" they are in this "massive mistake."  By only being against what their Republican colleagues are perpetrating and lacking a frame that everyone can be for, they end up mostly looking like sore losers.

I won't even get into the "class warfare" against "job creators" being waged by "job killers."  You get the point: In Indiana and elsewhere, conservative Republicans are dominating the frame game.

If we put aside the frames and labels that polarize this debate, we could see more clearly what's happening in the statehouse.  We could see a broken system of legislating perpetuated by vindictive, reactive and politically driven agendas that don't necessarily represent the interests or priorities of voters.  We could see politicians manipulating the fears and relative ignorance of their constituents to go for the quick win in that day's news cycle, instead of thinking about what's actually good for those same constituents in the long run.

Even if it passes, the "right to work" legislation has been a failure and an embarrassment for Democrats and Republicans alike.

As a resident and employer here I can say that I think the intent of the bill is unhelpful for Indiana workers and a waste of taxpayer time and dollars to pursue given other more pressing needs.  But more significant and important for me is what the process and framing being used signals about the dishonorable intentions of lawmakers and the foundering condition of governance in the Hoosier State.

5 thoughts on “Framing and Right to Work

  1. The Dems *suck* at political strategy, generally speaking. Remember the first year of Obama's presidency when they had the "super majority" and tried to be all high-horsed by showing that they could be "the better party" and reach across the aisle? The smugness totally backfired and now they're mostly impotent in congress at the state and federal levels.

    Ever since Lee Atwater's wedge politics and push-polling (further perfected by Rove), the Dems have been measured and left wanting in the framing battle. The political atmosphere is a prisoner's dilemma, and the Dems keep thinking that the republicans are going to collaborate for a mutual win, but they never seem to do it. It's the "lucy pulling the football away at the last second" thing over and over again.

    I'll never move to the right side of the spectrum, but I voluntarily left the Democratic party because of inept leadership. People like Elizabeth Warren, Kucinich, Franken, and Sanders all give me hope for a better future, but they're definitely the minority.

  2. I was just reflecting on the framing of the "Right to Work" legislation this morning. I agree it's unfortunate that by framing things in such a way most people won't have the opportunity to fully understand what opposing this particular legislation would mean.

    I guess that's what makes me so frustrated with our current political system and climate - so much is accomplished through carefully crafted, heavily biased linguistic smoke-and-mirrors that many of us outside the political sphere can't easily make sense of what's transpiring and cultivate our own opinions. Of course, such transparency is a pipe dream, because then politicians would end up showing us where their true interests lie.

  3. While I agree with you that the bill naming game is a silly and dishonest tactic (e.g., Patriot Act), I'm not sure this is good bill to complain about. If a bill that ensures you have the right to work at union shop even if you are opposed to the union's representation isn't applicable for the name "right to work", I don't know what is.

    Out of curiousity, what would you have suggested as a *neutral* name for this bill?

    1. DA: I don't think anyone's been able to successfully argue or show that would-be employees not getting jobs because a potential place of employment is a union shop is THE pressing issue for economic development in Indiana. I agree that there may be improvements to be made and even new rules to be codified in law to prevent certain edge cases of abuse, but until someone can show this is anything other than a political stunt, the time and attention given to this "issue" at this point in Indiana's economic history seems a bit ridiculous.

      For names, how about HB1028 and SB395? So precise, so romantic.

  4. My insightful comment is that:

    when I was in college and married I found a good job in a GM factory. I was poor and needed the job. But, it was a union shop. This meant I MUST join the union and I MUST pay union dues. Not joining meant not being employed at that job even though management wanted me.

    My individual "economic development" was squelched by union shop rules. I work to support myself not to pay into
    a union so some shop steward can work 2/3 of the time and the other 1/3 on "union matters".

    By the way, Chris, have you been married and so poor that you had to work in a factory and pay part of your wages to a union? Or, have you ever been intimidated by BIG guys into striking or voting a certain way?

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