(This article also appears at www.ForwardInstituteWI.org)
Conservatives have set a linguistic trap for progressives – and they are taking the bait. The trap is the metaphor “right to work,” which even progressives are using again and again. As we know from cognitive science research, even negating the “right to work” metaphor will reinforce the conservative message and entire frame, thereby strenghtening it in public discourse. Here’s an example from Michigan that unconsciously reinforces the conservative frame:
When we use the term “right to work” or “job creator,” it activates the conservative frame physically present in your brain, without you even knowing it. The critical moral principle in this frame is that of personal success through pursuit of self-interest and profit gained from being disciplined. Anyone who is not successful deserves their punishment (poverty or unemployment) as a result of being undisciplined, and is therefore immoral. The “Market” itself is considered a moral actor, the ultimate decider, where the wealthy and successful are the most moral. The Market punishes those who are undiscliplined, and unions and The Public are immoral in that they interfere with the pursuit of one’s own self interest (profit). One can see how “right to work” directly evokes the conservative frame of economics.
In the conservative frame, corporations (and the wealthy) have the moral right (liberty) to employ, pay, and fire whomever they see fit, with no regard for anything but their own pursuit and maximization of profit. A profitable, successful business is moral in the conservative frame. Labor unions and The Public (government) are immoral, as they inhibit the pursuit of profit. “Right to work” is about the “rights” of corporations, the “job creators,” to maximize their pursuit of profit – considered to be moral in the conservative frame.
Conservatives hide and ignore the truth that without The Public, our private prosperity and freedoms would not be possible. Consider everything we do through government (all of us) for each other, providing us all with greater opportunity as “We the People.” Granted, we have a long way to go…
As progressives, we must find effective language to evoke OUR frame of the economy instead of always evoking and reinforcing conservative ideas. Here’s how:
Start with a simple, fundamental truth about our economy that is systemic. “Workers are profit creators.” No one is hired by a business or corporation who does not create profit for that business. Jobs are not created out of thin air. People are employed because businesses have the opportunity to increase profit from the work performed by employees. This is 100% true! Say it over and over again.
As profit creators, workers deserve (and corporations have a responsibility to pay) a fair, living wage portion of those profits they helped to create! Further, unions provide those workers protection from greedy corporations, and provide workers with a way to organize and negotiate for their fair portion of profit. Without a union, the individual worker is functionally a serf, having no power to negotiate – especially in a down employment economy. A corporation will always minimize the workers’ portion of profit without a union!
A more important truth about unions, is that the rights they protect and freedoms they provide apply to everyone. Consider the 40 hour week, overtime pay, fair wage standards, protection to uphold standards, etc. Our state and communities are far better off with unions who can fairly and democratically represent the profit creators, so they have a fair, living wage to pursue a prosperous and happy life. So that workers and communities are protected from corporate greed. Just as the Public is necessary for freedom and democracy, so are unions…so say it and express it effectively!
What do we call this pending legislation then, so as not to reinforce the conservative frame?
Never say “right to work” again! Call it what it is. It’s a “corporate greed and servitude bill.” It’s also a “wage theft bill,” in that it takes away the right of the profit creators to receive a fair wage portion of profit they helped to create!
Say these things in interviews, letters to the editor, to your friends and neighbors, to get it into public discourse –
Workers are profit creators!
This is a corporate greed and servitude bill!
This is a wage theft bill!
Consider how much more powerful this FRED graph is, in the context of the “workers are profit creators” frame of economics:
The above graph now demonstrates a morally intolerable situation, where the workers who are creating the huge spike in profits (red line), are denied a fair living wage portion of those profits as wages (blue line) because of greed. How can we tolerate legislation that would further encourage corporate servitude, greed, and wage theft!
These values-based principles and ideas are critical to get into public discourse now! It will take a concerted effort from anyone active on this (and every) issue, as they are all connected.