Minnesota Media Sides With Anti-Union Forces By Adopting “Right To Work” Framing

On the abortion issue, one group of advocates says “Right to Life,” the other side says “Pro-Choice” and the news media usually opts for the more neutral term, calling it a debate over “abortion rights,” or describing the protagonists as being “anti-abortion” and “pro-abortion rights.” Fair enough. On that issue, reporters have done a pretty good job of striking a balance on the language they use.

But on the top labor issue of the day, one side says “Right to Work,” the other side says “Right to Work for Less” or “union busting.” The media goes with “Right to Work.”

Pioneer Press headline: “Republicans set stage for right to work fight in Minnesota”
Star Tribune headline: “State Republicans launch right-to-work amendment”
MPR headline: “One on One: The Right to Work Amendment”

In other words, the news media is framing the issue exactly how pro-amendment spin savants want it framed.

As reporters know, there is a reason why amendment proponents deliberately chose the words “right to work” for their propaganda. Extensive market research told them swing voters felt supportive of the notion of having the “right to work,” and are opposed to someone taking that right away from them. Who wouldn’t? So, they invest in millions of dollars worth of marketing and PR trying to make that wording stick.

At the same time, amendment opponents’ market research told them that “Right to Work for Less” was helpful to their cause. Those words bring attention to the fact that the typical employees in states with this union restriction make about $5300 less per year than employees in other states, a fact that is extremely helpful in selling their point-of-view.

To be fair, perpetually PR-challenged unions don’t do themselves any favors on this front, as they continually use their opponents’ “right to work” framing in their own communications, making that label seem normalized and mutually acceptable.

Still, as with the abortion debate, reporters should avoid both side’s carefully focus grouped labels, and go with more neutral language. For instance, they could call it a “union limitation amendment,” or some such poker-faced pabulum.

Minnesotans are going to be exosed to a lot of news coverage about this amendment over the next nine months, so it’s a good time for editors to have earnest conversations about fair rules of engagement. Reporters need to get a lot better at covering the issue in a balanced way.

- Loveland

12 Responses

  1. Joe:
    How do you think this framing debate will be affected by the Wisconsin debate on public unions? Seems to me that unions pretty much won that framing debate–what is different here?

    • I didn’t follow the Wisconsin deal all that closely, and generally don’t follow labor issues closely. But as I understand it, Governor Walker’s proposal removed a right to collectively bargain. Even many who don’t like how unions act believe that they still have a right to exist. Tough to sell taking away rights.

      So far, proponents of this MN proposal have succeeded in giving the MN proposal a feel of giving workers more more rights that they currently lack (i.e. the right to opt out of paying dues, while still enjoying the benefits of membership), while opponents of Walker’s proposal were successful in giving it a feel of removing a right, the right to collectively bargain. That’s why this wording “RIGHT to work” is important, and not just English major nitpicking. As long as casually engaged voters have a sense that voting for the amendment is voting to increase workers’ rights, it will be much less controversial than the WI proposal was.

      Also, the MN proposal has precidence in 20-some other states, so that makes it feel less radical. As I understand it, the WI proposal was more unprecidented, and therefore felt more radical.

  2. The [bad] media use the term “Right to Work” because that’s the title of the bill – and thats misleading. Fair media personnel use the term “so-called Right to Work bill.” This is a little better, yet still a bit misleading because listeners are likely to remember the “right to work” part and not the “so-called” part.

    I agree that opponents should go beyond “Right to Work For Less” but contend that even this is a more accurate portrayal of what is actually in the bill.

    Whatever you call it, the bill is union busting – period.

  3. I know you’re just spit-balling here, but “union limitation amendment” is nowhere near as neutral as saying something like “pro-abortion rights.”

  4. How about right to scab or right to freeload union benefits.

    • Reporters using those terms wouldn’t be any more biased than their current use of “right to work.”

      • Let me know when you find a reporter using either phrase; it will be a surer sign of the end of the world than any Mayan calendar.

  5. Reblogged this on Minnesota Nurses and commented:
    A Great – and important! – point made here about how the media is framing the so-called “Right to Work” issue. Must read!

  6. Thank you for this post Joe! Obviously speaking on behalf of a Minnesota union you know where I land on this issue, but I think you bring up an important point here. How the media frames an issue and whose talking points/phrasing they adopt can have a HUGE impact on an issue like this one. Thanks for pointing that out!

  7. Reblogged this on Operating Engineers Local 49 and commented:
    Some unions are getting better at the PR side of the equation. If you’re not familiar with John Nemos’s work for the MNA you need to check him out.

  8. What about making a clear, memorable comparison, such as laws forcing gyms and health clubs to provide everybody a “Right to Work Out” for instance?

    See: http://local49.wordpress.com/2012/01/27/right-to-work-out/

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