As a writer I love words and language. I like the force of words, how they echo in the mind long after they’ve registered. I never take for granted how powerful words can be, so when people pervert language to delude and mislead, I know stupid things can happen.
There is one long trail of stupid running behind Republican pollster Frank Luntz, aptly described as the godfather of the conservative spin machine. If you’re not familiar with his work, he’s the brainchild behind Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America” and right-wing buzz phrases like “death tax” and “job creators.” His handiwork rears its ugly head, again and again – most recently this week when Michigan became the 24th state to adopt a so-called “right to work” law.
While the phrase “right to work” has been around since the 1930s, Luntz – through polling for the far-right National Right to Work Committee – perfected the absurd, delusional talking point: “Workers should have the right to decide whether to join a union. They should never be coerced to join or pay dues to a union as a condition of employment.”
Of course, in Michigan, as in the rest of the U.S., no one can be forced to join a union as a condition of employment. It’s a totally bogus claim that so-called “right to work” laws protect workers who don’t want to join a union or disagree with a union’s politics. Federal labor law covers that already. In reality, right-to-work-for-less laws are designed to bust unions, but everyone pays the price.
Economic data shows that wages, health benefits and retirement security decline for all workers, underscoring why so-called “right to work” legislation is a race to the bottom.
No matter. Right-wing groups commissioned a master manipulator, and Luntz delivered the goods, using language to sway people into acting against their self-interest. In a brilliant retort regarding Michigan’s legislation, it’s kind of like calling a noose a “headache removal device.”
Branding union-busting laws as “right to work” is a triumph of framing. The laws simply make it easier for workers covered by a union contract to freeload. And right now, anti-union forces are winning the linguistics battle, aided and abetted by mainstream media ignorant of the most basic labor facts.
If the label is the message, “right to mooch” has a nice ring to it.