The Decades Of Successful Marketing Behind ‘Right-To-Work’ Laws

Right-wing activists are good at branding. Anti-union “right-to-work” laws are the perfect case study.
"Right-to-work" laws. TPM Illustration/Getty Images
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On its face, who’d object to a “right-to-work” law?

By that token, and divorced from its substance, who wouldn’t be “pro-life”? Who quibbles with the assertion that “all lives matter,” or that markets should be “free”?

Right-wing activists have historically been good at branding, at characterizing even policy positions that restrict rights as postures of freedom and advancement. 

“Right-to-work” laws are a seminal example of this marketing technique. They have nothing to do with guarantees of employment, but allow those in unionized jobs to opt out of paying union dues — while the unions are still required to provide services, like representation in disputes with management, even to those non-paying workers.

These laws have become the topic of national conversation, as Michigan is poised to repeal its version, the first state to do so in over 50 years. 

Origin Story

There is some dispute as to the phrase’s origins, but most point to anti-union Dallas Morning News editorial writer William Ruggles as coining the modern usage. In his 1941 Labor Day column, he called for a constitutional amendment to prohibit the “closed shop” or “union shop” — workplaces where unions can negotiate a contract that includes union membership as a condition of employment.  

His column reportedly piqued the interest of Vance Muse, an avowed white supremacist who was working for various racist, anti-Semetic and anti-union campaigns — including a push for a “right-to-work” law in Arkansas (the name for the legislation courtesy of a Ruggles suggestion). That effort was successful: Arkansas became one of the first states to pass a right-to-work law, along with Florida. 

“Opponents to unionism in the South discovered this brilliant rhetorical phraseology, and they began to propagandize on it,” Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told TPM. 

From the beginning, this marketing campaign had a distinctly libertarian bent. It was meant to evoke the idea of individual freedom, that workers should get to pocket their hard-earned cash that would otherwise go to union dues. 

This pitch, of course, undermines the whole purpose of a union: that workers are much more powerful when they work in concert, that the only leverage workers have over companies that have more money and more power is their collective labor.

“This superb marketing by the far right goes back to the mythology of work in American history,” said Erik Loomis, a professor who specializes in U.S. labor history at the University of Rhode Island. “It remains very strong: that individuals really have both the rights and responsibilities to control their own work, and to rise or fall based on their own merits.”

It’s an iteration of the classic “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” entreaty, which usually omits systemic obstacles and uneven power dynamics in favor of homing in on the individual’s willpower or laziness, talent or lack thereof, vision or blindness. 

It also fits hand-in-glove with those fighting to maintain segregation and discourage interracial collaboration.  

Adaptation

But eventually, times changed. Lichtenstein described how the old right-to-work rhetoric — “that unionism is integrationist, that unionism is in favor of mixing the races, or that it’s on the road to socialism or communism and is completely un-American” — became less compelling during the civil rights movement.

So, team right-to-work adapted. 

“They began to emphasize the civil rights of anti-union workers,” Lichtenstein said.

The parallels between the right-to-work movement and the anti-abortion one are stark. While newer than the right-to-work push, the modern anti-abortion movement also turned to the civil rights movement for inspiration. They refashioned their pitch, painting themselves as abolitionists for a new kind of human right — a vein of the movement that persists today. 

“If you draw a map of states that have outlawed abortion and overlaid it with states that have right-to-work laws, it’s pretty much the same map,” Shaun Richman, who teaches labor history at Empire State University, told TPM. “Restricting the rights of labor and forcing women to go into labor really seem to go hand-in-hand.”

Both causes are also extremely good at marketing themselves, and at getting their chosen rhetoric to be adopted by the mainstream. The Associated Press style guide, which many news outlets use to guide their usage, only advised dropping “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in favor of “anti-abortion” or “abortion rights” in 2022. The phrase “right-to-work” is ubiquitous, and even used by those who fervently oppose the law and the deceptiveness of its moniker. 

Both movements also bolster themselves with half-truths, or flat-out inaccuracies. This is how the National Right To Work Foundation sells itself: “Its mission is to eliminate coercive union power and compulsory unionism abuses through strategic litigation, public information, and education programs.” The “compulsory union abuses” we’re talking about here are paying dues in exchange for the services the union provides. 

They also benefit from the bumper-sticker phenomenon: the reality that it’s much easier and pithier to call something a “fetal heartbeat” bill than to rebut it with the medical realities of cardiac development in embryos and fetuses. 

“The advantage of that phrase is that the issue itself is complex, it’s a question of bureaucracy in a collective contract,” Michael Oswalt, who teaches labor law at Wayne State University, told TPM of right-to-work laws.

Union proponents have tried out different rhetorical strategies to counter right-to-work’s ubiquity. They’ve tried appending “for less” to the phrase, or spinning it as the “right to be exploited.”  

“About 15 years ago, all the unions started using the phrase ‘fair share’ fees,” added Oswalt. 

Similarly to abortion rights activists, anti-right-to-work crusaders have also become more sophisticated in their messaging. In many of the recent ballot initiative campaigns, abortion rights groups have been avoiding the word altogether, pushing voters to pick the proposition that ensures medical privacy, or that gets politicians out of decisions best left to a woman and her doctor.

The Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights advocates for “giving workers the freedom to negotiate directly with employers without government interference” — a similar twist on the right-to-work party line, infused with a dose of libertarianism. 

When the Michigan AFL-CIO celebrated the repeal bill passing through the Michigan House, what other kind of victory could it be than one for freedom?

“Today, our pro-worker Democratic majority in the state House took historic action to undo the devastation caused by decades of attacks on workers’ freedom,” the group crowed. 

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Notable Replies

  1. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was getting people to look at unionized workers and say, “Why do they still have X?” instead of “Why don’t I have X?”

  2. Avatar for fgs fgs says:

    Strange brand of freedom, this right to work until I die. Thanks Republicans!

  3. Avatar for jinnj jinnj says:

    The silver tongue serpents of the wealthy minority - heavily vested in maintaining a disproportionately large share of control - have an addiction to crafting misleading labels and logic and jargon .

    Here’s some truly perverse propaganda aimed at throwing shade at the concept of “democracy”

  4. They may have become " more sophisticated in their messaging " but the messages are still bullshit. Youngkin used “sophisticated messaging” to ride nonexistent CRT into the Governor’s mansion then Virginia got the rest of him. The GOP relied on SCOTUS to use “sophisticated messaging” ( originalism ) to portray the Constitution and our Founders wanting Guns guns guns, money money money and the loss of reproductive freedom. The Iraq War was the result of grand scale “sophisticated messaging”.

    And it was all bullshit.

  5. The idea was to bust Unions for the Donor Class and to reduce a source of Democratic funding. It was done by “you don’t have this because that guy has that”…and it worked.

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