If you’re not seated at the table you’re on the menu!

Many politically engaged folks are well aware of the intense concentration given to “messaging”-how ideas are framed and communicated. The right wing, guided by message guru Frank Luntz, has shown its expertise at transforming the American language. Never say “Government,” he tells his GOP friends; say “Washington,” to heighten people’s fear of totalitarian control from afar. Never say “Privatization,” which implies profit, for example on your Social Security; say “Personalization” instead, implying more individual ownership. Never say “Globalization” or “Capitalism,” which summon up harsh economic competition; rather, say “Free Market Economy.” And of course never use a neutral term like “Undocumented Workers”; say the more threatening-sounding “Illegal Aliens.” Many more such examples of the Luntz lexicon could be cited.

Americans in large numbers have adopted, or accepted these linguistic spins, because politicians and newscasters, especially those of the Fox News variety, employ such handed-down talking points and repeat them over and over and over again, until the public gets accustomed to their way of framing issues. You need only recall how often, back in 2003, we heard that “We don’t want the smoking gun of WMD in Iraq to be an atomic cloud,” a frightening scenario that got almost everyone on board the Operation Iraqi Liberation train (which, by the way, nearly became the name of that costly adventure until someone pointed out that it spelled OIL, thus it became Freedom instead of Liberation).

What does the labor movement, and what do its allies, respond to the right-wing assault on our history, our values, our demands, the very language we speak? This was the theme of a five-hour workshop (including lunch catered by a Long Beach restaurant called The Social List) held on September 25 and directed at union officers and staff, especially those in communications positions, rank and file union members and activists, and all workers engaged in organizing campaigns. Attended by almost 100 people, it was sponsored by the California Labor Federation AFL-CIO, and held at the IBEW 11 Training Center in Commerce, a suburb of Los Angeles.

Some 45 percent of Californians in recent polls have answered that unions do more harm than good. Where do they receive this idea, and how do we change the narrative?

Some of the right-wing wisdom that has caught on with the public says that “Big Labor is just another special interest whose demands are driving businesses out of the state, and out of the country, forcing small business to close their doors and lay off their workers.” That narrative goes on to assert that “Overpaid public employees use the power of their unions to secure bloated pensions and benefits that cost taxpayers billions of dollars every year.” The clear motive, or “framing” of such a line of argument, is to challenge the right of workers to organize at all, and to pit sectors of workers against each other in a global race to the bottom for wages and rights.

The new narrative Labor has developed has three prongs:

1) Rebrand unions, and organizing movements such as the fast food workers’ struggle, as “working people standing together.” This phrase resonates with people who have negative views of unions or think they are no longer relevant.

2) Refocus voter concern where it should be: Not on this or that sector of the labor movement which is better paid or has secure pensions, but on corporations and CEOs. Voters understand the inequality resulting from CEOs who negotiate their own compensation but won’t let workers do the same. In this sense the Occupy movement, with its pointed reference to the 1 percent, has had a lasting effect.

3) Put a human face on workers. The home-care attendants, the first responders, the single mothers trying to survive on a McDonald’s starvation wage. Come back against the right-wing tirade against “public employees” with: “I want the best possible cops and firefighters to protect my family, and the best and brightest to teach my kids. We’re not going to recruit and retain them if politicians keep attacking them, cutting public services, and laying them off.”

It’s good to remind people you’re talking with that “In our grandparents’ generation, working people stood together in their unions to create the 40-hour work week, paid vacations, and good American wages. Sitting across from employers at the negotiating table, they made American companies the envy of the world and built our middle class, brick by brick.” And continue with this:

“But now the  middle-class is being systematically dismantled by Wall Street bankers and their lobbyists, outsourcing our jobs and slashing wages and health care to get bigger bonuses for themselves. With no one sitting across from them at the table negotiating for working families, CEOs walk away with bigger bonuses, and workers walk away wondering how they’ll feed their families.”

“Today the only thing that stands in the way of the CEOs and corporate lobbyists is what stood in their way in our grandparents’ generation: working people standing together.”

“Workers and their unions are innovating to keep America competitive by retraining workers for new industries, partnering with small businesses to keep jobs here at home, and fighting alongside parents for smaller class sizes so teachers can teach and students can learn.”

Why should they get $15 an hour?

A common reaction to fast food workers asking for $15 an hour is, “Why should they get $15 an hour for making hamburgers when I have a college degree and barely make that much money?” Remind them that all working people, whatever they do, need a seat at the table and deserve a living wage and benefits if they’re going to be able to provide for their kids. Or as someone from the audience quipped, “If you’re not seated at the table, you’re on the menu!”

The right wing uses language like a magician to misdirect attention: Look over here (the “bloated pension”), not at the ever-widening income inequality or the constant pressure to rid the country of Social Security. And they employ fear and scare tactics directed against immigrants, people of color, students, strikers, public employees, radicals, whistleblowers, “pointy-headed intellectuals” – anyone at all who might threaten the steady advance of corporate profits and CEO.

It’s up to us to change the narrative by reminding people of our history and accomplishments, and offer hope instead of fear: Offer a realistic solution and give your audience a way to take action that will directly support achieving it. Connect with the people you are talking to using aspiration, humane and moral values, and acknowledging where they are. Describe the problem in ways that are concrete and visual, using examples such as the nurse who lovingly cared for Mom when she was hospitalized with a serious illness, or the sanitation workers who pick up our trash every Wednesday morning without fail.

Just as the key to the right-wing’s near-hegemony over the framing of issues has been repetition, repetition, repetition, union supporters and progressives too must develop the habit of repeating our messages, tirelessly, until gradually we see the national tide shifting in our direction, toward our understanding of the world.

Anyone interested in accessing the printed or downloadable resources used at the workshop, including the expanded Talking Points briefly quoted above, may email Steve Smith, one of the presenters, Communications Director for the California Labor Federation, at ssmith@calaborfed.org. And get your state Federation of Labor to sponsor workshops like this!

Photo: Frank Luntz, the right-wing pollster. AP


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.