The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, June 14, 2019

'Right-to-work' term deserves to be wrapped in quotations, journalists' bible says

By The Building Tradesman

The main reference book suggesting how mainstream U.S. journalists should consistently refer to grammar, style, spelling and word usage  - the Associated Press Stylebook - has changed its description of "right-to-work."

And, notice the quotations: the Stylebook now suggests that writers and editors use quotation marks around "right-to-work" after a suggestion by a member of the News Media Guild Executive Board, Mike Warren.  Last year, Warren asked the AP’s Stylebook Committee to wrap the term in quote marks and change the wording in the style guide's definition.

"'Right-to-work' is a loaded and inaccurate phrase," Warren wrote. "… By endorsing the use of 'right-to-work' without quote marks, The AP is adopting a public relations device created in opposition to the labor movement.” The Associated Press is the leading news agency in the world, with its work published and republished by more than 1,300 newspapers and broadcasters

The AP Stylebook's former entry read as follows: Right to work: (adj.) "A right-to-work law prohibits a company and a union from signing a contract that would require the affected workers to be union members."

The Stylebook's editors and Warren went back and forth on the final language, and on March 26 everyone agreed on this newly published definition: “A ‘right-to-work’ law prohibits a company and a union from signing a contract that would require workers to pay dues or fees to the union that represents them. Use only in direct quotes or with quote marks for the purpose of explaining the term. Avoid using this non-neutral phrase generically and without definition since employees covered by union contracts can freely work with or without such laws.”

The Stylebook editors updated the "right-to-work" entry on Jan. 24, and the Newspaper Guild's union publication announced the change in March, with reporting by Martha Waggoner, the union's international chair.

Why does any of this matter? Because language matters, and it affects public opinion. The Taft-Hartley Act, adopted by a Republican Congress over a veto by President Harry Truman in 1947, opened the door for states to adopt "right-to-work" laws. And the term chosen to describe the law wasn't, say, the "Freeloader Act," which would accurately describe how RTW allows workers to enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without having to pay union dues. 

No, the business-backed framers of the law chose the pleasant-sounding term of "right-to-work," - everybody has the right to work, right? It stuck, but it had nothing to do with the real intent of RTW laws. Unions have tried adding the suffix right-to-work-"for-less," backed by research showing that wages in "right-to-work" states are significantly less than those without RTW laws.