The Influence of Euphemism

Following up on my piece about Detroit, I wanted to take a look at the cause of all the trouble out there in Michigan today: the so-called “right to work” laws.

Like “patient-centered care,” right to work is a euphemism whose particulars have little to do with what the words actually mean. (In the case of “patient centered care,” it merely means that patients pay at point of service, without insurance or government and the benefits and restrictions those provide.) Constitutionally, no employer or union can compel you to join a union, regardless of your job – that would violate the freedom of association principle. What unions can (often) do, however, is prevent you from using their services without paying for it.

In non-right-to-work states, unions can negotiate contracts with employers that mandate the payment of union dues for all employees – no union participation, no benefit dinners or political action, no compelled behavior. But workers must pay the dues, because otherwise they stand to benefit from the actions of the union without materially contributing in any way.

Right-to-work laws remove that option, requiring all union dues to be paid on a voluntary basis. As you may be noticing, this has nothing to do with a right to work – the “right” that is actually being conferred to workers is the right to only pay for a service when it’s needed, or when it’s convenient.

It wasn’t long ago that political conservatives were applauding the decision by a Tennessee fire brigade to allow a non-paying resident’s house to burn down. It was, they said, the classic free-rider problem: those who can get services without paying for them will. Of course, that’s exactly the trouble with right to work laws.

In this particular case, though, the euphemistic term ‘right to work” has caught on in the country, to great effect. Many people support right to work laws because they weaken the (already tottering) unions further, make it more difficult for unions to contribute to political campaigns and super PACs in this post-Citizens United era, and because – frankly – it sounds like something that will make it easier for unemployed workers to find jobs.

The last point is the most pernicious. Right to work laws do not confer any rights pertaining to work. I’m afraid I don’t have a catchier term, excepting perhaps purely partisan ones. (How does “free rider laws” sound?) At any rate, there’s no other way to talk about these laws in the public sphere at the moment, because right to work has become the preferred term, denotative inaccuracies and all.

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