Features, Law and Politics, National, topslot

Words Matter: AP Gives Thumbs Down To ‘Right-To-Work’ Talk

April 2, 2019

By Steve Wishnia

NEW YORK, N.Y.—The Associated Press has changed its guide for reporters and editors to recommend that they no longer describe laws prohibiting the union shop as “right-to-work” laws.

“Right-to-Work” has been deemed a “non-neutral phrase by the Associated Press.

The AP Stylebook’s latest edition, announced March 26, instructs journalists to avoid the “non-neutral phrase.”

The News Media Guild took credit for persuading the news service to make the change. Last July, it said, union vice president Mike Warren urged the AP to fix the old definition, which stated: “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.”

 “‘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 AP agreed to revise it in January, but Warren pointed out that its proposed definition was inaccurate. The final version they agreed on states:

“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.”

 “It’s gratifying to see management respond respectfully to suggestions from the union, even when it involves long-published Stylebook entries,” Warren said in an article posted on the News Media Guild’s Web site.

“The AP Stylebook has changed how “right-to-work” laws will be referenced in news stories!” the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union exulted on Twitter March 29. “The term will now be in quotes, and the guide recommends avoiding the ‘non-neutral phrase.’ We would prefer it was banned outright but this is progress!”

The New York Times, whose Style Guide is the other leading reference on the subject for journalists, continues to use “right to work,” both with and without quotes.

Stylebooks are important to reporters and editors for two reasons. First, like dictionaries, they set standards for consistency on details, such as that “United Auto Workers” should be spelled out the first time it appears in a story, but “AFL-CIO” doesn’t have to be, and “UAW” or “the Auto Workers” is acceptable on second reference. 

Second, they give journalists advice on nuances, such as the distinction between murder and manslaughter, and on how to avoid biased or libelous language, such as calling someone a “murderer” before they’ve actually been convicted. The new AP Stylebook also instructs reporters not to use “racially charged” or similar terms as euphemisms for “racist” or “racism,” “when the latter terms are truly applicable.” If “racist” is not the appropriate term, it adds, “give careful thought to how best to describe the situation. Alternatives include racially divisive, racially sensitive, or in some cases, simply racial.”

At LaborPress, we generally use “union-shop ban” rather than “right to work,” because it’s more specific about what those laws actually do. We will, however, also refer to them in quotes, as “‘right to work’ laws” or “so-called ‘right to work’ laws,” because that’s the term people are most familiar with, even if it is a propagandistic slogan. (In reality, strong labor unions protect people’s “right to work” against arbitrary or discriminatory dejobitation.)

For example, our article on Missouri’s vote last August to repeal the state’s law was headlined, “Missouri Voters Crush ‘Right to Work for Less.’” The first sentence was Voters in Missouri rejected a state law banning the union shop by a two-to-one margin in the Aug. 7 primary,” and the second was “Proposition A, which would have allowed the so-called ‘right to work’ law enacted last year to go into effect, lost by almost 500,000 votes.”

April 2, 2019

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