Welcome to the second installment of Think Big’s FRAMED series, a space designed to highlight framing choices in the real world, and to consider the consequences of those choices together. 

April’s big win for autoworkers in Chattanooga caused us to wonder how to expand that win into a broader case for progressive economic policy. We asked folks from EARN in the South (partners in the Southern Mindshift Project) to weigh in on More Perfect Union’s powerful video released in the days leading up to the vote, and to help us think through ways Southern Mindshift strategies could expand and amplify the messages.

Despite UAW’s recent loss in Alabama, Mercedes workers  – and workers across the South – vow to fight on. The loss comes on the heels of a historic victory at VW in Chattanooga, TN (the UAW’s first win in a Southern assembly plant owned by a foreign automaker), and as Shawn Fain, UAW President states: “The workers at VW…have shown it is possible.

As organizers turn their attention to contract negotiations in Chattanooga, it’s worth considering the narratives that led to victory, and how those narratives can have a broad public impact.

More Perfect Union’s video – This Could Revolutionize the Auto Industry – centers VW workers talking about the upcoming vote and their reasons for wanting to unionize:

The tone is upbeat and empowered—workers are enthusiastic and confident about the vote and the positive changes that will follow. Tone is important. So often in situations like this the tone is angry or portrays workers as victims. By choosing a positive and hopeful approach, and featuring workers who are empowered and excited, the video is more likely to convey that enthusiasm to viewers.

“Starting the piece with making history is a powerful framing choice,” observed Christin Calloway from One Voice in Mississippi. “So often we are referencing past history, or comparing today’s experience with the past. The idea that these workers are making history RIGHT NOW is part of what conveys excitement.”

Dustin Pugel from the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy notes that the video seems designed as worker-to-worker communications, which makes sense given that this video was created during the organizing phase of the campaign. The choice to center and prioritize workers’ voices throughout the video (as opposed to UAW leaders, for example), reinforces that the effort is about people banding together, not the union as some kind of external institution separate from workers.

Jasmine Lynch from WeCollab notes that, beyond this video, including voices from the community could be a powerful way to expand the audience.  “Owners of businesses that serve workers at the plant, coffee shops for example, could talk about how those workers keep their businesses alive. Or pastors can emphasize the positive ripple effects to the broader community,” suggested Ana Pardo from the North Carolina Justice Center.

Building a broad case for progressive economic policy (and lasting change)

EARN in the South is a core partner in the Southern Mindshift Project, a long-term collaborative project between researchers, organizers, and advocates to shift conservative economic narratives in the South.  Research conducted by the Topos Partnership on behalf of the Southern Mindshift Project, found three narrative elements that are important in building public support for progressive economic policies:

  1. People drive the economy, and businesses rely on us.
  2. Taking active steps to build up and include ALL people makes both moral and economic sense.
  3. Some businesses exploit their workers, neighbors, or consumers, so we need rules and guardrails.

We asked EARN in the South organizations to consider ways to weave those elements into this existing video story, as an exercise to determine how to adapt the three narrative elements to a variety of different economic issues. Take a look!

The video already sends a strong message of inclusion (element #2). Black and brown people are centered, and they emphasize their motivation to work for change, for economic security, for their children and for people throughout the South.

(Worker)  I want to be able to tell my children and my grandchildren and great grandchildren that, hey, I had a hand in changing things around here and throughout the South for you and everyone else.

(Worker) I’m doing this, mainly, for my daughter. She’s the reason why I get up every morning, go to work, and she’s the reason why I’m pushing for better health care. I’m pushing for my retirement so she does not have to worry. And in the future if she does choose to work at Volkswagen she’ll know, my mom stood here and made sure that when I got here that everything would be okay.

Ray Khalfani from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute suggests that the safety issues raised in the video are a perfect example of why (policy and legal) guardrails are needed, and would be an effective place to include element #3. For example (new suggestions underlined):

(Narrator) So this week, we’re in Tennessee, talking to workers on the brink of making history about what they’re fighting for and what a win would change, not just here, but across the entire country.

(Worker) There’s a lot of safety issues inside of the plant that employees bring up, but are not being addressed. And we feel as though, if we had a union that had our back, these things would be addressed, because together we could insist on the safety rules that protect us.

(Narrator) Government sets guardrails that corporations have to follow, but sometimes those aren’t enough for a particular industry. Unionized workers can band together to demand the health and safety guardrails they need.

Peter Gess from Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families recommends creating a sense of interdependence with the broader community by explaining how PEOPLE drive the economy, not business. For example (new suggestions underlined):

(Worker) I don’t really like the fact that very few people are pocketing all of the money, while we as workers are out here generating it, and we’re not getting what we deserve.

(Worker) The working class people shouldn’t have to suffer because we make this world. Because if we’re not taken care of, we ain’t going to be here to make these cars. WE drive the economy—our labor and skills make these cars, our wages buy these cars. The money we earn flows through our local communities. Workers are the economy and we need to come first, not last.

More Perfect Union is doing powerful, on-the-ground storytelling. This video stands on its own, and is also a useful vehicle for thinking through additional framing choices. Thank you to More Perfect Union and to our EARN in the South partners for helping us take a closer look at the dynamics in play. And CONGRATULATIONS to the workers and organizers at Chattanooga’s VW plant!