In the last chapter, we launched the Voices from the South series by introducing the Southern Mindshift project and laying out some of the challenges the research unearthed (and confirmed). In this chapter, we lay out an overview of the recommendations that come out of the research – a pragmatic, empowering case for why people need to insist on a better deal. Stay tuned for a deeper dive on both challenges and strategies, coming soon. And stay up to date on all the chapters here.

As worker power advocates and communicators, we start our messaging with what workers need, demand, deserve (of course).  And we often hold up greedy corporations as villains, and insist that the government take action.

We tend to say something like: People are struggling to get by while the wealthy corporations keep raking in more dollars. We need the government to take steps to help people and unrig the economy.

This message makes sense to us, and it resonates with much of the progressive base in much of the country. But our research over the last year shows that it goes wrong for many in the South and Southern Midwest  – including many working people.

What we say is not necessarily what people hear, and our messages can inadvertently trigger and reinforce problematic cultural ideas that work against us.

What causes this disconnect? As laid out in the previous chapter, we have to take into account what Topos refers to as the Cultural Common Sense—ideas that are pervasive, deeply held and often unconscious, but that have power to direct thought and action.

A message grounded in government action assumes that people are already on board with government intervention in their working lives and prepared to battle both businesses and employers. But the Cultural Common Sense runs counter to these assumptions – many Southerners believe that government is indifferent and actually does more harm than good and a full-throated anti-business approach feels out of step in the South (only 21 percent surveyed believe most businesses are bad).

Compounding the problem, most people default to thinking of how each of us navigates the world of work and employment alone; we don’t think about the systems, structures and policies that help or hinder us.

Appeals to altruism and sympathy portray working people as struggling victims. Government policies that support working people are easily reinterpreted as “handouts”, which is out of step with deep cultural values about how it’s best for people to earn things rather than be given them.

So, on one hand, we have a conservative worldview that fits the current Cultural Common Sense in the South:

  • We need businesses to do well, because they provide us jobs. 
  • If we demand too much (especially through government policy), it will hurt business and cost us jobs.
  • It’s up to each of us to work hard to get ahead.

On the other hand, we have a progressive worldview that can’t compete in the South. In fact, it can backfire:

  • People are struggling while greedy corporations hold the power, which can trigger the reaction that: A few may be bad, but there are lots of good businesses. If people are struggling, they can improve their own lot or look for a better job.
  • We need government to step in for better workplace standards and economic policies, which can trigger the reaction that: You mean government “handouts”? They do more harm than good. Government just makes things worse.

We need a new paradigm that makes a pragmatic, empowering case for why people need to insist on a better deal. It’s not about specific slogans, but rather a cluster of ideas that can be reinforced and communicated in various ways and contexts to create a new understanding of how broad-based prosperity REALLY works:

1. People drive the economy; businesses rely on us.

Rationale: “People before profits” is a nice slogan, but people don’t feel like they can insist on this. It’s a moral, not an economic argument. We bring power to our case by building on the latent understanding that people’s contributions –  people’s labor, spending,  expertise and contributions – create the jobs, wages, products and services that make up a thriving economy. Businesses need customers and workers. As such, people must be prioritized to create broad-based prosperity.

Spotlight on the South: Business-centered mental models are a problem everywhere in the US, but represent an extreme challenge in the South. Traditions of deference to authority, exploitation of deep racial and class divisions, and cultural anxieties about deservingness have allowed those pushing a business-centric view to run roughshod over the interests of working people in the region. An alternate mental model pushes back.

2. Taking active steps to build up and include ALL people makes both moral and economic sense.

Rationale: If people drive the economy, then it stands to reason that taking active steps to build up and include ALL people makes both moral and economic sense. It makes a case for a range of investments and interventions in service of supporting people in reaching their goals. A macro-economic rationale for anti-discrimination adds to and bolsters the well-established moral and social justice rationales for equity.

Spotlight on the South: A core cultural value in the South and Southern Midwest is that we look out for each other and build up and support the people in our community. But the cultural lens for this is moral and social, and excludes groups of people as often as it includes them. The proposed paradigm shift expands the core cultural value to the level of the state and its economy – where all of us, including the state government – should be playing a constructive role.

3. Some businesses exploit their workers, neighbors, or consumers; so we need rules and guardrails.

Rationale: Focusing on those businesses that exploit provides an actionable and palatable role for government action without being fully anti-business. It shifts focus from whether or not people are working hard enough to whether or not businesses are treating workers fairly.

Spotlight on the South: In the South, people think of a liveable wage, paid time off, or good working conditions as things that a (hard-working) person must earn, but this recommended paradigm shift puts the focus on businesses’ choice to exploit our contributions and how we can insist on something different. And connecting the dots between an active government, well-regulated business and the kind of economy people want would mean a significant shift in the cultural common sense for the region.

This story is grounded in ideas that feel like common sense, that work together synergistically, and that help people understand the information around them in constructive ways. It taps into opportunities in the current Cultural Common Sense (for example, a focus on people’s contributions) AND shifts the Cultural Common Sense in more productive directions (for example, how people’s wellbeing leads to a more equitable society and prosperous economic system). It connects the dots for people in ways that can change their thinking and create a more fertile environment for policy and organizing efforts across issues. Here’s our theory of change.

*Imagine your issue area here! Paid leave policies are just one example of the worker power and economic justice policies our partners are working on moving forward across the South.