Across the country, public sector unions are in engaged in a fairly bitter struggle with conservatives over the issue of collective bargaining. (I initially wrote “fiscal conservatives,” but those on the left would counter that this fight has nothing to do with budgetary considerations. And since this is an article about framing, I went with the neutral term. While we’re on the subject, see this article by Jonathan Bernstein on the “GOP War on Budgeting.”) I began thinking about issue framing and collective bargaining while watching two pundits debate the issue from competing sides on cable news. One thing political scientists and campaign strategists know is that issue framing matters greatly. This includes how elites describe policies—such as when conservatives discuss “defending” marriage or talk about “repealing Obamacare”—as well as how lawmakers title legislation—for example, in the 111th Congress health care reform was the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” while the stimulus package was the “American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”
My initial thought was that, as per usual, the left has underutilized advantageous frames. Sure the left discusses the issue in terms of “workers” and the “middle class,” but most of the political dialogue I hear uses the neutral term “collective bargaining” to describe the central policy at issue. This is in contrast to “collective bargaining rights.” Seems trivial, right? Wrong. A Quinnipiac University Poll conducted in late February asked the following question:
“In order to reduce state budget deficits, would you support or oppose limiting collective bargaining for public employees?”
The survey found that 45% support limiting collective bargaining for public employees while 42% are in opposition. No majority in either direction, but a plurality in favor of limiting collective bargaining. Contrast that with a Gallup poll conducted in early March that asked:
“Wisconsin is seeking to reduce its budget deficit by passing a bill that would take away some of the collective bargaining rights of most public unions, including the state teachers’ union. Would you favor or oppose such a bill in your state?”
In Gallup’s poll, only 33% favor taking away collective bargaining “rights” while 61% (a sizable majority) are in opposition. Obviously, the “rights frame” significantly increases the pro-union, pro-collective bargaining position. So onto my central claim: Is the left losing the framing war?
A simple way to address this question is with Google Trends data. The following figure presents that data (the raw frequency with which individuals use Google to search for various words or phrases). The blue line is the frequency of Google searches for the term “collective bargaining” while the red line is the frequency of Google searches for the term “collective bargaining rights.” Clearly, “collective bargaining” is the more frequently used term. But is this evidence that the “rights frame” is “losing”? No, not by itself. It could be that people are simply lazy (they are) and search for “collective bargaining” rather than taking the time to add “rights” to the end of the phrase. If this is the true cause of differences in the frequency of each term, we would expect a constant difference over time. If the right is winning the framing war we would expect the difference to increase over time (as more people use the neutral frame). If the left is winning the framing war we would expect the difference to decrease over time (as more people use the “rights” frame). Thus, the figure to the right presents the ratio of “collective bargaining” Google searches to “collective bargaining rights” Google searches. Higher values indicate a greater ratio of non-rights (neutral) searches. What we see is pretty clear. As the conflict between public sector unions and conservative state governors has gone on from February to March, individuals are increasingly searching for “collective bargaining” rather than “collective bargaining rights.” Throughout most of February, the ratio was about 9 to 1 in favor of the non-rights term. In March, the ratio has been about 13 to 1.