Thursday, September 24, 2009

When the Workers' Movement Doesn't Work

In my last post, I looked at a piece which was clearly in support of international outsourcing. This time, I want to look at a piece from the opposing viewpoint. Because this viewpoint more closely aligns with my own views, I expected an easy analysis. This was not the case. The points made in this brochure, put out by the United Steelworkers, can be seen to draw from Aristotle's Categories of Argument, but are not used effectively.

Before beginning my Aristotelian analysis, I'd like to make a few points about the brochure in context. While it was made several years ago, and therefore might not be the most current source for rhetoric, it is still prominently linked on the AFL-CIO's website as though it were current. In my opinion, this placement shows two things: one, that this piece of rhetoric is being advanced into the current debate on outsourcing and globalization, and two, that there is clearly an issue at high levels in the labor movement regarding adapting rhetoric to fit changing rhetorical situations.

Anther point I'd like to make is about the relevance of the brochure itself to the debate on international outsourcing. While it is true that the brochure makes a stated point against sweatshops, the sweatshop issue is definitely one of the topoi surrounding the debate at hand. The argument advanced by the labor movement is that global outsourcing, particularly in production-based jobs, allows American companies to operate sweatshops (an enthymeme which calls up images of slave labor, incredibly low wages, and dangerous working conditions) outside of the states. If American companies were stopped from outsourcing these jobs, the argument continues, American labor laws would prevent these kinds of abuses.

On to Aristotle. The Aristotelian categories seem thin on the ground in this brochure. On the left inner panel, a list of examples are cited regarding abusive conditions in foreign factories. By induction, then, we can make the argument that these abusive conditions will continue if American companies continue to maintain factories in these countries. Where the argument breaks down is not in its facts, but in its appeal to emotion. The wording is never quite strong enough, the images never quite vivid enough, and it is as if these anecdotes were written by someone attempting to remove the emotional impact from the facts - the opposite of what would actually work.

Similarly, an Argument of Possibility is robbed of its power by the use of a poorly chosen meme. In the same panel as the examples, the statement is made, "We can do better; we can restore justice in our global trade relationships." The phrase "we can do better," was made famous by John Kerry, a presidential candidate who was known for not creating an emotional connection between himself and his audience. In modern culture, references to a failed presidential candidate, and especially an unsympathetic one, is not likely to be persuasive.

An Argument of More of Less is attempted, but the logic is so flawed that it becomes difficult to follow. An act known as the Dog and Cat Protection Act of 2000, the reader is told, "prohibits the importing or exporting of dog or cat fur products into the U.S. market. The goal of this act is to deter the brutality and suffering inflicted upon dogs and cats, whose fur was being used for products such as coats that were entering the United States." This statement, while certainly based in fact, and certainly emotionally effective to a typical American citizen does not necessarily correlate logically with the question, "Is it not time to extend these same protections to human beings?" The attempt to emotionally connect with the audience is clear, but it falls short logically when one considers that the argument against outsourcing does not apply to human beings or goods made from parts of human beings being imported into the states except in the most labored metaphor.

This brochure is problematic from a visual rhetoric standpoint as well. The images chosen do nothing to illustrate the stated problem of exploitation. In particular, the front cover of the brochure features a photograph of a young Asian woman working some kind of production job. While she is clearly Asian, and clearly working, there is nothing to suggest that she is being exploited in any way. She simply appears to be a normal young woman at work: clean, focused, and working in an environment that in no way seems to jibe with the "filthy" conditions we are told about elsewhere in the brochure. A far more effective image is hidden on the central inner panel, depicting young people bound with rope. However, no other mention is made of the image beyond a caption whose font is almost too tiny to read: "Textile workers in Bangladesh were beaten and tied with rope after speaking out for their rights." This image could have been the focal point for a truly affecting argument.

This brochure, simply put, does not work. Attempts to use Aristotelian lines of argument are present, but fall short in execution. If the Steelworkers' union's goal is to affect change in the American business world, this brochure is not likely to help.

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