INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Despite their names, there's little similarity between the "right" to work measure state lawmakers approved earlier this year and the "freedom" to work policy that Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard vetoed last week.
Right to work is a conservative priority that bans unions from collecting mandatory fees from workers.
Freedom to work is a liberal priority that would ban Indianapolis hotels from blacklisting hotel workers.
Talk of rights and freedoms harkens to uniquely American ideals laid out in the Constitution that are interwoven in American culture.
Relying on the names of the proposals alone, of course, gives almost no idea of what they would actually do.
That's why they win politically.
"The intended response is a visceral or emotional response. If you can get at someone's emotions, then they're going to be more likely to react," said Kristina Sheeler, chairwoman of the Department of Communication Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
By using words like "right" and "freedom," which call to American cultural values, politicians try to win over as many people as possible while alienating as few as possible, she said.
"The words have power because they're strategically ambiguous," she said.
"They're so full of meaning, but the very specific meaning is not there."
Right-to-work advocates argue that unions are denying workers' their "freedoms" when they sign contracts with mandatory representation fees.
"When you call something a right, you're implying it's something that ought not be given or taken by government," said Greg Mourad, vice president of the National Right to Work Committee, who supported efforts to make Indiana the nation's 23rd right-to-work state earlier this year.
Supporters of the "freedom to work" measure argue that it is businesses in this case depriving workers of their "rights" if they make an agreement not to hire temporary staff for full-time jobs.
"That word choice, I think, is very clear that the people deserve, in Indianapolis particularly, the freedom to work directly for the hotels instead of being trapped in these temporary positions," said Sarah Lyons, an organizer with Unite Here, a union group that is lobbying the city for the "freedom to work" measure.
Casual observers of either of these battles need to ask themselves just what these terms refer to.
"Right-to-work, well whose right to work?" Sheeler said. "People need to ask those sorts of questions, but unfortunately they don't. So if politicians and political communication people can find those strategically ambiguous, emotionally-loaded words to define their message, then they're going to get a reaction."
Some of the best examples of strategic ambiguity were President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign messages, Sheeler said.
"Hope" and "change" were vague enough to capture voters who were disappointed with the economy, the war in Iraq and other issues, she said.
But making those words stick costs money. Sheeler points to former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jill Long Thompson, who aired an ad in the 2008 gubernatorial campaign critical of Gov. Mitch Daniels and his campaign RV.
But voters watching that piece probably walked away thinking it was another spot for Daniels, she said, because the campaign did not have enough money to drive the message home.
Sometimes the opponents themselves have a hard time breaking out of the messaging.
Indiana Democrats fighting the right-to-work measure often struggled with the name itself, a phrase that has been entrenched in labor battles for roughly six decades.
While Democratic leaders fought to recast the policy as the "right-to-work-for-less" proposal, lawmakers and union members debating the proposal frequently lapsed back to the term right-to-work law.