Unions & Terms

Labor organizing has developed its own jargon over the years, though many of the terms below are specialized only in the sense that they give workers the language to advocate on their own behalf in a labor dispute.

The alphabet soup of union acronyms, meanwhile, is all the more confusing because many unions have diversified their membership in a de-industrializing economy and now represent not only steelworkers but also graduate students, not only operating engineers but also nurses. In this sense, their formal names are holdovers from another era, and the acronyms themselves are more accurate.

These glossaries are far from exhaustive, but they may be useful for understanding the accompanying essay and timeline.

Glossary of Terms

at-will employment: an arrangement in which workers can be dismissed by management at any time for any reason, or for no reason at all, excepting illegal discrimination.

bargaining unit: a group of workers with shared interests who can be represented by the same union.

bargaining committee: the union members elected to negotiate the terms of a contract.

benefits: any provisions offered to workers by management in addition to a wage. In the US, these provisions might include paid time off, a pension, or a health insurance plan partially or completely funded by the company.

captive audience meeting: employer meetings with employees during a union campaign, often mandatory, in which management may present an anti-union message.

card check: a method of organizing in which workers sign authorization cards affirming their desire to be represented by a union. When at least 30% of workers in the proposed bargaining unit have signed, the NLRB is authorized to order an election. If the majority have signed, management can voluntarily recognize the union without the need for an election.

collective bargaining: negotiations undertaken between a union and management toward securing a contract.

concessions (aka give-backs, take-backs): contract items that the union is made to sacrifice during bargaining (e.g., agreeing to pay more for a healthcare plan).

contract: a legally binding agreement between a union and management, which might include terms for pay scale, overtime, health and safety, benefits, nondiscrimination, layoffs and recalls, paid time off, and grievance and arbitration procedures.

election: the formal process by which a union is formed, joined, or decertified, as determined by a simple majority. Workers vote by secret ballot, and the results are certified by the NLRB

frontline worker: in the context of museums, a member of front-of-house staff, whose duties include interacting with the public (e.g., security guards, ticket sellers, retail workers).

furlough: mandatory time off work without pay.

grievance: a formal complaint raised by a worker to management about conditions in the workplace.

hot shop: a workplace where the workers are agitated and primed for unionization.

just cause: an agreed-upon rationale for a worker’s discipline or dismissal.

lockout: a suspension of work initiated by management during a labor dispute; management’s version of a strike.

manager/supervisor: anyone who has the authority to assign or direct the work of other employees; considered to be members of management rather than of the labor force. Managers and supervisors cannot join a union or be a part of the bargaining unit.

mediation: a process in which a neutral third party assists parties in a bargaining dispute.

NLRB: National Labor Relations Board; an agency of the US federal government; founded 1935; supervises union elections and enforces labor law, including investigating unfair labor practices.

petition: the first paperwork that must be filed with the NLRB when seeking union recognition. After 30% of workers have signed authorization cards, the union can petition for an election.

picket line: an assembly of workers who might be carrying signs and distributing information, usually patrolling the entrance to a work site. An informational picket is used to raise public awareness of a labor dispute and might not indicate a strike or a boycott.

PTO: paid time off; an allowance of sick, personal, and vacation days which may accrue during a worker’s tenure.

rank-and-file: the workers belonging to a union, as opposed to the union’s leadership and staff.

scab: someone who continues to work or agrees to fill a position during a strike.

shop steward: a worker elected by their peers or appointed by the union to serve as a representative in dealings with management.

slowdown: a labor action in which workers continue to perform their duties, but at a lower rate of productivity.

strike: an organized refusal to work, typically in an attempt to win concessions from management. A wildcat strike is one that the rank-and-file undertakes without the approval of union leadership.

ULP: unfair labor practice claim; a charge filed with the NLRB alleging a violation of the collective bargaining law, such as a refusal to bargain in good faith or a retaliation against a worker for union activity.

union avoidance firm: a company specializing in anti-union campaigns, often hired by management to consult on efforts to slow or stop the unionization process.

union drive: the internal campaign to raise support for unionization among workers.

wall-to-wall: when various groups of employees are represented by the same bargaining unit.

walkout: a labor action during which workers leave the worksite in an act of protest; may be a momentary action or may initiate a strike.

wrongful termination: A civil action or lawsuit, brought against management by a discharged worker, alleging that the termination violated a law, policy, or contract.

Glossary of Unions

AFL-CIO: The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations; founded 1955 in a merger of AFL (founded 1886) with CIO (founded 1935); a federation of 55 labor unions, including all of the US unions in this glossary; represents ~12.5 million members.

AFSCME: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; founded 1932 as the Wisconsin State Employees Association (WSEA); became AFSCME in 1935; >1.3 million members.

CUPE: Canadian Union of Public Employees; >700,000 members; Canada’s largest union.

IBEW: International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; founded 1891; ~775,000 members.

IUOE: International Union of Operating Engineers; founded 1896; >377,000 members.

OPEIU: Office and Professional Employees International Union; founded 1945; >104,000 members.

UAW: The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, aka United Auto Workers; founded 1935; >400,000 members.

USW: The United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union, aka United Steelworkers; founded 1942; >1.2 million members.

Maxwell Paparella lives in New York City. His fiction and criticism have appeared in BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Screen Slate, and elsewhere.