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Labor Dictionary

American Federation of Labor (AFL)

Historically the most conservative U.S. union federation. Founded in 1886 on the basis of craft unionism. Most affiliates excluded nonwhite, women, and immigrant workers on principle. Focused on organizing skilled craft professions, to preserve these jobs for white, male, “Anglo-Saxon” workers.


The result of the 1954 merger between the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Occurred a few years after the expulsion of the CIO’s left-led unions, which made the two labor federations much more ideologically similar.


Also called “revolutionary syndicalism.” A brand of syndicalism influenced by anarchist ideas. Anarcho-syndicalists are revolutionaries; they believe revolutions should be led by (left-wing) union federations, because they see unions as organs of working-class control over the economy.

bargaining unit

The group of workers eligible for unionization under an official representation election. Determined by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Often much smaller than the number of workers in a workplace, and determined by job classification and other factors that divide workers at the same worksite or company.

boss campaign

The employer’s anti-union campaign during an organizing drive. Often run by a law firm that specializes in union-busting. Combines propaganda against the union with captive audience meetings, surveillance, and harassment or firing of key worker-organizers.

business union

A union run like a business: tightly controlled from the top, with a powerful executive, rigid hierarchical structure, and little to no internal democracy. Business unions celebrate capitalism and approach collective bargaining as an exercise in class collaboration. They revile militancy and often work to crush rank-and-file activity.

The United Mine Workers (UMW), United Auto Workers (UAW), and United Steel Workers (USW) are all famous examples of large business unions.

captive audience meeting

A mandatory meeting called during a union campaign, where management can say whatever they want against the union. An extremely common union-busting tool used during an organizing campaign.

closed shop

A shop where workers have to sign up for the union to be hired. Fought for by the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s, although resisted by some local unions and left-wing unionists. The opposite of an open shop.

collective bargaining

The name for the legal bargaining process between unions and employers. Usually results in a contract that governs wages and work conditions. A relatively new form of labor relations; only emerged in the U.S. in the 1930s.

company union

A “union” controlled by an employer instead of its own members. The employer either directly manages the union’s operations, finances the union, or bribes its leadership. Either way, the end result is that the union answers to the employer, not the members.

Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)

The U.S. union federation that led the big organizing drives of the 1930s—in steel, auto, and the other core industrial sectors. Started as an internal committee of the American Federation of Labor. Split from the Federation in 1936 over the issue of industrial unionism, which the CIO championed over the AFL’s craft unionism. The rival federations re-merged in 1954 (see AFL-CIO above).


A legal agreement between an employer and a union that governs wages, benefits, and work conditions for a certain period of time. Nowadays almost always contains a management rights clause and a no-strike clause, though this wasn’t true of contracts in the first half of the 20th century.

Contract Action Team (CAT)

An organized group of workers who build up participation in a contract campaign. Usually covers one worksite and involves a “phone tree” structure, where each member of the team is responsible for staying in touch with a certain number of co-workers, calling them about actions, etc.

contract campaign

A campaign to win a good contract. Can be run by a local or an international union. Often the campaign is a series of lower-intensity job actions like rallies, sticker-ups, and informational pickets. Sometimes these escalate into actions like slowdowns and work-to-rules. Occasionally — though this is increasingly rare — the campaign ends in a strike.

craft unionism

A style of unionism practiced by the old American Federation of Labor, and by most unions in the modern-day AFL-CIO. Workers are organized by “craft”—their narrow job description—instead of by industry or employer. Craft unions are smaller and more exclusive than industrial unions.


The price of union membership, in the form of monthly or yearly payments to the union treasury. Unions aren’t the only ones to charge dues; any membership organization that wants to fund itself democratically, and not rely on donors or foundation grants, will set up a dues system.

fair-share fee

A fee often paid by workers who don’t join the union in an organized shop. Less than dues; the usual formula is that the fee covers the cost of representation (higher wages, better benefits) minus the cost of any political donations the union makes.

general strike

A massive, coordinated strike across an entire industry, city, region, or even country. Often used to win political demands, or even to bring down an unpopular government.

hot cargo campaign

A kind of secondary boycott. Workers refuse to handle scab-made goods. (See scab below.) Usually run by dock workers, teamsters, and other transport workers.

Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)

A revolutionary union federation founded in 1905. Adopted the principles of syndicalism, industrial unionism, and direct action on the shop floor. Members are often called Wobblies. Had its heyday in the 1910s and into the early 1920s, when it was almost destroyed by government repression and factionalism. Many former Wobblies went on to found the American Workers Party, later the Communist Party USA.

industrial unionism

A style of unionism practiced by the old Congress of Industrial Organizations, and by some unions in the AFL-CIO. Ideally, all workers in the same workplace and industry belong to the same union, though in practice the National Labor Relations Board forces unions to be more restrictive (see bargaining unit above). Industrial unions are larger and more inclusive than craft unions.

informational picket

A picket line but not a strike. Workers stand outside their workplace, pass out literature, and talk to passerby about workplace issues.


Warning co-workers about anti-union talking points before management starts using them. A crucial part of any organizing conversation.

international union

Usually shortened to “international.” The name used for some national unions, because they once did—or still do—have locals in Canada, making their scope “international.”

job action

A coordinated action by a group of workers that disrupts the ordinary flow of work. Can include marches on the boss, sticker-ups, slowdowns, work-to-rules, all the way up to strikes. Workers use job actions to win demands from management; organizers use them to gage the strength of worker organization (see structure test).

Knights of Labor

One of the first American labor federations. Organized workers in the same workplace or industry into “lodges,” which functioned like local unions. Parts of the Knights organized worker cooperatives and backed farmer-labor third party efforts. Disappeared by the start of the 20th century.

leadership identification

Sometimes shortened to “leader ID.” The process of identifying workplace leaders, usually to recruit them to an organizing drive or a job action.

left-led union

Any union with left-wing leadership—usually (though not always) socialists, communists or anarchists. In the United States, often used to refer to the Communist-led unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s and 40s.

local union

Usually shortened to “local.” The smallest unit of a union, based in one city, region, or worksite. Most unions are made up of a number of locals with their own elected officers. In the biggest unions—particularly the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters—locals can be as large as some of the smaller national unions.

management rights clause

A standard clause in a union contract. It cedes power to management on a wide range of issues: hiring and firing, investment decisions, and any work conditions not explicitly set down in the contract. Like the no-strike clause, was resisted by the left-led unions and the Teamsters but embraced by most unions in the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

march on the boss

Delivering a petition with workers’ demands to the boss. The petition is signed by a majority of workers in the shop; the delivery is in-person and made by the largest possible group of workers, to avoid discipline or firing. Often the first job action attempted in an organizing drive.

National Labor Relations Act (NLRA)

Along with the later Taft-Hartley Act, the foundation of U.S. labor law. Passed in 1935. Offered unions legal recognition and set up a government-supervised election process to determine which unions can represent which workers.

National Labor Relations Board (NLRB)

The administrative body set up to implement the National Labor Relations Act. Run by an executive-appointed board and general counsel, and divided into regional agencies that process the majority of cases.

no-strike clause

A standard clause in a union contract that forbids workers from striking while the contract is in place. Became a standard feature of contracts negotiated by unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s. Bitterly contested by the CIO’s left-led unions, as well as the Teamsters.


An elected leader of a union, local or national. The term distinguishes elected leaders from staffers, whose positions are appointed. “Union officers” is not the same as “union officials,” which can refer to officers, staffers, or both.

open shop

A workplace where workers don’t have to be a union member, sign up to the union, or pay a fair-share fee to stay employed. The opposite of a closed shop.

organizing committee (OC)

Usually refers to the nucleus of a union in a non-union shop: a group of workers who organize job actions and make democratic decisions about the direction of an organizing drive. OCs can also exist in union shops, across multiple workplaces — anywhere workers are organizing and need to structure themselves effectively.

organizing drive

A campaign to unionize a non-union workplace. Also called a union drive, union campaign, or organizing campaign.

permanent replacement

A scab who permanently takes the job of a striking worker; can also refer to the process of replacing an entire striking workforce with a new scab workforce. Used to be quite rare, but nowadays a very common strikebreaking tactic. Legal under U.S. labor law, except during Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strikes.

picket captain

Another way to say strike captain.

picket line

A “picket” used to refer to a small line of infantry placed in front of an army’s main force to provide advanced warning. Nowadays, it’s a line of workers set up outside a workplace to enforce a strike. Effective lines shut down production by blocking scabs from the workplace. In less militant strikes, the lines are more symbolic, and workers set up shop outside their workplace but don’t block scabs. Because of severe legal restrictions, picket lines today are mostly symbolic, though important for strikers’ morale.


An anti-union spy hired by an employer to bust a union drive or strike. The name derives from the Pinkerton Detective Agency, one of the oldest and most notorious anti-union firms. Used nowadays as a general term of abuse against all anti-union thugs, spies, and agents provocateurs.


An attempt by one union to steal members from another union, usually by organizing a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. The most famous raids in American labor history were those led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1940s and 50s against left-wing former affiliates like the United Electrical Workers (UE) and the Mine Mill and Smelter Workers (MM). But the practice still happens today.

rank and file

Roughly, the opposite of “union leadership”: all members of the labor movement who work on the job and are not officers. For socialist labor activists, the power and participation of the rank and file are crucial to rebuilding the labor movement. (See rank-and-file strategy below.)

rank-and-file caucus

An organized group of rank-and-file activists and militants in one union. Often fights for greater union democracy, against contract concessions, and for greater militancy on the job. Usually appears in a business union with little to no tradition of internal democracy. Examples include the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in the Chicago Teachers Union, Teamsters for a Democratic (TDU) in the Teamsters, and Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) in the United Auto Workers.

rank-and-file organizer

An organizer who stays on the job, as opposed to a staff organizer who works directly for the union.

rank-and-file strategy

A strategy for socialists in the labor movement. The idea is for socialists to get rank-and-file jobs in strategic sectors of the economy, and to focus their efforts on building up shop-floor organization, militancy, and class-consciousness in the unions.

representation election

Often called an “NLRB election” for being run by the National Labor Relations Board. A secret-ballot election to determine if a union can represent a specific group of workers (a bargaining unit) at a specific worksite.

right-to-work law

State-level laws in the U.S. that forbid union-shop agreements and fair-share fees. By preventing unions from collecting dues automatically, they weaken union power and force workers to organize constant shop-floor support.


A worker who works during a strike. Can either be a new hire, imported by the boss as a strikebreaker, or a longtime employee who refuses to join fellow workers on the picket line.

secondary boycott

Refusal to handle goods related to a strike by workers of another employer. An effective form of solidarity with a striking union in another company or industry; the added pressure is often enough to force employers to settle. Technically outlawed in 1947, but used for decades by the Teamsters, Longshore Workers, and others.


The union word for “worksite.” Any workplace, whether a physical location (like a school or factory) or a more diffuse work situation (like a network of delivery drivers who work for the same contracting company).

shop floor

The place where work happens.


A veiled form of strike where a majority of workers call in sick on the same days. Often used by public sector workers to get around prohibitions of public sector strikes.

sitdown strike

Often called a “sitdown.” One of the most radical forms of strike, used widely in the 1930s. Workers occupy the worksite—eat, sleep and live there—until their demands are met. In revolutionary upheavals, workers may even take over the worksite and start to run it by themselves.


When workers stay on the job but slow down the work process to harm the employer’s bottom line. An alternative to the strike pioneered by early industrial workers in the 19th century, and used often by the Industrial Workers of the World.


Someone who holds an appointed position in a union. Staffers are sometimes hired out of the union’s rank-and-file, though the practice is increasingly rare. Staffers in many unions — including the national AFL-CIO — have unionized, leading some unions to act like union-busting employers.


A worker who serves as the union’s point person in their shop. Talks with co-workers, processes grievances, and in general makes the union an active presence in their co-workers’ lives. Sometimes an elected position, sometimes appointed. The old left-led unions saw a strong steward system as a linchpin of union power and rank-and-file control.


A job action often used during an organizing drive. On a given day, workers wear union stickers on their shirts, helmets, or wherever, as a way of visibly demonstrating the power of the union. There are creative variations on the sticker-up, like the Chicago Teachers Union’s “red shirt Fridays.”


The most powerful, and dangerous, form of job action. Workers either walk out, don’t report to their shift, or sit down mid-shift and refuse to move. In other words, they collectively stop working, either slowing down production or halting it entirely. This is a powerful form of leverage to extract concessions from an employer. The danger is that workers lose wages, and could easily lose their jobs if the strike is lost.


The process of breaking — preventing, undermining, or killing — a strike. Employers will hire scabs, sometimes even permanent replacements; cultivate a “back-to-work” movement among loyal anti-union employees; and enlist the support of local business federations, churches, and community groups. The point is to brand the strike as reckless and violent, and to isolate strikers from community support.

strike captain

A designated strike leader. Responsible for organizing the picket line: keeping workers on the line safe, setting up food and drink deliveries, and managing . In wildcats, or strikes by non-union workers, the strike captain is usually elected by striking workers. In most union-led strikes, they are appointed by the union.

strike support

Just what it sounds like: outside support for a strike. Often done by sending supplies, donating money to the strike fund, or joining the picket line.

structure test

An action—whether a job action or something outside work, like a rally—used to assess the strength of your organization: how many people are actively involved, who was able to get their co-workers to show up, which shifts are poorly organized, etc.

sympathy strike

A powerful form of solidarity with strikers. Workers at another worksite—in the same industry or not—strike to support the aims of the original strikers. Sympathy strikes have sometimes spread so widely that they become general strikes.


 A labor ideology that stresses organization on the shop floor, struggle over economic demands, and abstention from electoral politics. Comes in all different varieties: some syndicalists are conservatives who don’t want unions involved in any kind of broader politics; others, like anarchosyndicalists, are leftists suspicious of labor and workers’ political parties.

Taft-Hartley Act

Technically the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) of 1947. Outlawed solidarity strikes and other effective strike tactics. Banned Communists from holding union office, which aided the destruction of the labor left. In general, tilted the balance of power in collective bargaining even further in employers’ favor.


Technically the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), but universally known as the Teamsters. A union of truck drivers, warehouse workers and other transportation workers. At one time deeply penetrated by mobsters, and a longtime business union with conservative leadership. Large and unusually militant for a

business union.

Unfair Labor Practice (ULP)

A charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board. Can be filed by a union against an employer or vice versa. Claims that the other side isn’t being “fair” in contract negotiations, or in the conduct of a strike. If a ULP is won, the other side is forced to pay damages and “cease and desist” whatever they were doing.

Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike

A strike to protest an Unfair Labor Practice. Because ULP strikers can’t (on paper) be permanently replaced during a ULP strike, unions are careful nowadays to make most strikes ULP strikes by filing multiple charges with the National Labor Relations Board.


The act of attacking, co-opting, or destroying a union campaign. As old as unionism itself, but has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry in recent decades. Most corporate law firms offer anti-union services, and some firms (IRI Consultants, Ogletree Deakins) specialize in running anti-union campaigns.

union card

A membership card signed by a worker. Used during organizing drives, both to sign up new members and assess levels of union support. In established unions, used as proof of membership.

union contract

See contract.

union shop

A weaker form of closed shop. Workers don’t have to be union members to be hired, but after getting hired, they have to join up in a certain amount of time (e.g. 30 days) to avoid being fired.

wildcat strike

A strike that hasn’t been authorized by union leadership. Can be any size, from a single department, to a whole company, to an entire industry. Often shortened to “wildcat.”


A member of the working class—anyone who depends on a wage or salary to meet their basic needs.

worker cooperative

Often shortened to “worker co-op.” Companies that are owned by their own employees and managed democratically, by an elected worker leadership. Come in many different variations, depending on the size of the company and the type of employee ownership.


See rank-and-file organizer.

working class

The group of people in capitalist society who rely on a wage or salary to meet their basic needs, and who don’t hold managerial power in their workplace. Covers “blue-collar” and “white-collar,” agricultural and industrial workers, and even some kinds of fairly privileged well-paid workers (e.g. tech workers).

workplace leader

A worker who earns the trust and respect of their co-workers. Often targeted for recruitment in organizing drives because of their influence among other workers.


When workers follow the employee handbook so literally that no work can get done, effectively shutting down the worksite. An alternative to the strike made famous by public sector workers in the 1960s and 70s.

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