What's a Union? Union-busting NLRB Elections vs. Card checks Students working with Unions
Immigration & Unions "Right to work" Laws Labor Glossary


Jargon - Vocabulary related to student-labor campaigns!

Acronyms - Names of unions, organizations, and more!

Want to add or change a definition? Have a question about labor vocab not listed here? Email lwac(at)livingwageaction.org


captive audience meeting A union-busting tactic; employers force workers to come to meetings during their shift so that employers can intimidate workers and spread anti-union propaganda.

card check When a majority of workers sign cards saying they want to be represented by a particular union, the employer can voluntarily choose to recognize the union and bypass formal NLRB elections. Although this process is much more simple and democratic than NLRB elections, US labor law does not make it mandatory for employers to recognize a union after a successful card check is conducted – this is where “card check neutrality” comes into play… See the Resources page at araw.org for more info on card check and union organizing in general.

card check neutrality An employer can agree ahead of time to voluntarily recognize any union as soon as a majority of employees sign cards saying they want to join that union. Of course, employers don’t do this unless they are pressured to do so (e.g. by workers and students), but it’s clearly the most democratic way to run a union election, and it leaves much less space for intimidation and manipulation than the NLRB process. Card check neutrality was demanded at Georgetown and Wash-U in 2005, but administrators at both schools refused to adopt such an agreement. See the Resources page at araw.org for more info on card check and union organizing in general.

contracting The practice of having work performed by an outside contractor rather than directly-hired employees. There is a trend of universities contracting out labor to cut costs and evade responsibility for the treatment of the workers. Contracted campus workers are almost always paid significantly less than directly-hired workers. (also often called “subcontracting”)

empowerment Refers to a model of social of change based on oppressed people gaining power through leading struggles to improve their own lives, rather than benevolent privileged people making changes for the oppressed (e.g., immigrant workers organizing for better wages is empowering; a bunch of upper-middle class college students leading the fight for those same immigrant workers is not so empowering). Students can help workers empower themselves by making sure workers are protected from losing their job or being harassed when speaking out or trying to organize.

grievance Any complaint workers have about their job; especially something that breaches their contract or labor law.

grievance procedure Process for workers to formally raise complaints and concerns about their compensation and treatment on the job.

indexing Annual adjustment of the living wage number to account for inflation. Usually calculated using the CPI.

living wage The lowest possible hourly wage a person can earn and still be able to cover the basic costs of living. As costs of living vary between different locations and increases with time, so does the living wage.

“Local 123” Local branches of a union are numbered and commonly referred to as “locals.” Often, locals are distinguished by which types of jobs they organize more than by geographic location, so sometimes a few locals of the same union will overlap in one city.

“Right-to-Work” states States which have passed laws prohibiting unions from negotiating union shop clauses in their contracts with employers covered by the NLRA – this means workers who benefit from being in a unionized shop don’t have to pay dues, which leads to weakened or bankrupt unions. There are currently 22 "right-to-work" states, which are often referred to as "right-to-work-for-less" states.

minority union Often in "Right to work" states, some workers have tried to build power with this non-traditional type of a union: less than 50% of the workers in the shop are in the union, which prevents the union from having most legal rights (such as the right to collectively bargain with the employer).

solidarity Unity based on common goals, interests, and sympathies among a group's members.

steward The union trains this worker to enforce the union contract, help co-workers deal with grievances and get them to meetings. Usually, stewards are elected by all the workers in a bargaining unit. In some unions they are called “shop stewards.”

student-worker solidarity Refers to student activism in support of workers’ struggles, with workers themselves taking an active leadership role (rather than students running the show). This applies both to the student campaigns with campus workers and to the anti-sweatshop work – when garment workers in El Salvador or janitors at our own universities speak out about unfair treatment, students make sure the university holds companies accountable to workers’ grievances.

subcontracting see contracting

union-busters are professional consultants or lawyers who manipulate the labor law system and advise employers on how to thwart union organizing drives or how to decertify unions. 75% of employers hire union-busters when workers want to organize. Unionbusters usually self-identify as ‘union avoidance firms,’ ‘management consultants,’ or ‘labor consultants.’

union representative Staff of a local union whose job is to represent workers in the local. Works with the steward to negotiate contracts and deal with grievances. In some unions they are called “business agents.”

wage parity “Equal pay for equal work.” Because some campus workers are directly-hired and some are contracted, a janitor cleaning one building might be earning $5/hour more than a janitor doing the exact same job in another building, for example.

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AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations)
The AFL-CIO is an organization of over 50 major national and international labor unions. It formed in 1955 as a merger of two big union conglomerates. In summer 2005 a few unions left the AFL-CIO in protest, including SEIU and HERE, as part of the “Change to Win” coalition. aflcio.org

AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) afscme.org

ARAW (American Rights At Work)
An organization fighting for democracy and workers’ rights in American workplaces. Their website has a tremendous amount of statistics and explanation about union-busting, intimidation and harassment of workers for speaking out, and the union organizing process. Check out their Resources page for an extensive labor glossary and fact sheets about “card check”, NLRB elections, and tons more! araw.org

CPI (Consumer Price Index)
The CPI is a statistic that reflects how prices change over time. Inflation is most commonly calculated using the CPI. You can find national and regional CPI’s at the Bureau of Labor Statistics website. bls.gov

CWA (Communication Workers of America)

HERE (aka UNITE HERE) Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union unitehere.org

NLRB (National Labor Relations Board)
Created by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the NLRB holds union elections in workplaces to determine whether a majority of workers want to be represented by a specific union or no union. Because the NLRB election process is convoluted and bureaucratic, there are many ways for employers to stall the process after workers have made it known that they want a union, and the longer the employer stalls the more time there is to intimidate, manipulate, and fire workers to make sure the union loses the election. “Card check” is an alternative, democratic election process. See the Resources page at araw.org for more info on the NLRB and union organizing in general.

SEIU (Service Employees International Union) seiu.org

SLAP (Student Labor Action Project)
A joint effort of Jobs With Justice (JWJ) and the United States Students Association (USSA), SLAP is a DC-based organization of student groups similar to USAS, but focuses more on connecting student activists with local labor unions. jwj.org/SLAP/slap.htm

UAW (United Auto Workers) uaw.org

ULP’s (Unfair Labor Practices) Conduct by employers that violates the National Labor Relations Act or other labor law. Usually investigated by the NLRB. Usually employers face only fines if found guilty.

USAS (United Students Against Sweatshops)
USAS is a DC-based international organization of student groups that work on a broad range of labor issues including living wage and anti-sweatshop campaigns. studentsagainstsweatshops.org

USSA (United States Student Association)
As the oldest and largest student organization in the country, USSA builds power on campuses to fight for greater access to education. usstudents.org

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