Labor Lingo Defined

This is a glossary of words and phrases often used in union halls, meetings, and at your work site. If you hear a word or phrase not on this list, feel free to ask us about it.


The American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which is a federation of over 50 labor unions in the United States, representing over 9 million American workers.


See “Grievance Arbitration” and “Interest Arbitration.”

Bargaining Unit

A group of employees in a given workplace that has sufficient commonality of interest to constitute a unit for purposes of collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) or similar federal, state or local agency usually defines a bargaining unit.

Bargaining Team

The union or employer negotiators who will actually be at the bargaining table and actively involved in the negotiations towards a contract. SEIU Local 99 members elect their co-workers who will represent them on the bargaining team.

Card Check

Process through which workers demonstrate their desire to form a union, usually be signing a form; the employer must remain neutral.


Official recognition by a labor relations board that an employee organization is the exclusive representative for all employees in an appropriate bargaining unit for the purpose of collective bargaining.

Collective Bargaining

A method of determining terms and conditions of employment through negotiation between representatives of the employer and the union representing employees.

Collective Bargaining Agreement or Contract

A formal written agreement over wages, hours and conditions of employment entered into by an employer and the union representing employees in the bargaining unit.

Duty of Fair Representation

The union’s obligation, as the exclusive bargaining representative of a group of employees, to represent fairly all employees in the bargaining unit in grievance handling as well as contract negotiations.

Exclusive Representation

The employee organization that, as a result of certification by a labor board, has the right to be the sole collective bargaining agent of all employees in an appropriate bargaining unit.

Free Rider

An employee who fails to join the union that has negotiated the contract over his or her wages and working conditions, all the while benefiting from that contract.

Fringe Benefits

Vacations, holidays, insurance, medical benefits, pensions and other economic benefits that are provided to employees under the union contract; these are in addition to direct wages.

Grandfather Clause

A contract provision specifying that employees on the payroll before a specified time will retain certain rights and benefits even though newer employees are not entitled to these rights.


A procedure described in the contract to remedy work-related problems such as abuse of employee rights or contract violations.

Grievance Arbitration

A dispute resolution process whereby a neutral third party–the arbitrator– hears a grievance and makes a decision that is usually both final and binding on both parties.

Interest Arbitration

A procedure used to settle matters in contract disputes between the union and management in some bargaining units covering specific occupation groups that, by statute, are prohibited from striking. These occupations are usually related to public safety (e.g., hospital workers, police, firefighters, etc.).

Just Cause

A reason an employer must give for any disciplinary action it takes against an employee.  An employer must show just cause only if a contract requires it.  Most contracts have just cause requirements which place the burden of proof for just cause on the employer.

Labor Board

Quasi-judicial agency set up under national or state labor relations acts. Its duties include defining appropriate bargaining units, conducting elections to determine if workers want union representation, certifying unions to represent employees, and hearing and adjudicating complaints by either the union or the employer charging unfair labor practices.


A suspension of work initiated by the employer as the result of a labor dispute. A lockout is the employer counterpart of a strike. Used primarily to pressure employees to accept the employer’s terms in a new contract.

Lost Time

When official union time is granted to an employee by the local to perform representational or other functions on behalf of the union she or he is entitled to lost wages.  This time is granted without charge to personal leave or loss of pay, when the employee would otherwise be in a duty status and is considered only during scheduled hours of work.

Made Whole

A catchall phrase used in grievance and other legal action where a remedy is sought from an employer. Often used in discharge and discipline cases where the union seeks to have a worker, who had been wrongly discharged or disciplined, returned to work and reimbursed all wages, benefits, or other conditions lost due to an employer’s unjustified action.


A person usually employed by a union, whose work is to train and support employees who want to form a union or address worksite issues.

Past Practice

A customary way of doing things not written into the collective bargaining agreement. Past practices can sometimes be enforced through the grievance procedure if the practice has been longstanding, consistent, and accepted by the parties.

Pay Equity

A term addressing the idea that female-dominated jobs or professions that have been traditionally undervalued, based on levels of responsibility and required education, should be raised to pay levels of comparable jobs traditionally held by men.

Phone Banking

The organized telephoning of large numbers of members to inform them of a union policy, political activity/action or to gather information. This is often done by member volunteers who come into the union hall and telephone members during a certain time period.


Workers carrying signs and/or distributing literature protesting working conditions or actions taken by the employer. Picketing occurs during a strike or as an “informational” picket. The purpose of the tactic is to put pressure on the employer by informing the public and other workers about unfair working conditions or other issues.

Rank and File

The members of a union. This term does not apply to the leadership of a union.


Formal approval of a newly negotiated contract/agreement by vote of the union members affected.

Representation Election

A vote conducted by an appropriate labor board or agency to determine whether a majority of the workers in a previously established bargaining unit want to be represented by a given union.


A person who continues to work, or who accepts employment, while workers are on strike. By filling workers’ jobs, scabs may weaken or break the strike.


Preference accorded employees, based on length of service with an employer, in such areas as layoff, recall, promotion, transfer, vacation accrual, scheduling, shift assignment, etc.

Shop or Site Steward

The union representative of a group of fellow employees who carries out duties of the union within the workplace. Example: Handling grievances, recruiting new members and monitoring compliance with the contract. The steward usually is either elected by other union members or appointed by higher union officials. The steward usually remains an employee while handling union business. Some release time (with or without pay) may be available to stewards under specific language in many collective bargaining contracts.


A concerted act by a group of employees who withhold their labor for the purpose of affecting a change in wages, hours or working conditions.

Tentative Agreement or “TA”

If an agreement is reached in collective bargaining negotiations between the employer and the exclusive representative for a group of employees (e.g. union), it is called a Tentative Agreement or TA. because it is not put into effect until each side has ratified (or voted to approve) it.  In a school district, board members typically ratify for the district and union members (generally voting rights are only extended to dues paying members of the union) vote to ratify for the union.

Unfair Labor Practice

An employer or union practice forbidden by the National Labor Relations Board, the Civil Service Reform Act (for federal workers) or state and local laws, subject to court appeal. It often involves the employer’s efforts to avoid bargaining in good faith. Other examples may include management’s failure to provide relevant information the union has requested for either bargaining or grievance handling purposes or management’s repeated failure to implement grievance settlements or arbitration awards. Some state laws may use the term “prohibited practices.”

Wrongful Termination

A civil action or lawsuit brought by a discharged employee against the employer, alleging that the ter- mination violated or breached a statutory right, express public policy, or an employment contract.

Adapted from:
“A Glossary of Labor Lingo” – AFSCME Next Wave toolkit
“A Glossary of Labor Lingo and Acronyms” – AFGE Y.O.U.N.G. Resources