Your Boss Is a Dick (A Glossary of Labor Terms, Translated)
By Nato GreenEditor’s note: In light of recent tensions between progressives and their allies in the union movement, comedian and former labor organizer Nato Green was moved to write this humorous glossary. Please don’t take it literally.
Whenever there’s a big labor news story, I’m deluged with calls from friends who, like most Americans, are vaguely sympathetic to unions but don’t know much about them. Corporate media reliably provide the hard-hitting investigative journalism one expects from a Bazooka Joe gum wrapper. Bad enough that there are so few union members anymore that assigning a reporter to cover labor beefs makes as much sense as putting someone on the Coptic beat. And unions don’t help themselves win over the public, what with their East German approach to public relations and earnest commitment to matching T-shirts.
For example, during the 2013 Bay Area Rapid Transit strikes many liberals I know said, “I don’t have a pension or good health insurance! Why should they?” To which I would reply, “You seem pretty mad about black people having good jobs.” This is an excellent way to win an argument while losing a friend.
So to help out my friends in organized labor, here is a glossary of key union terms, translated for everyone else:
ARBITRATION: When labor and management can’t agree, the parties may submit the disputed matter to an arbitrator. The arbitrator hears both sides and issues a binding decision. Arbitrators are former lawyers who seek employment by appearing impartial to two groups of people who hate each other’s guts. They love the phrase “split the baby,” which is exactly as gross as it sounds.
BOSS: Guy at your job who doesn’t care about you. Only cares about power and money. Person with the authority to hire or fire you. Wants you to “feel like family” and dance to his favorite Van Morrison songs at the holiday party, but “will see” if you can have a raise this year. (See GOOD BOSS.)
BUILDING TRADES: Construction unions of burly men who like to drink and look a man in the eye. They’d build concentration camps if the Nazis would agree to hire their guys.
CARD CHECK: The easy way for nonunion workers to join a union. Workers just sign a union card saying they want a union. When a majority of workers sign union cards, the union presents the cards to an impartial third party, like a street juggler, who verifies that only living current employees signed. Fewer ways for the boss to hassle workers out of unionizing, which is why bosses act like card check gives them avian flu.
CONTRACT: Collectively bargained, legally enforceable, democratically ratified agreement covering wages, benefits and working conditions. At best, the union guarantees a defined period of time (usually three to five years) of no strikes in exchange for a good deal. At worst, the noble pursuit of workplace democracy is smothered by bureaucrats and lawyers like rancid mushroom gravy on apple pie.
COOLING-OFF PERIOD: Something politicians call for to act like they’re helping without having to take a risky position.
DEFINED-BENEFIT PENSION: The good kind of pension plan. This is a retirement plan in which you are guaranteed a specific amount of pay upon retirement, according to a formula 27 people understand. These are regulated and guaranteed. Because they offer workers enough security to rise above being desperate and grateful for an occasional “cake day,” bosses hate them.
DEFINED-CONTRIBUTION PENSION: This is the 401(k)-type plan, in which the boss contributes something, the workers contribute something, and then the employees are free to gamble in the stock market with their retirement just like teeny tiny Warren Buffetts. If they happen to retire in a year when their entire nest egg is swallowed in a rapacious Ponzi scheme stock bubble, that’s the magic of the market. Savor it.
GOOD BOSS: Does not exist. (See BOSS.)
GOOD FAITH: Bad faith. The law requires the union and management only to negotiate in “good faith,” not to compromise or agree. After years of Republican rule and Democratic chickenshittery, good faith now means the opposite of good faith. Just like faith in God or director Michael Bay, good faith is not a prediction that good will transpire.
IMPASSE: When he’s done a minimal amount of “good faith” negotiating, the boss gets bored of listening to lowly workers tell him how to run his business and wants to play golf. The boss then is allowed to “declare an impasse” and impose his current proposal without further talks. Bosses love declaring stuff, especially an impasse. By stipulating their terms, they create a new starting point for future negotiations, and send a message to workers that there’s no point in a union or talks. At this juncture, etiquette dictates that the civilized worker kicks some ass. Employees may ultimately accept the last contract, but if the boss learns that he can get concessions without tasting his own blood, figuratively speaking, it will never end.
LAST, BEST, FINAL: The last proposal from the employer when it declares an impasse and institutes a new contract with its terms. It’s never good, but fortunately it is often not final either. Like most of what the boss says, two-thirds of it is lies and one-third is a technicality.MANAGER: Supervisor. Always bad. If you have a good manager, he will leave for graduate school or get promoted to a position involving more “strategic planning,” and then you will have a bad manager. It is never a job requirement that managers be able to understand other humans. The boss has an unfettered legal right upheld by decades of Supreme Court case law to hire managers who are assholes.
NATIONAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD: Supposedly the part of the federal government that protects workers’ right to unionize. Does nothing (aka “investigates”) while employers pay $500 per hour to lawyers who advise them to do illegal shit to beat the union. Eventually the NLRB reacts to aforementioned illegal shit, by which time the workers all have died of natural causes. Usually the worst punishment the NLRB inflicts on a law-breaking employer is to make it put up a sign. True story.
NURSES, TEACHERS, FIREFIGHTERS: Universally beloved figures. You can win any political dispute by using nurses, teachers and firefighters to deliver the message. Bonus points for featuring them helping small white children.
PUBLIC SECTOR: Type of government job held by actual people, rather than hacks and blowhards. Also known as “big” or “bloated” government. By sheer coincidence, these actual people tend to be women and not white. They run toward explosions to help out. They clean up junkie diarrhea on the trains at 3 a.m. My wife, who works at a county hospital, where a hobo ejaculated on her foot during a medical exam. These are the last good jobs in America and must be defended if we want a middle class.
SCABS: People who cross a picket line to work during a strike. Scabs will tell you a sob story about how they “need” to work for the “money” to pay off their ski cabin. Scabs are never workers who need money the most. There are few activities more cathartic than screaming at scabs while they are crossing a picket line. Some people think it’s mean to call people scabs, but “selfish shortsighted dick acting against his own self-interest for a quick buck” is too hard to scrawl on a car windshield.
SECRET BALLOT ELECTION: Another way for nonunion workers to join a union. Secret ballot election is your boss saying, “I would like to terrify you for the next 42 days.” Secret ballot elections always involve the highest paid woman in the company crying publicly while pleading with people not to vote for the union. Do you want your boss to be allowed to glare at you when you make any major life decision? No, you don’t.
STRIKE: Union members vote to walk off the job to cost the boss money and disrupt operations. This is the big gun for workers, and they should use it regularly. Worst thing about being on strike: going without pay. Best thing about being on strike: watching your manager try and totally fail to do your job.
UNION: Democratic organization of working people striving to improve their lives. To paraphrase Mos Def, people act like the union is some giant living in the mountains. The union is you, me, everybody. If you want to know how the union is doing, ask yourself, how am I doing? If you’re smoked out, the union’s smoked out. Next time you ask yourself what the union is doing, ask yourself, what I am doing?
UNION LOCAL: A regional chapter of the union. The local number is not supposed to make any sense.
WORK RULES: During the BART strikes in California, people kept asking, “Why are they striking over work rules? What does that even mean?” Work rules are everything about the job that is not pay and benefits. Can the boss require you to work 12 hour shifts with no notice? Can he move your job to another city? Can you object to doing something unsafe or degrading? Can you rely on anything in this world?
That the labor movement could do a far better job generating wide public enthusiasm is as certain as the linear nature of time. On the other hand, I’m tired of people who claim to be upset about our kakistocratic economy, yet hesitate to support the collective struggle of working people until a labor official sits in their lap to explain in sonnet form the union’s demands and strategy, rub their feet and make them tea.
The above definitions, which are comprehensive, exhaustive, unexaggerated, and 100 percent accurate, will begin the arduous work of building bridges between those who have unions and the rest of us, who should. With union density currently just over 11 percent, that makes us the 88 percent. “We are the give or take 88 percent” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
So from now on, no excuses. I’m talking to you, unions, and you too, everybody else. We all speak the same language now.
Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian and veteran labor organizer who wrote for “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” on FX, hosts The Nato Sessions podcasts and performs stand-up comedy every week with The Business.