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Your Boss Is a Dick (A Glossary of Labor Terms, Translated)

Posted on Dec 11, 2013

By Nato Green

Editor’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.

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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.


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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.

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