Word of the Month: Labor

In the United States, the first Monday in September is Labor Day, a day to celebrate and reward the achievements of the American worker. The holiday was originally proposed by the labor movement in 1882. In 1884 the holiday was moved to the current place on the calendar and it received its first government recognition by municipal governments. In 1887, the state of Oregon became the first to declare it an official state holiday. By 1894, 24 states and the federal government had recognized the holiday.

In honor of the holiday, our word of the month is labor, n.; physical exertion that supplies the material needs of the community; the body of people who provide this work. The term is from the Old French and originally meant simply physical exertion, a sense that survives today. The first sense listed here dates to 1776 when it was first used by Adam Smith. The use referring to the collective body of workers dates to 1839.

What follows is a glossary of terms associated with the organized labor movement:

agency shop, n.; a place of employment where the union represents (is the “agency” for) all workers, whether or not they are members of the union. Non-members must still pay union dues or, sometimes, are allowed to contribute an equivalent amount to a charitable organization. 1952. Cf. union shop.

apprentice, n., adj., & v.; a worker who is learning a craft or trade, to work as an apprentice; 1362, from the Old French aprendre, to learn.

arbitration, n.; a method of resolving disputes where the parties submit the matter for decision to a neutral judge; 1634, from an earlier 14th C. sense meaning an capricious decision, ultimately from the Latin via Old French. Binding arbitration is similar, except the parties agree to abide by the decision before it is made.

at-will, adj.; employment terms where an employee has no contract and works at the pleasure (“will”) of the employer.

black-leg, n. & v.; British term for one who works for an employer currently being struck, a strike-breaker; to work as a strike-breaker; from an older sense of the word meaning a general term of opprobrium; 1865. Cf. scab.

blacklist, n. & v.; a list of workers known for union activities who are not to be hired by an employer or employers in an industry; 1888, from a 17th C. sense meaning a list of criminals or undesirable persons.

blue collar, adj.; denoting a laborer or the working class; 1950, from denim work shirts commonly worn on the job, Cf. white collar.

blue flu, n.; labor action by police or other government workers not permitted to strike where large numbers take sick leave at the same time; from the blue uniforms worn by police. Cf. sick out.

brotherhood, n.; a union, esp. a railway union; 1883.

boycott, v.; to refuse to engage in commercial transactions with a business, in the context of labor until that business unionizes or otherwise reforms its labor practices; 1880, after Charles Boycott, an English land agent in Ireland who was subjected to the treatment for refusing to lower rents.

bump, v.; trans., to take the job a less senior employee; intrans., to lose one’s job to a more senior employee. 1941.

closed shop, n.; a place of employment where only union members are employed; 1904. Cf. union shop, open shop.

collective bargaining, n.; means of negotiating an employment contract where a group of employees negotiates as a single entity and all receive the same terms of employment; 1891.

company store, n.; a store owned by the employer where employees are required to shop, usually at exorbitant prices; 1872.

company union, n.; a union that exists only within a single company, with no connections to workers at other firms; 1917.

company town, n.; a town owned by a company where employees are required to live, later used metaphorically to denote a town dominated by a single employer; 1933.

craft union, n.; a union where all members are engaged in the same type of job, e.g., the Teamsters; also horizontal union; c.1926

dead time, n.; time when a worker is not actually engaged in work because preparations for it are underway, e.g., while waiting for delivery of materials; 1909.

escalator clause, n.; an element in a contract that requires an increase (or decrease) in pay or other benefits when certain conditions are met, e.g., a cost-of-living increase.

featherbedding, n.; the employment of superfluous staff, usually required by a union contract, hence the use as a verb meaning to be paid without having to work; 1921, from the metaphor of a comfortable place.

free rider, n.; a worker who benefits from a union’s collective bargaining without joining the union; 1941.

fringe benefit, n.; a perquisite of employment that is granted by the employer in addition to wages, e.g., a restaurant worker who gets free or discounted meals; 1952.

general strike, n.; a strike by all workers in an industry or by workers in key industries across a nation; 1810.

guild, n.; a medieval association, often of tradesmen, formed to promote the interests of the group; before 1000, from a coalescing of several Germanic roots into a single Old English word; starting in 1827, the word was revived for the naming of modern organizations.

hiring hall, n.; a union-run placement center where employers would register jobs which would be assigned to members by the union by either rotation or seniority.

hot cargo, n.; goods produced by a plant that is under a strike or by an employer that refuses to hire union members; some union contracts permit union members to refuse to handle such cargo.

hot goods, n.; goods produced in violation of labor laws.

independent union, n.; a union that is not affiliated with a national organization and not organized by the employer.

industrial union, n.; an organization of all the workers in a particular industry, regardless of their craft, e.g., the United Auto Workers; 1923; also vertical union.

informational picketing, n.; picketing to draw attention to a labor dispute without going on strike.

job action, n.; activities undertaken by workers as part of a labor dispute, can include work slowdowns and strikes.

journeyman, n.; a skilled tradesman who works as an employee of another; 1463, from the itinerant nature of such work.

local union, n.; a chapter of a national union.

lockout, v. & n.; to shut down a plant in response to a strike; 1868.

master, n.; a skilled tradesman who employs apprentices and journeymen; Old English, from the Latin magister.

mediation, n.; intercession by a third party to resolve a dispute; before 1387, from the Anglo Norman mediacion.

minimum wage, n.; the lowest wage that can be legally paid to an employee.

open shop, n.; a business where employment is not conditioned on union status. Cf. closed shop.

outlaw strike, n.; a work stoppage that violates a collective bargaining agreement that is currently in force.

picket, n. & v.; a group of striking employees who patrol the premises of a business to deter others from working or doing business there, to act as a picket; 1867 in the labor sense, from the military sense of a sentry, ultimately from the French picquet, a pointed stake used to mark a boundary or form a fence.

pork chopper, n.; an employee of the union, from the sense that they are well fed by the dues of the rank and file members.

raid, v.; to attempt to enroll members already belonging to another union.

recognize, v.; to accept a union as the legitimate agent for collective bargaining.

right to work, adj.; term used to describe laws prohibiting the requirement to join a union as a condition of employment; 1958.

sabotage, n.; the malicious destruction of an employer’s property as part of a job action; 1910, from the French sabot, a metal shoe used to hold railroad tracks in place, uprooted during railway strikes.

scab, n.; derogatory term for a worker who takes the place of a striking worker; 1777 in the labor sense, in use as a general term of abuse since c.1590, metaphorical use from the sense of a pustule or crust over a wound. Cf. black-leg.

secondary, adj.; used to denote action against a third party used to bring pressure in a labor dispute, e.g., a secondary boycott might target a firm’s customers, a secondary strike a firm’s suppliers.

shop steward, n.; union member in a shop or department elected to handle union matters and act as spokesman for that group; 1904. Steward is from an Old English term for an official who manages the affairs of a manor or household.

sick out, n.; job action where employees feign illness and do not report for work; 1970; formed from an analogy with walk out.

sit-down, adj.; used to describe strikes or protests where the strikers or protesters occupy the premises; 1936.

solidarity, n.; unity of interests and aspirations, esp. of trade unions; from the French solidarité, 1841. Also recently used to translate the name of the anti-communist Polish trade union movement founded in 1980.

strike, v. & n.; to cease working in protest of pay or working conditions; 1768, originally a reference to sailors striking, or lowering, the yards on ships to prevent them from putting to sea.

sweatshop, n., place of employment that demands long hours and provides low pay; 1895

sweetheart contract, n.; derogatory term for an agreement that grants concessions to the employer or benefits to the union at the expense of the rank-and-file members; 1959.

sympathetic strike, n.; a work stoppage by employees at one firm or plant done in support of a work stoppage at another.

union, n.; an association of workers that promotes the general welfare of all members; 1833.

union shop, n.; a place of employment that requires union membership as a condition of employment; 1904.

whipsaw, v.; to engage is a series of surprise work stoppages against an industry, striking at one employer after another.

white collar, adj.; denoting non-manual labor; 1919, from the collars of shirts worn by clerical workers. Cf. blue collar.

wildcat strike, n.; a work stoppage that is not sanctioned by the union; 1937, from a 19th C. sense of wildcat meaning a rash or risky venture.

work to rule, v.; to scrupulously observe the terms of one’s contract and nothing more as a form of job action; 1950.

yellow dog, adj.; opposed to trade unions, e.g., a yellow-dog contract prohibits workers from joining a union; 1904.

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