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The language of labor

The language of labor

September means back to school for students, but for those of us in unions, it is also the celebration the American Labor Movement.

In 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed the law making Labor Day, celebrated on the first Monday in September, a federal holiday. That’s also the year that Labour Day was established in Canada, where the word gets that extra “u”.

By the time Cleveland established the federal holiday, 27 states had already recognized Labor Day, beginning with Oregon in 1887. But the first US Labor Day celebration was even earlier, on 5 September 1882. The anniversary of that first parade, when ten thousand workers marched from New York’s City Hall to Union Square, is a good opportunity for us to take a look at some of the language of the labor movement.

Let’s start with union. The word was borrowed from French and had a whole host of historical meanings: political, ecclesiastical, matrimonial, and sexual. It came to refer to organizations of workers in the early 1800s: the first labor-related citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1818, referring to the General Union of Trades, founded in Manchester, England. The General Union of Trades was also known as the Philanthropic Society, a name chosen to hide the organization’s real purpose in a time when trade unions were still illegal.   

The term strike has an especially curious history. Strike comes not from hitting or from baseball, but from nautical terminology. To strike a ship’s sail or a mast meant to lower it. A citation from 1769 refers to sailors who “read a paper, setting forth their grievances” and afterwards “went on board the several ships in that harbour, and struck their yards, in order to prevent them from proceeding to sea.” In 1769, we also find that “the hatters struck, and refused to work till their wages are raised.” The term strike also referred to taking down tents or encampments, and in 1793 a group of artisans similarly “struck their poles, and proceeded in a mutinous manner to Guildhall, respecting the granting of their licenses.” By the early 1800s, strike was common use, and over the years we learn of general strikes, outlaw strikes, sit-down strikes, slow-down strikes, sympathy strikes, wildcat strikes, and even extensions like hunger strikes, consumer strikes, rent strikes, and sexual strikes. 

The labor movement also has its specialized terminology, and many union contracts—also known as collective bargaining agreements—contain definitions specific to their interpretation. Some terminology is general to the labor-management relations, such as good faith bargaining, which refers to the legal requirement that parties in a collective bargaining relationship meet and negotiate at reasonable times and places, and with a willingness to reach an agreement. There is also the term grievance, which is not just any perceived wrong but a formal complaint filed by a union alleging a violation of a bargaining agreement.  

For a helpful glossary of terms, historical and contemporary, you can visit the U.S. Department of Labor website, and for more labor history, there is The Oxford Encyclopedia of American Business, Labor, and Economic History.

Featured image: “Union Square, New York” by John Bachmann. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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