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In case natural disaster, nuclear war, and unpredictable political leaders are not enough to keep us up at night, we remain under threat by an age-old specter: the menace of the “union boss.” Just this week a Newsmax headline screamed “Union Boss: Too Early for 2018 Targets,” while the Washington Times blared “Union boss Richard Trumka focused on retaking Trump’s Rust Belt states next year.”

“Union boss.” Really?

The term carries the whiff of corruption and illegitimate power. Last time I checked, workers form a union to challenge the unbridled authority of their actual boss, and they elect leaders to represent them in negotiations with that same boss.

“Union boss,” in other words, is an oxymoron. But unlike counterparts such as “jumbo shrimp,” “act naturally,” and “the only choice,” it’s less whimsical than nefarious. “Union boss” conjures a parasite on the body economic, a meddler in the supposedly harmonious relationship between worker and employer.

As we reflect on the state of work and workers this Labor Day weekend (at least those fortunate to have a day off!), let’s take a few minutes to ponder the language of labor in our public sphere and vow to fight back against foolish phrases that undermine our ability to think critically about economic fairness and worker justice.

We’re a long way from the heyday of American unions in the 1950s and 1960s, when labor leaders like Walter Reuther, George Meany, and Jerry Wurf represented millions of members, bargained contracts that established benchmarks for the entire labor market, and wielded considerable influence with policymakers. Even then, though, “union boss” was a misnomer, since (with very few exceptions in the building trades) the power to hire, fire, promote, and discipline has always rested with employers (limited, but not overturned, by a union contract). Characterizing a labor leader as a “union boss,” then,  both inverts the reality of power and obscures it.

Now more than ever American workers need advocates to help them boost flat paychecks, tackle student debt, and resist being overworked at the expense of family and leisure time. But despite a recent Gallup poll showing that a majority of Americans favor unions (especially younger Americans), organized labor continues to suffer from the slings and arrows of employers and policymakers. And despite the fact that unions represent fewer than seven percent of private sector workers, “union bosses” dominate the media’s coverage of organized labor.

The “union boss” is omnipresent , including in ostensibly labor-friendly outlets like the New York Times (who recently deployed it to describe both United Steelworkers Local 1999 president (and Trump resistor) Chuck Jones and Actors’ Equity president Kate Shindle). “Union boss,” in other words, is now used as shorthand or synonym for labor leader or union president, insidiously stigmatizing the very people fighting for the rights, protections, and opportunities of working people.

Next time you see the term “union boss” in your news organ of choice, write them to complain and encourage the adoption of  more accurate terms like “union president,” “union leader,” and “worker advocate.”

The new boss is the same as the old one (to paraphrase The Who), so let’s fire the term “union boss,” and not get fooled (again) by words that warp meaning and terms that turn reality upside down.

Happy Labor Day!


The Michiana IWW General Membership Branch will assist workers in organizing and whatever the workers decide, we support, whether they choose another union or ours as the structure to represent them. We, of course hope to be chosen some of the time, but it is the workers' collective will we support, not the particular structure.

In a world plagued by word combinations filled with hidden and incorrect meanings, I find it hard to even recognize these misguided phrases. I am a student of Professor Graff, and I have become interested in the labor crisis and issues in America. The correction off the words "'union boss" to something like, "union leader" explained the actual purpose and need for unions. Ironically, mistakes teach, however, it appears that it is not enough to wait for someone to point out these mistakes. Instead, I should try to always learn so that I can become more critical of the words surrounding me.

Shelene -- Thanks for your feedback. Sometimes we slip into using terms created by others, and we don't even realize the explicitly negative meaning in the words. Many, many years ago, I unthinkingly deployed the term "broken homes" to refer to the households of friends whose parents had divorced, and it took one of those friends to challenge my language. I immediately realized what an awful term it was. I just googled the term, though, and I see it's still used regularly despite our culture's increasing acceptance of many forms of households. Habits die hard, sometimes.

To stay within the margins of British rock, maybe the title of 'boss' isn't such a misnomer after all. Perhaps the faults lie not in the media for referring to the union higher -ups as bosses, but maybe it lies in the power the bosses themselves have. Sure, these men up top hold no firing power, but my father hasn't paid his union dues in almost ten years because as he lost his retirement and got a 15% pay cut in '08, his teamster bosses got pay raises. The votes of the rank-and-file may not have much sway over the guys at the top. Now I concede this is only my anecdotal evidence and is not representative of TLQ today as it refers tp unions, and I in no way claim to know more about the state of the unions than Dr. Graff.

John -- Thanks for your comment. There's no doubt that unions are human institutions, and that makes them susceptible to human flaws writ organizationally (just like churches, businesses, and other human institutions). Further, especially in the USA, unions have often developed and functioned as hierarchical bodies with increasingly centralized authority (and the Teamsters have been extreme examples of this). Your father's story of pension loss and pay cuts is not an isolated case, alas, especially in the past few decades. I would argue that whatever responsibility the union holds there is likely less than his employer, BUT your point about lack of shared sacrifice (or worse) is well taken. Plenty more to mull over here, and we have the semester to keep exploring it!

I agree that the term "union boss" is an oxymoron and even thought that to myself before getting to that part in your blog. In an ideal world, the leadership of a union should act with the workers' best interest in mind. However, because the main source of income for the leadership of a union in a blue-collared industry is in fact being the leadership of said union, their heightened status seems to lead them to misuse their power by making deals with the actual bosses of the industry. It's only a matter of time before the people in power abuse it for their own gain.This leads me to believe that perhaps "union boss" is a fitting term, after all.

Jackie -- Thanks for the comment. You suggest a tension between union leaders and their members, as the former develop interests separate from the workers and inherently seek entrenched power. These tensions are real -- and not just in unions but in any membership-based organization -- so the challenges are how to forestall those trends. It's certainly tricky for a union to remain democratically-run while also squaring off with an entity -- the employer -- organized hierarchically with centralized power and dedicated not to democracy but to profit. I would like to see more rules prioritizing membership control and democratic decision-making within unions, but most unionists I know would resist more intrusion by the government -- seeing it as a double standard not applied to employers. Like I said, tricky, eh? Let's keep talking ...