A Glossary of Union Vocabulary

AAUP: Association of American University Professors

AFT: American Federation of Teachers

IFT: Illinois Federation of Teachers


Authorization Card: To obtain a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) conducted election, the union must file a petition supported by a showing of interest from a minimum of 30% of the employees in the group that the union seeks to represent (the AFT typically files at 60-65% support). Unions typically use authorization cards, individual forms in which a worker states that they wish to be represented by the union, as evidence of employee support. The cards must be signed and dated within one year of when the union files its petition to be valid; if a worker later signs a card for another union the NLRB will not count the card in support of either union.


Bargaining Unit: A bargaining unit, in labor relations, is a group of employees with a clear and identifiable ‘community of interests’ who are represented by a single labor union in collective bargaining and other dealings with administration. The size of a bargaining unit is not necessarily the same as the number of grad workers on a campus. A single department could be identified as a ‘community of interests’, but it would have very little power to bargain effectively. As a rule the AFT does include all eligible grad workers, but this is not the case with all unions.


Contract: A union contract (also called a Collective Bargaining Agreement) is a legal document that contains provisions related to workers’ rights and benefits. Contracts are the result of bargaining between the union and the employer beginning with the union’s initial proposal and followed by negotiations on items that affect the members.

Until an employee has a union contract they are considered ‘at will’. At will means that the employer can fire an employee for any reason without needing to give any explanation. By law a union contract is the only agreement which takes priority over at will employment, allowing union members due process if their firing was unfair.


Dues:  Union dues are a regular payment of money made by members of unions. The dues rate is voted on by members and is the cost of membership; dues are used to fund the various activities which the union engages in (contract negotiation, legal fees, training leaders, conferences for members, etc.). Dues are not charged until after a contract has been negotiated. In Illinois member dues cannot be used for political work, a separate voluntary fund called COPE (Committee on Political Education) is used for broader political engagement.


Local:  A local union, often shortened to local, is a locally based union organisation which forms part of a larger national or international union. Different unions grant varying levels of autonomy to their local affiliates.


Petition: The document by which employees communicate their desires (for example, to form a union or report unfair labor practices) to the National Labor Relations Board.


Union: A union is an organized group of workers who collectively use their strength to have a voice in their workplace. Through a union, workers have a right to impact wages, job security, benefits, workplace health and safety, professional development and other work-related issues.


Union Election:  After a petition and associated documents are filed, NLRB agents will then investigate to make sure the Board has jurisdiction, the union is qualified, and there are no existing labor contracts or recent elections that would bar an election. Shortly after the petition is filed, the employer is required to post a Notice of Petition for Election in conspicuous places, including all places where notices to employees are customarily posted. If the employer customarily communicates with employees in the petitioned-for unit through electronic means, the employer must also distribute the Notice of Petition for Election electronically to those employees. The NLRB agents will seek an election agreement between the employer, union, and other parties setting the date, time, and place for balloting, the ballot language, the appropriate unit, and a method to determine who is eligible to vote. A union that receives a majority of the votes cast is certified as the employees’ bargaining representative and is entitled to be recognized by the employer as the exclusive bargaining agent for the employees in the unit. Failure to bargain with the union at this point is an unfair labor practice.