Saturday, 6 November 2010

Weasel words and what it means to cross a picket line

Journalists at the BBC are coming to the end of a 48-hour strike over pensions. The strike has disrupted much of the corporation's TV and radio output, and seen support from broadcasting personalities and other trade unions. It has also provoked considerable anger and nonsense from the right.

From Twitter, this oft-repeated piece of tripe is the one that really gets me;
Education time - you can only be a scab if you are a member of a union *and* break the strike - OK?
This particular "truth" was repeated by quite a few people besides reactionary fucknugget @headsonpoles. Most notably, @joshgardner equated referring to a non-union worker who crossed the picket line as a "scab" with the killing of David Wilkie.

He also kept insisting that these apparent non-scabs were "just doing their job," as if this made it okay. But those who are scabs are also just doing their jobs. Indeed, that's the very means by which they are breaking the strike. But this point seems lost on Gardner, for whom calling anybody who crosses the picket line but isn't in the union the wrong name is equivalent to hurling a breeze block at a taxi.

Hysteria aside, the point remains that what's being challenged is the definition of the word scab. So it might be worth looking at what exactly the definition is.

Starting with the simplest of sources, offers this;
/skæb/ Show Spelled [skab] Show IPA noun, verb, scabbed, scab·bing.


4. a worker who refuses to join a labor union or to participate in a union strike, who takes a striking worker's place on the job, or the like.
This certainly doesn't limit the word "scab" to union members. Nor does Wikipedia, which points out that scab is a derogatory term for strikebreaker. That is, "a person who works despite an ongoing strike." Further, they "are usually individuals who are not employed by the company prior to the trade union dispute, but rather hired prior to or during the strike to keep production or services going."

The word "may also refer to workers (union members or not) who cross picket lines to work." But union scabbing is a specific type of scabbing which warrants its own separate category.

WiseGEEK elucidates further;
A "scab" a derogatory term used to describe a strike breaker. The term is actually an old English insult, and has been in use to describe a despicable person since at least 1590. In the 1700s, someone who refused to join a labor union was called a scab, and by 1806, the word had reached its modern usage. More temperate labor activists and unions use the term “strike breaker” to refer to a scab, but the word is often used in speeches and literature which are designed to fire up the strikers.

Whenever workers refuse to work in order to gain concessions, it is called a strike. Strikes were an important part of the early labor movement, which agitated for safer working conditions, better pay, and more reasonable hours. These early strikes were often brutally put down, and workers had a choice between going back to work and starving. Labor unions attempted to help with this by organizing workers who paid dues which could be used to support them during a strike. A single scab could greatly weaken the cause of the union.

In response to more organized labor, companies started to recruit people who were willing to break the strike. These people might be existing employees or outside contractors. By crossing the picket line of strikers marching and holding signs for better working conditions, the scab hurts the cause of the workers. For this reason, the term “scab” started to become widespread, as a scab was someone who behaved dishonorably in 18th century culture, and retaliation against scabs could sometimes be brutal.
Of course, since Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit introduced their anti-strike laws, there are practicalities to consider.

The ban on secondary picketing, and the weakness of the labour movement that prevents open flouting of said ban, means that strikers cannot hold it against workers under a different employer who may have to cross the picket line to get to work. However, those employed by the same people have the right to respect the picket line even if not a member of the union, and unions will support them for doing so.

Thus there really is no excuse for people in the same workplace to betray their colleagues' attempts to preserve or improve any given point of their terms and conditions. Especially as, if the strike is won, the scabs will often also feel the benefit.

All of which is common knowledge in the labour movement. But then, it's not trade unionists or socialists who are arguing for this definition. It's right-wingers, scabs, and their mealy-mouthed apologists.

As Phil at A Very Public Sociologist points out;
We might live in a time when the cultural norms of the labour movement aren't as widespread as they used to be. But when anyone is facing a picket line they have a choice. They can respect the democratic will of the workers involved and aid them by refusing to cross. Or you can crap all over them and stand with management by going in. If someone - especially a celebrity - does not respect the action then they can't complain when they're taken to task for their shabby behaviour. 
And this, at last, is the point. The labour movement in Britain may be a long way from the point where workers are not divided by craft or union, nor too weak to defy laws against solidarity in the form of secondary picketing. But we want to get there. We will not do that by watering down what it means to scab or by letting people off the hook for crossing the picket line.

All that does is reduce the unions pressure valves which slow (but don't stop) the roll-back of everything we've fought for won over the last 150 years. That may be fine for the right-wingers and for the scabs who refuse to accept they're scabs, but personally I'm not having any of it.