Sunday, 20 November 2011

On scabbing, stereotypes and liberal outrage

Those of you who don't spend an inordinate amount of time on Twitter may not have heard of a freelance journalist called Lisa Ansell. However, she has spent the past few days arguing vociferously that the use of the word "scab" is divisive and attacking those who thought otherwise. After some consideration, I've decided to fling myself into yet another internet flame war.

I've written on this subject before. Most recent was my response to the no-strike union Voice on libcom.org, however I have also written on it in relation to last year's BBC strike and more generally as part of a series on anarcho-syndicalism. Each of those articles talked of the power relations between workers and bosses, the economic impact of striking, and how scabbing undermines that. I won't repeat myself on that point as I believe those posts cover it sufficiently. Here, I wish to respond to Ansell's specific allegations.

Before I go further, I should point out to anybody unfamiliar with my writing or what I do that I'm a union rep in PCS and will be striking on 30 November. I live with my partner and I work primarily to pay the bills, keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. I'm working class and would feel the impact of a strike just as much as anybody else that I work with - it's no gap year adventure for me.

The reason I make this point is because, in response to criticism and hostility after her original post, Ansell wrote a follow up. In it, she refers to how "a new left of privileged students spent the year shouting about solidarity, delighting in the language of a working class who haven't existed for decades." The word scab "sounds different with a posh edinburgh lilt or eloquent London drawl" and this is just "radical politics as understood by post-adolescent physicists who until this year acted out political fantasies meekly at the Green Party Conference." To say that this is patronising, contemptible bullshit is to be polite.

Ansell offers no examples of how workers "have been drowned out by their ludicrous movement," by which she means last year's student protests. Nor does she expand on who is demanding "reciprocation of solidarity that has never been shown." Instead, all we have is empty platitudes and self-righteousness, most bizarre being the statement "if 'scab' is a word hovering near your lips before industrial action has even commenced, aimed at people you don't know, it probably more accurately describes you."

The problem here is that Ansell isn't talking about a specific tendency on the left, a specific group who can be identified as middle class adventure activists. We all know that they exist, and that they can be as patronising as fuck even when their motives are good. But in my experience (and I realise I'm talking anecdotally) they are also the ones who shy away from serious confrontation. It is the middle class liberals who tell us in the Occupy protests that the cops are on side, or whose idea of anti-fascism is holding a placard and chanting, and likewise their response to a strike will be detached and academic. The people you see yelling scab are the same ones you see fighting the fascists and physically repelling the cops - the pissed off working class, whose jobs and lives are on the line and who just don't want to put up with this shit any more.

To put it bluntly, from a public sector worker who'll be losing a day's pay on November 30 to a freelance journalist who won't, it's those of us who are actually taking the strike action who get pissed off by those who don't. This isn't an abstract notion. It's our action they're undermining, our colleagues who are betraying us, our bosses who get to keep the workplace open despite the withdrawal of labour.

Even more tenuous is Ansell's assertion - at the end of her original post - that shouting "scab" at strikebreakers automatically means "the left shouting scab at the women they have marginalised all year, while regenerating a cause on their hardship."

Yes, there is an argument to be had about unions being "boys' clubs" despite a majority female membership. But this is a general point about leadership and doesn't necessarily translate to the picket lines. The most active people in building for the strike on November 30 in my branch, for example, have been women. Whilst they are under-represented in the leadership of trade unions, it is an astonishing and patronising level of sexism to gauge from this that women are somehow less radical or more likely to scab. It may be true that "striking costs mothers and children more than recently radicalised post grad students enjoying their early experience of paid work," but this doesn't in reality translate into the former crossing picket lines as the latter shout "scab."

As a final point, it's worth remembering that the insults and the animosity only come once the picket line is crossed. Before that moment, pickets will talk to those who come to work and try to persuade them not to go in. We'll even sometimes be succesful, and I've seen a workers cheered after they turned around and refused to cross the picket line. This is something Ansell should really know, given that her most recent post promotes Solidarity Federation's "don't cross picket lines" leaflet.

If Ansell is really concerned about division and the breakdown of solidarity as she claims, I'd suggest she puts her effort into convincing more people to stick together. Not defending those who break strikes and attacking those willing to take action for not responding to such betrayal with a shit-eating-grin and a slap on the back.