On the Use and Misuse of the Term “Scab”
01 Thursday Dec 2011
Yesterday saw the biggest strike in the history of the UK. With 3 million workers refusing to labour after the government attempted to cut pensions provision – attempting to make public sector workers pay more and work longer for less pension. Unfortunately as with almost all disputes, some workers did cross picket lines and did go into work. The recognised term for such worker is “scabs” and a discussion grew up afterwards about the origins and use of the term.
It would appear that in addition to the meaning of “scab” as the crust that forms over the top of a wound, its first use to characterise a person was around 1590, where it was used to describe “a low or dispicable person”. By the late 1700s, it was being used to describe those who refused to join the organised trade union movement. In 1792, the following definition was given by an unidentified trade unionist writing in a trade union pamphlet
What is a scab? He is to his trade what a traitor is to his country…. He first sells the journeymen, and is himself afterwards sold in his turn by the masters, till at last he is despised by both and deserted by all
This definition persisted throughout the 1800s, becoming more specific to mean a strike-breaker, and one who undermined the effectiveness of action taken in a labour dispute, in particular replacing organised labour who had refused to work on principle over a disagreement with the employers, and used as a term of abuse. Jack London very famously characterised the scab as
After God had finished a rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which He made a scab … The scab sells his birthright, his country, his wife, his children, and his fellow man for an unfulfilled promise from his employer … a scab is a traitor to his God, to his country, to his family, and to his class
The modern day usage of the verb “to scab” is to undermine industrial action by refusing to participate in a strike, crossing a picket line or taking worker’s place on the job. Its origins as a general pejorative term has been lost in the intervening 250 years and its meaning now is quite specific.
It is in this context that “Voice: the Union for Educational Professionals” encouraged its members to scab. In fact, Voice not only encouraged its members to scab in this particular dispute but has scabbing built in as its “Cardinal Rule”
“Members shall not go on strike in any circumstances.’ This applies to all members. Strike action includes any kind of industrial action
In its standard letter which it produces for its members to hand to management in the event of a strike it states “I am writing on the advice of my union, Voice, to confirm that I will not be participating in the industrial action on [date]. Consequently I am available for work in line with the terms and conditions of my own contract and I understand that I can be directed to undertake some extra duties if that direction is a reasonable one in all the circumstances.
When challenged over this, they responded angrily in a blogpost (which has now been removed) to this suggestion.
Why do they think that it adds to the quality of the debate or brings a resolution closer by calling Voice members “scabs” – or worse – because they won’t be going on strike?
We respect the right of others to strike and they should respect the right of our members not to.
Words, even words which are considered offensive, have meanings, and if the meanings fit, then the use of the word is appropriate.
The definition of “rape” is to penetrate someone sexually without their consent. Julian Assange is a rapist. He denies that he is a rapist, while acknowledging that he did penetrate someone without their consent, primarily on the basis that the form of rape in which he indulged is legal. The technical legality may be true, but this does not make him not a rapist, it just makes him a legal rapist. ”Rapist” is a pejorative term, as most people believe that penetrating someone without their consent is unacceptable. Just because a term is pejorative, does not mean its not accurate.
Terms are also used in hyperbolic or metaphoric senses. Rape is one of those terms. Its used because its powerful. It is that power that Johnny Depp sought to appropriate when likening a photoshoot to rape; and when people liken changing someone’s status on facebook to rape, or associating price rises with rape. This linguistic casualness however dilutes the term and people have quite rightly got pissed off. Its a trivialisation, and part of rape culture which breeds tolerance for the unacceptable.
Similarly in this period of heightened industrial action, I have heard the word “scab” bandied about casually and humourously. There is a reason why in 2006 when Tommy Sheridan branded his former comrades “scabs”, they rounded on him furiously, and why this insult prompted one of his closest friends to hand over evidence that would later see to his conviction for perjury. Its a powerful word, an insult which is only valid if you see undermining industrial action as unacceptable. Using it inappropriately – as Sheridan did – or to convey general and minor transgressions is to appropriate its power, cheapening the word and ultimately lessening the unacceptability of the action.
A scab is a person who undermines industrial action, it is offensive for good reason. Undermining industrial action is unacceptable. Calling people scabs for hyperbolic, metaphoric or “humourous” purposes undermines the power of the word.
On the other hand, if the cap fits, it should be worn.