Union Power, Kyriarchy and the Scab

The last blogpost generated quite a bit of discussion in various places about the use of the term “Scab”, the power it holds and when its use is appropriate.

Only two schools in Glasgow were open on N30, both heavily picketed with lively and cheerful, if a bit damp, strikers.  A number of non-unionised workers crossed the picket lines and as might be expected they were challenged about whether they really wanted to work when other people were losing a day’s pay for the terms and conditions that they too enjoy.  People crossing picket lines and entering  unionised workplaces during an industrial dispute can generally be divided into three categories.


Firstly there are those who are supportive, but genuinely dont think that they are protected by the union for disciplinary action if they participate in the strike.  Oftentimes this is the guidance that they have been given by management. If there is a recognised union at their workplace which has undertaken a ballot ALL staff, regardless of which union or none are protected for industrial action. This is a case of education and information.  It is quite understandable that people fear for their jobs, and don’t want to risk them without the backing of union membership, which would support them in the event of a disciplinary being called.  Most unions have a lie-in period, where they will not support a member through a disciplinary hearing until length of time has elapsed, which is why this group should join whatever union is prominent in their workplace now, so that if management do attempt to discipline someone for protected industrial action, they will have the backing and solidarity of the union.

Secondly there are people are neutral or even fairly supportive but don’t want to lose a day’s pay/don’t see what it has to do with them/aren’t going to be affected. These are the ones to be convinced – at this stage of the struggle it is probably best a softly softly approach is taken, but it is worth pointing out that they are scabbing on their colleagues…and that its really not a nice thing to do. N30 was a one-day stoppage,  the loss of a day’s pay can be absorbed by most people, but in the run up to Christmas the effects will be felt, particularly for those on low pay or those who are already struggling.  People don’t go on strike just for the hell of it, they strike because their employers are taking the piss and abusing the power that they have over them.

And then there is the final group of workers who are hostile/dont give a fuck about anyone else because they arent going to be affected. You’re not going to win them round because they have an “I’m alright Jack attitude”.  Seeing an opportunity for overtime, to do the job that they love, brownie points with the employer or career advancement they swan past the picket lines.  The problem is when this group is sufficient to undermine the action to the extent that the people in the second group start joining them because they think “What the fuck, its not going to do any good anyway.” – these are the real scabs.

Which brings me rather neatly to @petefaint.  Pete wrote a blogpost, in which he declared he was not a scab…and then went on to describe how he had not only gone into a unionised workplace but had done *extra* work that day, boasting that N30 was the longest day that he had worked, undermining the efforts of all of those lecturers who doubtless would have loved the chance to have extra tutorial time with their students in a relaxed environment without the pressures of the day to day grind.  He claims that his scabbing is principled, that it might well be, but despite asking him via twitter what these principles are, no explanation was forthcoming.  Someone who knows him personally assured me that those principles were those of generosity and compassion, but I don’t see any generosity and compassion in his explanation of why he scabbed.  The majority of those on strike were low paid female workers, most earning a great deal less than a university lecturer and being shafted left, right and centre by this government.

A twitter spat broke out over the blogpost when I asked him about these principles, but no explanation was forthcoming instead he called me “mad”, “crazy”, “an idiot” and “a total cunt”.   Now I might well be all of those things, but Pete doesn’t know me from Adam and its unclear on what basis he is making those judgements.  On the other hand, I consider him a scab because he went into a unionised workplace, undermined a strike and then boasted about it on a public blog.  He then wrote a further blogpost, again declaring he was not a scab and again boasting that he had put in two hours extra work on N30.  Words have meanings, and the meaning of the word “scab” is one who undermines industrial action.

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One issue which has come up tho, is are there principles on which it would be right to strike-break; where it would be right to scab.  Situations like that have indeed arisen.

The Unions do not always act in the interest of the wider working class, for nearly 200 years women have been agitating for equal pay, oftentimes fighting not only their employers, but also the sexism of the unions which have undermined womens’ efforts to achieve this, arguing that giving women equal pay would undercut the wages of male workers who required a “family wage”.  This opposition has not been universal – the first known agitation in 1832 was supported by male workers and as early as 1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union supported women’s right to paid the appropriate rate

the low wages of women are not so much the voluntary price she sets upon her labour, as the price which is fixed by the tyrannical influence of male supremacy

Nevertheless, progress was slow.  In  1874 male workers at Brinton’s Carpet Factor in Kiddieminister went on strike in protest at women being hired to work the looms and as recently as the 1970s just prior to the introduction of the Equal Pay Act, male trade unionist were still agitating to maintain pay differentials between men and women to avoid the undermining of wages through female employment

W.E.B DuBois wrote about the plight of the Black worker pitted against the racist policies of the labour unions in the US at the turn of the last century, which systematically excluded black workers from many professions.  Most of the skilled and higher paid trades of the time operated closed shops and systematically refused to admit Black workers.

 If, braving this outrageous attitude of the Unions, he succeeds in some small establishment or at some exceptional time at gaining employment, he must be labeled as a “scab” throughout the length and breadth of the land

More recently a dispute at the Lynsey Oil Refinary, over the introduction of immigrant labour, had a nasty racist undertone.  Trade unionists are perfectly correct to insist that proper rates are paid for employment; they are right to demand that wages are not undercut by bringing in foreign labour, but these arguments should be firmly rooted in oppositional conciousness and the demand for proper pay and conditions for all workers regardless of national identity.  The xenophobia expressed by some at Lynsey undermined the power of the strike and its message that wages and conditions should be upheld.

This is why equalities work is so critical within the Trade Union movement.   Workers must stand together, male, female, Black, white, pink with purple spots.  Pitting one section of worker against another is to undermine everything for which we fight.  So that when we do fight, we fight tooth and claw against the employers.

One of the reasons I wrote the earlier blogpost, as I explained in it, was that I had heard the word “scab” used casually and trivially.  On questioning some of the young ‘uns said that the word didn’t really have shock value any more and that people didn’t really know what it meant.  I suspect that’s a generational thing.  Some of the folks I was talking to weren’t born when the miners were starved back to work in 1985, have never seen an all-out strike and don’t really understand what a scab is.  I suspect they might be about to find out.

N30 may have been the largest dispute in history, but it certainly wasnt the most militant – there are a fuck-tonne of unions lining up for industrial action, from practically the entire public sector, to the JIB Sparks, to the Unilever workers, to Ford we are entering into a critical phase of industrial action.  At the moment people are fairly tolerant of scabbing as the one day stoppages every few months are relatively easy to absorb. If anything goes to all out strike, the resentment that will be seen toward those crossing picket lines will be immense, as workers on strike start losing their savings, getting behind on their bills, losing their homes and relying on strike-funds for basic essentials.

When you get people scabbing, and striking workers seeing them drive around in the kind of car that you had to sell, watch them as they add a conservatory to a house like the one that you had that got repossessed, watching them skipping into work without a financial care in the world – the bitterness of knowing that if you win, after all that you’ve personally lost through the dispute, they will reap the benefits will unleash an anger that is rarely seen.

Then people will know what a scab is, how powerful a term of abuse it is and how much hatred there is towards them.

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