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According to labor historians, the word “scab”—used as a derogatory term for a strikebreaker—was coined by the Albany Typographical Society on November 20, 1816. This Saturday will mark its 194th anniversary.
While you occasionally hear the word misused or applied generically (e.g., calling a non-union facility a “scab shop”), there are two accepted definitions of the term: (1) a union employee who continues to work during a strike, and (2) a person who accepts a job at a union facility that is being struck.
In time of war, a pacifist who’d rather empty bedpans and change soiled sheets is called a “conscientious objector.” In time of war, a person who betrays his own country by taking up arms for the enemy is called a “traitor.” And an employee who refuses to join his fellow union members in a legally mandated strike, or a person who crosses a picket line in order to steal someone else’s job is, appropriately, called a “scab.”
Unlike Europe, Mexico and Canada, where scabs are more or less outlawed, the United States actually encourages this form of economic treason. We openly flout the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who said, “Labor cannot, on any terms, surrender the right to strike.” And make no mistake about what Brandeis was saying. When your job can be given away while you’re on strike, striking becomes tantamount to quitting.
In truth, European trade unionists are astounded and confused by the free-for-all mentality of the U.S. This bizarre arrangement where a worker’s established role in society can be traded away promiscuously—can be placed on the market and sold to another party like a cheap commodity—blows their minds.
Clearly, they don’t understand America. They don’t understand our mindset, our deep-seated entrepreneurial impulses, our categorical reverence for the free market, our belief that anything that can, in principle, be bought or sold is, therefore, automatically, for sale. It’s this mentality that created pay toilets at the airport.
The way the Europeans, Canadians and Mexicans see it, workers have certain fundamental rights when it comes to their jobs—rights that aren’t usurped at the first sign of trouble. Strikes are treated as inevitable family squabbles. These countries regard striking workers as analogous to the way Americans regard victims of natural disasters, such as earthquakes or floods.
People who try to steal your belongings from your home after you’ve been forced to evacuate are the lowest form of creature—scavengers looking to make a quick profit from your misfortune. We call them called “looters,” and looting is against the law. It’s fair to say that the bulk of the civilized world considers scabs to be “job looters.”
All of which makes the sanitized term “replacement worker” (which is what the American media call scabs) one of the most repellent euphemisms in existence. Our European brothers and sisters honestly can’t understand how we accept such a thing.
From their perspective, calling a scab a “replacement worker” is as absurd as calling a traitor an “alternative patriot.” No flag-waving American would stand for that kind of verbal legerdemain when it came to defending one’s country; and no one should stand for it when it comes to labor disputes. But we do.
And don’t count on the Congress doing anything about it, such as outlawing or greatly limiting permanent replacements. Given that they couldn’t even get something as tame as the EFCA (Employee Free Choice Act) passed, what chance has the European model got?
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org