Labor Watch

Scab Lists

Unions target workers for campaigns of hate, sometimes violence

[PDF here]

Unions have long sought to demonize replacement workers, union members who cross picket lines, and others whom the unions label “scabs.” Sometimes, this takes the form of implied or explicit threats and other efforts to intimidate. Now the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board is pressuring employers to give home addresses and other personal information to unions, while the Internet is providing new ways to publicize “scab lists” and make people toe the union line.

In the annals of labor history, few characters are more reviled than the so-called “scab”—the worker who refuses to join a union, or worse, whether or not a member, crosses a picket line during a strike. Unions have long have practiced the dark art of gathering the identities of such persons and exposing them to shame and intimidation among fellow workers. Often, names are compiled on a “scab list.” Over the years, unions have made effective use of the hatred of scabs, to maximize their bargaining advantage. You may have seen this description:

After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a scab. A scab is a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a water brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles. When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and Angels weep in Heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of hell to keep him out. No man has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with.

Jack London, the early-20th Century fiction writer and journalist, is supposed to have said that. He didn’t, but the passage is often cited by union activists to express their opinion of replacement workers and picket-line crossers.

The word scab suggests something unsightly and diseased. That’s the point. The intent is to inflict intense feelings of fear, shame, and self-loathing upon persons who choose to go to work at wages less than those demanded by a union, to tell dissenting individuals that they must join the union-driven majority or face frightful consequences. A union anti-scab campaign does more than simply express disapproval; it enables full-scale character assassination. Such campaigns may produce assaults, vandalism, and among the targets, medical problems and suicide attempts.

The term comes from Latin scabere, “to scratch,” and from Old Norse for the crust that forms over a wound or sore. For more than 800 years, it’s been applied to people who are untrustworthy or despicable. In 18th Century England, laborers used it to denounce their peers who were unwilling to join a strike. [Click HERE for the rest of the article.]

Carl F. Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz heads the Organized Labor Accountability Project for the National Legal and Policy Center in Falls Church, Virginia.
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