Must Everything Be For Sale?

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.

— Chinese proverb

While there’s still some disagreement as to its provenance, most labor historians agree that the word “scab” — a derogatory term for a strikebreaker — was first used by the Albany Typographical Society on November 20, 1816.  Saturday marks 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 and only 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.”  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 take someone else’s job is, appropriately, called a “scab.”

Unlike Europe, Mexico and Canada, where scabs are still more or less outlawed (or, at the very least, strongly discouraged), the United States actually rejoices in 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 as to what Brandeis was saying.  When your job can be given away while you’re on strike, striking becomes tantamount to quitting.

In truth, while European trade unionists have their own problems, they are astounded and confused by this free-for-all atmosphere in the U.S.  The 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 pungent reverence for the free market, and our belief that anything that can, in principle, be bought or sold is, therefore, for sale. It was this perverse mentality that created pay toilets at the airport.

The way the Europeans, Canadians and Mexicans see it, workers have certain inalienable rights when it comes to their jobs — rights that can’t be usurped at the first sign of trouble.  The way these countries regard striking workers is analogous to the way Americans regard victims of natural disasters, such as earthquakes or floods.

People who try to steal personal property 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 dirty 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 fixing it (i.e., outlawing or greatly limiting permanent replacements) anytime soon.  Given that they couldn’t 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 and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on November 23rd, 2010 at 9:38am #

    that can be expected; i.e., no changes for better in u.s. i expect worsening for servant class.
    however, as european pie decreases and supremacist powers increase, emulating the american model appears likely to be implemented.

    the pie is still large, may be too large, in many european lands for people or servant class to stir up and seize power. tnx

  2. MichaelKenny said on November 23rd, 2010 at 10:53am #

    One of the problems specific to the US is the political scenc, which is way behind Europe. The American Revolution spawned liberalism, which was transposed to Europe via the French Revolution. During the 19th century, liberalism split into its laissez-faire and interventionist wings (the former called “paleoconservatives” in the modern US and the latter are still called liberals). Towards the end of the century, a socialist movement grew up to the left of the interventionists but was regarded largely as political pariahs. That situation was common to both Europe and the US up to the early years of the 20th century. After that, in Europe, the interventionist liberals and the greater part of the socialists came together to form modern social democracy, but the situation has remaned forzen solid in the US to this day. That, essentially, explains the difference between the present situations in Europe and the US and explains why US neo-liberals have spent the last 30 years (with limited success and therefore increasingly frantically!) trying to undermine European social democracy.

  3. hayate said on November 23rd, 2010 at 11:42pm #

    The usa is the prototype testing ground for fascist/ziofascist policy. The capitalists run their tests on the americans, since they are the mostsheep like,and then adopt the fascism to other places. This is why Europe is becoming more like the usa, both politically and economically.

    The zionists are the glue in this process, currently.

  4. bozh said on November 24th, 2010 at 9:46am #

    yes, it can be seen even with one naked eye, let alone two, that for at least 50 yrs supremacists [fascists, i fu prefer] r uniting; forming a big mafioso family.
    and as per biblical instruction: those that have not, even that little they have, will be taken away from them.
    case in point: bare life of a young american sacrificed for the glory of unlce sam. tnx