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?