Scabs, Semantics, and Working People


“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet.” –from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Over the years, the incendiary term “scab,” when used in the context of Labor-Management relations, has come to be carelessly and egregiously misapplied. Even people who should, by rights, be familiar with its definition, seem to be confused by it. Bless their hearts, while their sentiments and ideology are in the right place, their terminology is in error.

Consider: Saying that the vehemently anti-union Walmart Corporation hires only “scab labor,” or that outside contractors being used for piece-work in the manufacturing sector—the bane of unionized mechanics and electricians everywhere—are “scabs” is both inaccurate and misleading. The proper nomenclature for the aforementioned employees is simply “non-union workers.”

A scab is an entirely different creature. A scab is a person who crosses a union picket line and takes over the job of a striking union worker. Scabs come in two varieties, both of them insidious and foul. You have your unaffiliated scab—which is a non-union person who hires on as a “replacement” for striking workers—and you have your affiliated scab, which is a union member who willingly and traitorously crosses his own union’s picket line.

As for the term “replacement worker,” one cannot imagine a more misleading or potentially destructive job title. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Labor cannot, on any terms, surrender the right to strike,” and he couldn’t have been more accurate. For the working class, the right to strike is everything. It’s the sole “weapon” they have in their arsenal in the on-going, eternal conflict between Labor and Management.

Simply put, withholding one’s labor is the only leverage a working man has at his disposal. Shouting and pounding the table during contract negotiations can only get you so far. It’s the fear of going on strike that truly gets management’s attention. And of course, the notion of a strike’s potency being neutralized by the implementation of replacement workers has always been anathema to organized labor.

For those readers who happen to be fans of professional football, a prime example of an “unaffiliated scab” is Sean Payton, currently the head coach of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. In 1987, the NFL’s Players’ Association (NFLPA) went on strike, seeking better pensions, free agency, severance, and safer artificial turf conditions.

The players put up picket lines in front of every stadium on the country. And even though the strike was legal, and these NFL players had a long list of items on their agenda, the gutless and greedy Sean Payton nonetheless crossed an authorized picket line in order to take a job that rightfully belonged to a striking player. In short, he became a scab.

There was time in our social history when the word “scab” really counted for something. Even when it was misapplied (as noted in the earlier examples), it resonated. It stung. It packed a wallop. Unfortunately, today, for a myriad of reasons, referring to someone as a “scab,” even when the designation is right on the mark, can result in a backlash. Not only do people not to want to “punish” a scab, they reserve their criticism for the person using the label.

True story. When I have properly referred to “scab labor” (replacement workers used during a strike), I’ve had people—good people, pro-union people—chastise me for using the word. I have been scolded for it. Somehow, weirdly, people have come to view the word “scab” as not only derogatory but politically incorrect, not unlike a racial slur or referring to women as “broads.”

I am not sure whether to laugh or cry at the apparent shift in public sentiment. How did this happen? We can now use the F-word almost as a form of punctuation, with people barely raising an eyebrow, yet we can’t call a union buster a “scab”?

All I know for sure is that for as long as the vile and opportunistic Sean Payton remains coach of the Saints, I shall do two things: Root for New Orleans to lose, and continue to refer to Payton as the scabrous motherfucker he is.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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