Saturday, 3 December 2011

Using the s-word

On Tuesday night I wrote a blogpost in which I urged workers in public sector workplaces where the unions had voted to strike not to scab.

Some people don't like the fact that I used this word. I hesitated before I typed the word, to be honest. I thought about it, should I use the s-word or another word beginning with 's' which means the same thing but which - I believe - is in much less common use: 'strike-breaking'? I chose to use the word scab because not to would have been ridiculously coy, in my view.

Words have different registers; two different names for the same thing can convey different meanings. That's true for 'scab' and 'strike-break'. Personally I don't see a lot of difference in the register between these two words, but others do. If I gave unnecessary offence by my choice of words, I regret it, but I also think that, regretfully, I would use the word again and risk giving offence again.*

But all this is really beside the point and slightly pretentious. The people who have moaned at me for using the word 'scab' don't actually support trade unionism, effective trade unionism. They think people should cross picket lines and face no criticism for doing it.*

Trade unions are collective organisations. The current state of trade union democracy is far from perfect, but, in essence, unions are democratic bodies. You join one and you take part in the decision-making process of the organisation: electing leaders, deciding whether to go on strike or not. The members should respect the democracy of the union or the whole thing falls apart.

A trade union is not just there to offer cheap car insurance, or to help out an individual worker when they have difficulties with their boss. Well, it is there for those things, but the point is that a union can do those things and more besides only if it builds - and sometimes uses - its collective strength.

That is why when the members have decided to strike to defend pensions, the members of the union should respect that decision and respect the picket lines. If they don't, the whole thing starts to become pointless. Unions are called unions for a reason!

I am far from being the only person who has upset others by using the word 'scab' in the past week. In the recent period we have also seen, because there was no alternative, the return of such supposedly outmoded things as pickets - including here in Barnet - and now, on Wednesday, mass strikes!

With the (in my view, long overdue) return of class struggle, it is not surprising that we find ourselves debating such things as the meaning and use of the word 'scab'.

Well then, what should I say instead? "I say, would you mind not crossing the picket line? Thanks, awfully."

The trade union movement faces a battle for its life. It has been hammered in the private sector as its bases, heavy industry and manufacturing, have declined (and that helps to explain the decline of the private sector pension in comparison with the public sector pension).

Because of that hammering, trade unionism is now strongest in the public sector. But if it cannot fight and win on the many battles facing public sector workers - and public service users - it is doomed here as well.

The trade union movement is not a set of institutions; it consists of its members, participating and working with fellow members to give the union relevance. It really is a case now of united we stand, divided we fall.

Not crossing picket lines is a key part of that.

* In Tuesday's blogpost I didn't make clear whether my remarks were addressed to union members or non-union members. My remarks were primarily addressed to union members; I'm not sure you can be a non-member and a scab. I would try to persuade a non-member not to cross a picket line and to join the union.

Just to muddy the waters further, 'strike-breakers', I understand, primarily refers to workers brought in from outside expressly to 'break a strike' by a regular workforce.


Rog T said...

Vicki, what slightly concerns me about the debate about workers crossing picket lines is the fact that some have been intimidated by management. I work for myself, so it's not a position I'm likely to find myself in. Do we really want to abuse people who have been forced into working by bullying and intimidation? At a time of cuts and redundancies, this is a trump card for management. I agree that if workers stick together, then they are stronger and people who break strikes, undermine their colleagues, but I'm not sure that if they are bullied, as we known is happening, we can be quite so strident in our condemnation.

I would say that someone who sees the strike as an opportunity to brown nose, earn extra money or shaft their colleagues deserves no title midler than scab.

baarnett said...

What should I say instead? "I say, would you mind not crossing the picket line? Thanks, awfully."

The point I was trying to make earlier (and DCMD didn't follow, which was my fault) is that trying to stop the crossing of 'picket lines' is a feature of all collective organisations, seeking to maintain economic benefits to their members.

With the professions (BMA, Law Society, etc.) it IS indeed, "Would you mind? Thanks, awfully" - and that usually works to that audience.

Mrs Angry said...

one of my Irish great great aunts left Ireland, arrived in Lancashire and went to work in a mill where there was a strike in progress. Irish workers were quite often used as strike breakers, in the North at least. She had no real understanding of the circumstances in which she was being employed, I am sure. The family legend is that as she arrived at the mill, and was yelled at for being a blackleg (aka scab) she turned around, rolled down her stocking and waved her leg, saying, sure haven't I the whitest leg in the country? The assembled workers were scandalised. This story has a horrible ring of truth, I have to say ...

Vicki Morris aka Citizen Barnet said...

Roger, you are right, of course. The union earns the right to slate members who cross picket lines to the extent that it recruits them (in the first place), organises them, consults with them, keeps them informed, and backs them up against management.

There has been bullying by management in Barnet council already, as we know, during the One Barnet strikes. Management pasting intimidating notices up on the walls, threatening workers that they will never get overtime again if they strike, locking workers out for half a day, and refusing to let them use the loo if they are on the picket line (and there's sure to be more we don't know about).

The only way to beat the bully, though, is to stand together, organise and face him/her down.

I'm glad the debate has moved on from whether you should use the word 'scab' or not. (I wonder whether the equivalent word in another language is quite so loaded.)

The main question is whether you can have an effective strike or not. If people are members of a union and don't respect the strike, they are letting themselves and their colleagues down.

There are different scenarios: people who don't know what they are doing; people who don't care what they are doing; people who have been bullied by management; and, as we saw in the miners' strike, people who have quite simply been worn down by the dispute and starved back to work.

Mrs A, I am aware of the Irish migrant strike-breaking history. To guard against that, the task there is for the unions to get among such people as quickly as possible and organise them as well. That's what the best unions are trying to do now with East European workers coming to the UK.

We do live in a vastly uneven world; what would we call Indian workers in a call centre who are being used to replace more expensive British workers? Would we call them scabs? The concept would be fairly meaningless in such an unequal world.

The No Sweat campaign that I am involved with tries to address such questions. Transnational workers' solidarity is not even in its infancy yet!

But with the level of organisation and knowledge available, Barnet public sector workers' solidarity is possible now and should be encouraged!

An interesting point you make, Baarnett, to think about at more length.

Don't Call Me Dave said...

Notwithstanding that this is only the first day of a period of abstinence (on my part) from political commentary, as one of the people who objected most vociferously to your earlier blogpost, I think it is appropriate to respond.

We are both agreed that ‘scab’ is an unpleasant word. You originally claimed to have used it because “that’s the word we have”. You now state that you thought long and hard before using the word and that you would readily use it again. This admission exposes the intolerance of the militant wing of the Trade Union movement. Rog talks above about intimidation by management, but in your narrow view of the world, premeditated intimidation by the union is acceptable because, presumably, it is for the perceived greater good .

Calling someone a ‘scab’ serves no other purpose than to humiliate and ostracise that person from the rest of the workforce. Unions are supposed to stop bullying in the workplace, but are quite happy to use bully-boy tactics to enforce their view.

It is risible to talk about union democracy. Whilst a majority of those who voted supported the strike, the turnout for the ballot was very low. The only conclusion we can draw is that most people were apathetic about the strike otherwise they would have positively voted for it. But even if the union had won a majority vote on a 100% turnout, that does not mean you can forcibly impose your will on those who dare to hold a contrary position.

How dare fat-cat trade union leaders like Dave Prentice (£127,000 salary package) tell other people when they can or cannot work. If you genuinely believe in democracy, then you believe that other people are entitled to hold a contrary view to yours, and can act according to their own beliefs.

When Conservative Councillor Kate Salinger defied the party whip in the vote for increased allowances, she was widely praised by the left for standing up for her principles. Of course, you are allowed to have principles when opposing those evil Tories. You are not allowed to have principles when standing up to the Brothers.

Prentice and his disciples are a throwback to the 1970s. They have failed to recognise that the world has moved on, and militancy has had its day. We can argue until the cows come home as to what (and who) caused the recession; the reality is that we are where we are and most people understand this.

The public understands that the country is broke. They understand also that the pension system is at breaking point. According to official statistics, average life expectancy has increased by 8 years over the last 3 decades. That is a phenomenal increase and you don’t need to be an actuary to understand what this means in terms of pensions. When Gordon Brown plundered the private pension industry to the tune of £5 billion a year, affecting millions of private sector workers, how many strikes did Unison call in protest?

The strike on Wednesday was a spectacular flop. The country did not grind to a halt, and where people suffered inconvenience it was relatively minor. Many union members were not on picket lines but out Christmas shopping - no doubt showing solidarity with shop workers. Dave Prentice’s response was a classic diversionary tactic. Instead of apologising for failing to understand the mood of the public, he feigned outrage to launch a pathetic attack on Jeremy Clarkson for making what was clearly a joke about shooting strikers. How many times do we hear from hard-line left wingers who say they will celebrate when Margaret Thatcher dies? Such rank hypocrisy is positively nauseating, but is par for the course for those who resent democracy and freedom of expression.

Rog T said...


Don't make the mistake of thinking the strike on Weds was a spectacular flop. This is the view the government are spinning, but events will prove whether that is the case or not and it is far too early to judge. I suspect that if Cameron really believed it was a damp squib, he'd have not said anything, because it would have been self evident.

I will bet a fiver, to the charity of your choice that whatever the final deal is, it is better than the one on the table now. If that is the case, then the strike was successful.

Vicki Morris aka Citizen Barnet said...

I have responded to DCMD's remarks here: