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.