As long as I can remember, unions have attacked as “scabs” those willing to accept work for wages and conditions those unions reject, even if it involves crossing union picket lines. In fact, that usage goes back centuries, from English slang for a mean, low, “scurvy” rascal or scoundrel. As Stephanie Smith put it in Household Words:
From blemish…to strikebreaker, the history of the word scab…shows a displacement of meaning from the visceral or physical to the moral register…Just as a scab is a physical lesion, the strikebreaking scab disfigures the social body of labor.
Those union attacks have included some real “fist in your face” examples, such as the following, generally attributed to Jack London:
After God finished the rattlesnake, the toad, the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which He made a scab…No man has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with.
Few current examples can match that level of vituperation. But “scab” remains near the surface. For instance, when Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner responded to a 2017 AFSCME strike authorization with a website enabling citizens to apply for government positions, the result was “cries of ‘SCABS’ filling the public airways.”
Union rhetoric asserts that scabs are harmful to workers. But they offer no proof of harm. So as we come to another Labor Day of union claims to advance workers’ interests, perhaps that name-calling should be considered more carefully.
Debaters know to advance their most convincing argument. However, calling someone a scab is an ad hominem (against the man) attack, not an argument. It amounts to “You are bad, therefore your argument/position is wrong.” But “bad” people sometimes have better arguments than “good” people, who can sometimes argue nonsense. Consequently, asserting badness implies nothing about the rightness of any particular argument/position. Given that yelling “scab” is the most frequent, and often only, “argument” unions offer against such people, one could conclude they have no real argument.
Further, even if someone considers you bad, you still retain your unalienable rights from the Declaration of Independence and a guarantee of equal treatment under the law from the Constitution. Those must be equally held by all. Yet denying others the ability to offer their labor services in competition with union members who reject their employers’ offers denies both their economic liberty and their right to equal treatment.
It also denies employers’ rights. An employer holds the right to decide who it will hire or continue to employ. Prior to signing a contract, a worker has no claim to a job. Workers acquire ownership interests in their jobs only if their contract creates one. But unions treat a certification vote as giving members rights to their jobs that would be violated if a scab took them. How did workers, without any individual ownership rights to deny competition from others, conjure up those rights right for themselves as a union, overriding employers’ rights?
In essence, the basis of calling someone a scab is only their willingness to work for less than union demands. But is that bad? If a store offers you lower prices for what you want to buy, you don’t call them names. You seek out bargains, which are the fruit of competition. So what makes monopoly good when your union labor is involved, but bad otherwise? (remember, the Wagner Act had to define labor as not a commodity, or antitrust laws would have made unions illegal). The only reason is narrow self- interest. You don’t want anything to undermine the current terms of your job, even if it was extracted with government-delegated coercive union power. But such a possibility only threatens unions, not workers’ interests.
In fact, it is special treatment of unions, not scabs, that harms workers. At the higher wages unions extract, fewer jobs are available. Those crowded out of such opportunities go elsewhere, increasing labor supply for non-union jobs. That lowers the earnings of existing workers as well as entrants seeking such jobs, which makes up the vast majority of workers. Because higher costs result as well, workers also pay higher prices as consumers and taxpayers.
In other words, scabs should not be demeaned. They are part of the solution to unions’ bleeding compensation from employers beyond what workers could get in an open labor market.
Blame and defamation belongs instead to unions whose “assault and battery” cuts against employers’ interests create “scabs” of those whose only offense is seeking an open market for their livelihoods.