Yep, the epithet “scab” is back — and more reviled than ever. The magnifying mirror is out, and we’re all gazing at the mangy pelt of our workforce without mercy. Publicly refusing to support your colleagues’ union push? Scab. Ordering a pack of tube socks, a Kindle and a yoga mat on Amazon Prime Day amid warehouse strikes? Scab. Booking your NBA team a stay at a Marriott as the hotel chain’s workers walk off the job protesting for better conditions and wages? Scab. Blogging for Deadspin in the aftermath of the entire editorial staff resigning in protest of management? Definitely a scab!
We're All Scabs Now
Huffpost reports on how this labor insult is going mainstream
When it comes to coping with the degradations of late capitalism, nothing beats a meticulous skin care regimen. Specifically: scrubbing out scabs.
Amid a resurgence of labor organizing and class consciousness, the word “scab” seems to have been revitalized and re-mainstreamed. In the process, it even seems to have evolved into something more capacious by default. Recently, the word has been flung at all perceived class traitors — not just strikebreakers but also customers who cross picket lines and people who espouse anti-labor sentiments. For a new generation of union enthusiasts and leftists, “scab” holds both the power of social shame and the flexibility to stigmatize all types of working-class treachery.
What is the scab?
At the turn of the 20th century, novelist Jack London composed a polemic on the scab so vicious and simultaneously educational that it has remained the definitive text on scabs ever since. In “The Scab,” he offers “what may be called a technical definition, worded in commercial terms ... that a scab is one who gives more value for the same price than another.” In practice, it has been used in labor circles as an epithet for a strikebreaking worker since well before London’s time, and dictionary definitions tend to narrowly define the term this way. Oxford Dictionaries, for example, says a scab is “a person who refuses to strike or join a trade union or who takes the place of a striking worker.”
As an insult, “scab” is not only exquisitely gross but also apt: Where union actions aim to make the employer bleed money, the scab stanches the flow. In his musings, London emphasized the visceral shame conveyed by the word. “It is not good to give most for least, not good to be a scab,” he wrote. “The word has gained universal opprobrium.”
This makes the word sound vicious, even violent — and it is, despite the glowing ideals that motivate many who use it. “Scab” is wielded to prevent others who are struggling under capitalism from undermining striking laborers, even at the expense of their own quest for survival.
London didn’t idealize strikebreakers’ union opponents, describing how they would happily maim a scab in the name of protecting their own wages. He depicted the scab as a symptom of the cutthroat struggle for survival dictated by the economic conditions scabs and strikers alike lived under.
“He does not scab because he wants to scab,” London wrote. “It is because he cannot get work on the same terms as they that he is a scab.” Slaves, he argued, were effectively scabs; women, undocumented immigrants and people of color also fall under his capacious definition, as they are offered lower pay for the same work. Even a worker who receives a raise, which his employer pays for by jacking up the prices of his products, has become a scab; the higher prices of goods have reduced the buying power of other workers’ compensation.
In fact, we are almost all unwitting scabs in London’s view, all in some way providing more value for less than someone else and in that way undercutting our fellow workers. That is, of course, how capitalism works: Only the most privileged are exempted from the bloody battle for survival.
If held to, though, the bonds of solidarity benefit everyone in the end; scabs may reap short-term benefits, but only a united labor movement can weaken the power of capital and uplift all workers. Building that coalition also relies on centering and supporting those most mistreated and vulnerable — those London framed as predisposed to scab.
“Nothing should have more moral or strategic importance to the labor movement than organizing that prioritizes the safety, leadership and demands of marginalized people, both in how organizing is carried out and its ultimate objective,” said Daniel Gross, a longtime labor organizer and the founder and executive director of Brandworkers. “Strike fund policies, strike mutual aid and strike support networks should take into account the marginalized identities of strikers that intersect with class and meet as many needs as possible.”
But the stick matters, along with the carrot; the stink left by an insult like “scab” serves a strategic purpose.
“There’s an establishment of political and moral norms that is being upheld by demanding that people not cross the picket lines, and ‘scab’ is a way to affix a term to that person who has engaged in this morally unforgivable act,” Micah Uetricht, managing editor of Jacobin, told HuffPost in a phone conversation. Not only does this strategically discourage strikebreaking, he said, it honors “the act of courage and bravery that is required for someone to go on strike.”
But in recent decades, with union membership dwindling and labor interests in retreat, “scab” had begun to lose its edge. As Silicon Valley’s burst of startups and disruptive platforms became the face of economic success in America, and many workers were relegated to gig work rather than traditional employment, a cultural mystique congealed around the very idea of working oneself ragged in order to nose ahead in the rat race. When everyone is an entrepreneur or a personal brand in the making, giving the most for the least simply looks like an investment — even if, in practice, there are still a handful of bosses at the top raking in the real profits. Scabs themselves didn’t disappear over the past couple of decades, but lately, outside of solidly unionized shops, scabbing and scab-adjacent behavior has often seemed to pass without a negative remark, rebranded in Fiverr ads and WeWork decor as “hustle” or “the grind” or “working for exposure.”
“Scab doesn’t perform at the same level of rhetorical labor as it did at the dawn of the twentieth century, when it was considered a term so vile as to cause shame,” wrote Stephanie A. Smith in her 2006 book “Household Words.” Though she acknowledged that the term continued to be used with venom by labor organizers, she argued that in mainstream, non-activist spaces, the stigma had attenuated.
Thirteen years later, that may be changing.
Scab has become a Very Online Left insult.
“#DeleteUber is introducing a new generation to the horror of scabbing,” wrote Sarah Jaffe in The Washington Post in 2017. She was right. The word is now all over headlines and social media. Coverage of the ongoing Writers Guild dispute and Chicago teachers strike litigates whether anyone is scabbing — and whether that’s bad or, uh, maybe heroic. At least three headlines called center-left columnist Jonathan Chait a scab in late 2018 after he responded to a union campaign among his colleagues at New York Magazine by publicly sucking up to management. When Uber and Lyft drivers protested in advance of Uber’s IPO this spring, for example, they asked customers to abstain from hailing rides through the apps on the strike day. When Amazon workers struck on Prime Day this summer, many labor groups encouraged consumers to avoid the site. In both cases, Twitter was flooded with tweets encouraging readers not to be “scabs” by buying from the boycotted companies.