Scab herding: corporate organized crime

Most of us are taught at an early age that stealing is wrong. In a society of haves and have-nots, stealing can become a class issue. If you rob with a gun you are hunted down and likely jailed for quite a while. If you rob with a fountain pen you might well end up in high finance or political office.

But one of the worst kinds of theft is stealing a person’s job. You not only rob a person of their income, their sense of wellbeing, and their dignity, you also rob their family and children.

Yes, companies do it all the time, especially in a bad economy. And no, it’s nothing personal; its just business, like the contract killer said in The Godfather. But firing or laying people off is not the only way that some companies steal jobs. Sometimes they lock people out and then bring in what they call “replacement workers” and we call scabs. Other times they bring in scabs to break strikes.

Jack London really did not like scabs. London’s famous definition of a scab begins, “After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which He made a scab.”

Two lockouts recently have brought the issue of scabs to the fore. When Honeywell locked out 250 workers for over a year at its Metropolis, Ill., nuclear fuel processing plant, the company brought in scabs, mostly from Louisiana. And American Crystal Sugar, in North Dakota and Minnesota, right now has 1,300 workers locked out for the second month. Again the scabs are mostly from the South.

In both cases, Honeywell and American Sugar contracted with companies who specialize in union busting and that “awful stuff” to find scabs. In the case of American Sugar, the scab herding company is Strom Engineering.

Now I have zero tolerance for those who will cross a picketline to steal another person’s job. These are desperate times for many, but scabbing is no answer. It spreads misery and suffering and it helps the companies drive down conditions for all workers. It just validates robber baron Jay Gould’s oft quoted remark, “I can hire half the working class to kill the other half.”

But I reserve my hatred for the companies that scab herd, and the companies that hire them. This is corporate organized crime of a particularly ugly and despicable sort.

Which brings us back to the class nature of robbery. The scab is only a petty thief, a willing, ass-kissing tool of the company. Those that herd scabs and buy scabs conspire to commit theft on a grand scale. They conspire viciously and with malice. These racketeers use scabs to try and crush the rights of workers, to cheapen labor and dictate conditions. They are by far the worst criminals.

Furthermore, why are the scabs being trucked in from the South? Things are bad all over. But wages and benefits are lower there. Most southern states have anti-union “right to work” laws. Unions are weaker in the South. And despite the heroic struggles and gains of the Civil Rights movement, big business and the far right have managed to keep the South a low-wage preserve for many workers, black, brown and white.

It’s all part of the organized crime strategy of big business that continues to use racism and regional prejudices to try to divide and weaken labor. It’s all part of a criminal conspiracy to force a race to the bottom for all workers.

The Honeywell workers held out and preserved their union and made some gains even in the face of scab herding. I’ve no doubt the American Sugar workers can win also. But both experiences show the need for political action to protect labor rights. Unions need the democratic protection of their right to strike and to resist lockouts.

Any full recovery in this economic crisis has to protect the right of workers to challenge corporate efforts to balance their books on the backs of workers. It is time once again to fight for legislation banning the use of scabs in labor disputes. All right, call it a bill to ban striker replacement if you must. No matter what you call it, the democratic rights of labor need to be guaranteed for the protection of all workers.

Photo: Minnesota AFL-CIO // CC 2.0



Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.