Famed author Jack London in 1915 described a scab as, “a two-legged animal with a corkscrew soul, a waterlogged brain, and a combination backbone made of jelly and glue.” Unfortunately, over the last 100 years, the general understanding of what it means to cross a picket line has eroded. Even some union leaders have advocated scabbing. It is time that we resurrect the traditions of the past so everybody knows there is no greater crime than crossing a picket line.
Bosses and right-wing governments love to promote the “freedom” of the individual, and private personal “choice”. Using these arguments they limit and illegalize pickets. But what they are really doing is promoting the collective interests of the rich and powerful against the collective interest of the workers and oppressed who are trying to break that power. Upholding the “individual rights” of the scab is the means by which they take food out of the mouths of those struggling to survive. In upholding the “right” of the individual strikebreaker to defy the democratic will of the majority to fight, the bosses do not hesitate to use the collective violence of the state.
We should have no sympathy for a scab. A “replacement worker” (to use the sanitized terminology) is helping the boss to break a strike. If the strike fails, the majority of striking workers will lose the pay they lost during the strike, face cuts, and endure victimization and potential permanent replacement by the scab workers. The “individual” right of the scab is in direct opposition to the individual right of the striker to survive. If scabs are allowed to scab with impunity we will live in a world with no workers’ rights and no unions – a bosses’ paradise where workers live under the boot of management.
Liberals show their complete hypocrisy when faced with a picket line. While they try to present themselves as supporting workers, they resist anti-scab legislation which would make it illegal for management to hire replacement workers. They also support injunctions against the striking workers and anti-free speech laws that criminalize or limit the effectiveness of pickets. While they may say a few nice words in support of the workers, when push comes to shove, liberals show which side of the class divide they stand on.
In the main, where strikes are supported by healthy strike votes in larger workplaces, then the use of scabs to directly replace striking workers is rare. However, where union leaderships have shown weakness and equivocation, they open themselves up to attack. In the Saskatoon Co-op strike scabs were organized to break pickets, and in the dispute at Saskatchewan Crown corporations there has been a significant attempt to use scabs to support a lockout that was implemented after Unifor called off the strike.
Weakness invites aggression
Crossing picket lines can also be a problem where there are multiple unions representing different workers in the same workplace. The biggest weakness in these situations is the failure to build unity and solidarity between the different unions to support each others picket lines. When one sector of workers goes on strike, it is vital that all of the workers do not cross, even if their union is not on strike. Strong leadership from the respective unions is important to instill this sense of solidarity in the ranks. Of course, striking workers themselves can choose to make exceptions to this rule, such as when a hospital is picketed, or people’s homes are behind the picket, or when the main aim of the strike is withdrawal of labour rather than closing down the workplace. But such decisions must be the choice of the striking workers themselves, and ought not be abused.
In the run-up to the narrowly-avoided Ontario education workers’ strike, 55,000 support staff organized with CUPE set a strike deadline and asked teachers to support their pickets. Scandalously, Harvey Bischof, of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), replied, “My members will be going to work on Monday as they have active collective agreements in place, and not to do so would put them in jeopardy of discipline from their employer.” This refusal to respect the solidarity appeal of fellow workers is even more galling considering that the teachers were also bargaining over very similar issues. This allows management to divide and rule. When it comes to the teachers setting up pickets, CUPE workers will ask, “Why should we support them when they didn’t support us?” The result is a race to the bottom and a weakening of the working class as a whole.
Harvey Bischof’s invocation of bourgeois legality and the threat of discipline is in reality an example of capitulation and cowardice. Experience shows that it is almost impossible to impose discipline on workers who are supported by a united union. In opposition to any so-called laws a union leadership should say, “Our union does not cross picket lines. No worker can be forced to do anything that they find unsafe and we will fight any actions of management that victimizes workers for refusing an unsafe action such as crossing a line.” When faced with a united movement, most bosses back off in such situations and workers are not disciplined.
It is the words from the OSSTF leadership which actually put workers in danger of victimization. In effect they say that the union will not protect a teacher who upholds class solidarity. In this context, it would be incorrect to blame a teacher who doesn’t have the confidence to defy their union leadership – instead it is the union bureaucracy that is acting like scabs and endangering the rights of teachers who have the courage to do the right thing. Thankfully CUPE was able to beat back many of the cuts imposed by the Ford government a few hours before the strike deadline – no thanks to the OSSTF higher-ups. These people think they can avoid a strike by conciliating, while what they actually accomplish is to entrench the government in its position, thereby making a strike far more likely.
The need to respect a picket line is also applicable to student strikes. This was evident during the victorious 2012 Quebec student strike, and it is again relevant with regard to the student strike movement which is forming to oppose Doug Ford’s attacks on student financial aid.
The question of pickets is closely linked to the question of mass general assembly democracy. During a workers’ strike, union members gather in a general members meeting to discuss all the issues involved. During such general meetings all are free to advocate for or against a strike, and the vote of the meeting directs the actions of the union.
Students used a similar process in Quebec in 2012. Mass general assemblies were held where all would have their say, for or against, prior to a binding vote. Subsequently, right-wing “green square” scab students argued for their right to scab. These privileged individuals didn’t care about how many of their fellow students were forced out of school due to increased fees, and they didn’t care about the democracy of the student unions. In debates where the scabs said, “What about my right to go to class?” student leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois very calmly replied that they have the right of every other student to come to the general assembly and argue their point. Such mass participatory democracy, where everyone can hear each other’s opinions, is far superior to other methods, like surveys or referendums, which isolate workers or students and wall them off from discussion, allowing corporate media or the arguments from the management to have an overwhelming sway in forming their opinions, playing on their fears and doubts.
Now, in the fight against the cuts of the Doug Ford government, those advocating non-recognition of general assemblies and scabbing are in effect selfishly forcing poor students to shoulder thousands and thousands of dollars of extra debt, while also undermining student democracy, student media, and university funding. Already, thousands of students have been forced to abandon their studies and thousands more will join them if the scabs and their enablers have their way.
Therefore we must fight to educate everybody that you must never cross a workplace or a student picket line. Anybody breaking this rule is acting no differently than someone breaking into your house and stealing thousands of dollars, because the end result is identical. We must denounce those union and student union leaders who have eroded the tradition of picket solidarity and build a mass movement where everybody understands that PICKET LINES MEAN DO NOT CROSS!