By Doug Nesbitt
Scabs, strikebreakers, finks, rats. There are a lot of more appropriate names for what the press, politicians and employers call “replacement workers.”
Scabs are people who cross picket lines to do the work of those on strike or locked out. Scabs include outside people hired by the employer, or people who belong to the union but are crossing the picket line. People are scabs for many reasons. They can be anti-union right-wingers, selfish, or is often the case, getting special treatment by the boss.
In this day and age when the labour movement isn’t what it used to be, there’s also the chance that a scab is someone who is simply ignorant of why scabbing is wrong and how it undermines workers ability to struggle collectively so everyone gains. Sometimes scabs think they are hard up for cash and need the work more than others – but there is always someone else in the same boat who stays on the picket line. And it is collective self-help and solidarity that can help pickets get through tough times. Scabbing means getting ahead for yourself while undermining everyone else. It’s the ethic of capitalism, not democracy.
Scabbing also has a history of producing picket line violence in which the courts and police have time and again sided against workers to break picket lines and escort scabs through. This is where the right-wing press and politicians have cultivated the “union thug” nonsense. Almost all violence on picket lines is directed at pickets by people crossing the line.
Anti-scab legislation is also weak in Canada. Only BC and Quebec have some form of anti-scab legislation, and this has been weakened over the years. Ontario had anti-scab legislation passed in 1993 but it was repealed in 1995 only five months after Mike Harris was elected. In 2011, an Ontario NDP anti-scab bill was thrown out by the ruling Liberals. Federally, the last attempt at passing anti-scab legislation was in 2007. It was also defeated
Surveying the scabs
In the past year, Canada has experienced a rash of nasty scabbing activities.
At the 17-month Ikea strike in Richmond, three dozen workers crossed the picket line at the start of the dispute. They helped the employer keep the store operating while workers fought to defend hard-won contract gains.
In similar fashion, Crown in Toronto has also employed scabs to keep the plant operating while workers have been on the picket line for over 21 months. Crown even wants to get rid of striking workers once the dispute is resolved. Workers are trying to stop Crown, a highly-profitable multinational corporation like Ikea, from rolling back the contract gains of workers. Workers are urging supporters to boycott Crown by buying their beer in Bottles Not Cans.
Just the other day, we learned that Loblaws is pressuring its non-union workers in New Brunswick Superstores to scab on striking unionized Loblaws workers in Ontario. The workers reported to the New Brunswick Federation of Labour that if they don’t scab, they’ll face retaliation from management, such as cuts to working hours.
Earlier this year when CP Rail was banking on the Harper Tories to once again legislate the rail unions back-to-work, we learned that CP Rail had now started training its office workers to operate locomotives in the event of a work stoppage.
There are even more examples of scabbing going on right now. In Sarnia, Imperial Oil subcontractor, SGS, is bringing in company employees from other provinces and even the United States to scab on striking workers. Only a couple hours drive east of Sarnia, fellow Unifor members at the Carmeuse Lime and Stone near Woodstock were on strike against pension and benefit concessions. The company brought in scabs and even paid to have them housed in a hotel – which workers picketed.
Scabbing in the public sector is not unheard of. In Hay River, North West Territories, the mayor has hired scabs and rejected arbitration called by the town’s striking municipal workers. The strike is now five months old!
Five weeks into the current London, Ontario strike of 750 inside municipal workers, the bullying City Manager Art Zuidema confirmed that scabs had been hired for IT maintenance and building inspections. Zuidema, now reviled by London’s municipal workforce and labour movement, has also claimed that up to 40 workers have crossed the picket line – a number CUPE 101 leaders dispute.
“There should definitely be some sort of legislation or some kind of criteria where you can’t just fill all our jobs in a couple weeks, basically leaving us out on the picket line starving to death,” exclaims Dean Hart, spokesperson for the striking Sarnia SGS workers of Unifor Local 627.
Hart is right. The need for anti-scab legislation is absolutely necessary to help tip the scales against employers who can already turn to the courts for anti-union injunctions, the police for intimidation, and expect provincial and federal governments to intervene when the employer needs help, and to stay out when the employer has the upper hand.
That said, without a rank-and-file workers movement to back up and defend anti-scab legislation, it will likely never get passed in the first place. If it does get passed, it will be easily rolled back without a strong on-the-ground defence. It’s worth recalling that the repeal of anti-scab legislation in Ontario came on the heels of a massive and destructive divide in the province’s labour movement over the NDP’s disastrous and anti-union Social Contract.
Anti-scab legislation was first passed by the PQ in Quebec in the late 1970s. The very election of this government owed a great deal to a powerful workers movement that could back up and defend anti-scab legislation with action. Mass pickets and an anti-scab culture among workers ensured that lines were not crossed and if anybody did cross them, there would be a confrontation. The harsh political reality of picket line confrontations against scabs was further justification for anti-scab laws.
Turning back the scabs
Today is not the 1970s. Strike activity is at a very low level compared to then. But the tactics are much the same. It of course depends on particular circumstances, the choice of the workers themselves who are on the picket lines, and some daring leadership from union leaders, but the organizing of a mass picket to stop scabs from crossing is the type of “set piece” battle that ought to be considered in today’s climate. The employers are already playing a game of chicken with scabs – and they have generally been able to call labour’s bluff.
This is not impossible. Only last fall, scabs were turned back at NGF, a fiberglass plant in Guelph, by a pre-dawn picket line strengthened by local labour activists from across the area. Scabs and managers who had been heckling and taunting the pickets days earlier, lost their nerve when faced with 40 pickets.
There are also other anti-scab activities unions can take. Perhaps the most dramatic but also the most difficult is a workplace occupation. As with the famous Flint sit-down strike that marked the great union breakthrough in the auto sector, by occupying the plant the employer doesn’t even control the workplace. Plant occupations are not unknown in Canada. The CAW built up a fierce reputation in the late 1980s and early 1980s for occupying plants. As recent as 2004, workers in Arvida, Quebec occupied and even operated their aluminum smelter to prevent its closure.
Another tactic which will no doubt earn some finger-wagging from media hacks and moralists is the photographing and publishing images of scabs online. UFCW Local 401 in Alberta has led the way with this effort, and through a court challenge, established the right of unions to publish the photographs of scabs crossing picket lines. This is a right that should be used and not squandered. As the court’s ruling explained “strikes are not tea parties” and that in the absence of violence publishing the photos of scabs was “a reasonable amount of psychological pressure.”
By taking on scabs at the picket line, workers can make a difference to immediate struggles for a first contract, against concessions and union-busting. A high profile mass picketing effort can raise the problem of scabbing to the wider public and send a message to employers that they better think twice. This would be the basis of a campaign for legislation that involves workers instead of having workers wait around for legislators and lobbyists to squander momentum behind closed doors.
Most importantly, we can begin to rebuild our skills and confidence as a workers’ movement in taking on employers. It won’t be easy and it won’t produce immediate results, but it is a direction we need to take against employers, public and private.