Scab! Scab! Scab!

Ugly word, isn’t it? Despite our childhood (and sometimes beyond) obsession with scabs the word retains an ugliness and revulsion which perhaps explains it’s use as the worst thing you can call a colleague. ‘Blackleg’ says the same thing, but it has an almost comforting retro feel to it, despite ‘scab’ having been in use for the purpose a lot longer. ‘Strike breaker’ is merely a bald admission of fact. ‘Scab’ definitely has the impact, both in delivery and in the intended hurt to its target.

Voice, the ‘union for education professionals’, is currently being accused of ‘scabbing’ over the November 30th strike action as its belief in the “force of argument rather than the argument of force” has resulted in a ‘no strike’ policy. In calling the union a scab, we are also of course referring to all of its members in the same way. Philip Parkin, Gen Sec of Voice, is (understandably?) upset over this, although I don’t think his mealy mouthed desire that his union’s detractors do not work with children helps his cause.

Neither does his cherry picking of stats, something we can all do, add strength to his argument. He implies that 78% of Unison members are against strike action but come November 30th it is guaranteed that 78% of Unison members won’t be at work. There is a whole other argument to be had here around why people don’t vote: could it be apathy; a tacit acceptance or rejection of what is proposed; poor organisation on the part of those holding the ballot? Whichever, no strong claim can be made on any factor without a great deal of analysis.

So, to the name calling. Is this justified? Can we assume the role of judge and jury and condemn people for acting against our principles when they are merely acting on their own? Would it be better to censure them in a less confrontational way? Do shouts of “Scab!” only serve to inflame an already heightened situation, and give succour to the right wing media wanting to portray activists as ‘radicals’ and worse?

Too many question marks?

My own view on strike action and union membership is that unless it’s for completely bloody stupid reasons members should adhere to a proposed action that has the backing of a successful ballot. The November 30th strikes are not a completely bloody stupid reason. These strikes are being held in protest against a government making a thinly veiled and deeply ideological attack on public services. This attack began in the early 80s under Thatcher, continued under Blairite Labour, and the mantle has been assumed with relish by the current government. This is three decades of neoliberal chickens coming home to roost, the same neoliberalism that has brought us to the crisis we’re in and then blamed it on the public sector.

These are exceptional circumstances and people who previously didn’t even watch the news are being politicised – for the likes of Philip Parkin to insinuate that whole swathes of union members will only be striking through being weak willed or intimidated shows an alarming lack of both insight into the situation, and awareness that this is potentially a watershed moment in British labour relations and normal rules do not apply.

But, still, is the abuse justified?

I have a good friend who has regularly broken strikes over the last decade. Along with other friends and colleagues I have made my feelings on the matter clear to him: I utterly and totally disagree with his actions. But I have never called him or any other colleague a scab. Does this, in accordance with Philip Parkin’s views, make me a better person than someone who does use that word? No. This is a highly emotive issue and a question of principle – just as Parkin asks that his members’ principles be taken into account, surely we must do the same regarding the principles of those opposed to strike breaking, which, by crossing picket lines, Voice members will be doing.

This is not a dismissal of the reasons given by strike breakers for their actions, indeed, I can readily acknowledge these reasons as the overwhelming majority of those who do strike have factored financial loss, fear of management retribution, damage caused to possible advancement etc., into their decision. Nobody can afford to strike, but many do because they realise that the essence of trade unionism is togetherness and that showing a united front over the last 200 years has resulted in us all benefiting from better pay, terms and work conditions. I have taken part in actions that have gained, or in many cases retained, benefits that far outstrip the short term loss of wages. For people to feel frustration with those who will not stand with them but will benefit in the same way is wholly understandable and, just as Parkin asks me not to condemn those who will not strike, I will not condemn those who take them to task.

I hope to be starting a new job in the public sector very shortly and if this should be before 30th November then on that day I will be out on strike as I always have been when asked to. Beyond that I have never and will never cross a picket line to the extent that, for example, should there be a tube strike on but some trains are running I won’t use a service operated by strike breakers. That is the strength of my feeling on the matter, and many people feel equally and even more strongly. Strike breakers, whatever their reasons or intentions, undermine the collective action needed to face down the bosses, especially in these interesting times. To take such a stance and then wince at the consequences is both naive and disingenuous.

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