No scabs

In the history of modern class struggle, those who cross picket lines to fill jobs temporarily vacated by workers on strike are known as “scabs.” Scabs are thus low-cost replacement workers, whose willingness to work for less allows employers to starve out the more organized regular workforce. They are therefore looked down upon, understandably, and treated with disdain. Not all strikebreakers are scabs, however. Company muscle, whether made up of mafiosos or Pinkerton men, are typically deployed in order to clear pickets and escort scabs into work.

Many today on the Left, either unaccustomed to labor disputes or unschooled in their past, are confused by the term “scab.” For example, Sebastian Budgen — an editor for Verso, New Left Review, and Historical Materialism, formerly a member of the SWP in Britain — has written frothy diatribes against anyone who illegally downloads books published by his company (er, I mean “counterhegemonic apparatus”). He bravely denounced the “petit-bourgeois individualist swine” and “loudmouthed freeloading scum” who dared to download “pirate scab versions.”

Thank fuck his series co-editor Peter Thomas stepped in at this point, though apparently for the umpteenth time, to remind him that “scabs” refer exclusively to workers who cross picket lines during a strike. I thought it pretty sad that a publisher of leftist literature would be so terminologically ignorant. Anyway, a more detailed etymology from the Oxford English Dictionary can be read here. Jack London’s famous excoriation of scab workers, from 1915, follows below.

Ode to a scab

Jack London
Circa 1915

After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, He had some awful substance left with which He made a scab.

A scab is a two-legged animal with a cork-screw soul, a water-logged brain, a combination backbone of jelly and glue. Where others have hearts, he carries a tumor of rotten principles.

When a scab comes down the street, men turn their backs and angels weep in heaven, and the Devil shuts the gates of Hell to keep him out.


No man has a right to scab so long as there is a pool of water to drown his carcass in, or a rope long enough to hang his body with. Judas Iscariot was a gentleman compared with a scab. For betraying his master, he had character enough to hang himself. A scab has not.

Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Judas Iscariot sold his Savior for thirty pieces of silver. Benedict Arnold sold his country for a promise of a commission in the British Army. The modern strikebreaker sells his birthright, his country, his wife, his children and his fellow men for an unfulfilled promise from his employer, trust or corporation.

Esau was a traitor to himself; Judas Iscariot was a traitor to his God; Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country; a strikebreaker is a traitor to his God, his country, his wife, his family and his class.

11 thoughts on “No scabs

  1. In 1979 I visited the USA and traveled two times by bus. One time from Blacksburg (VA) to Washington, the other time from Oakland to Davis (CA). On both occasions students scabs were hired to drive the Greyhound bus, since the owner had sacked about all drivers after a strike. The provided me with the opportunity to see twice the places and distances in double time, since the new drivers regularly lost their way. For a newcomer an excellent way to learn about America. We live in a wonderous world, says Drager Meurtant.

  2. Is M. Budgen really that stupid or just an asshole? Seems like both. Keep up good work, really love this piece by London.

    – Amazigh

  3. “In the run up to the 1926 General Strike, around 100,000 volunteers signed up to the ‘Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies’, a group led by a handful of military generals, who promised to replace key workers in the event of a strike. Just like the Warwick students, the OMS proclaimed themselves to be ‘strictly non-political and non-party in character’, although this did not prevent numerous members of the British Fascists signing up.”

  4. Reblogged this on Kendall F. Person, thepublicblogger and commented:
    If only I were certain, to which the word ‘Left’ in the line “Many on the Left…” refers to (writers of the New Left Review? or the ‘left’ a political generalization?) I would commit to an opinion, that ‘No Scabs’ by The Charnel-House blog is not only a great literally and historical essay, but will turn the dictionary establishment upside down, with this epic definition to and fascinating history lesson of a long understood word. I will be challenged to think of ‘scab’ in the same way again, and perhaps, may begin to question the use of all words.

  5. Interesting article. I agree that picket lines should not be crossed, nor should a “large” company/corporation be allowed to fire strikers. After all, without the power to negotiate or the means to gain that power by threat of strike, America likely would never have had a robust middle class and the continuing inequity we now see–ever since the institution of “boom and bust” Supply-side economics–would have been the order of the day since WWII. Dicken’s London and the old Gilded Age would still be in force.

    Workers are the one’s who produce value. Thus, the more value produced, the more the workers should share, equitably, in the wealth that value returns.

    Understanding, however, your apparent intent to project “many on the left” as ignorant of labor movements and of the term, “scab,” seems to me to be further fueling the hatred and ignorance of many on the right in thinking everyone on the left are extreme in their views. If you are speaking of the U.S., then perhaps a better word would have been “some” on the left.

    Normally this would not bother me, but I’ve had too many debates with right wingers to not understand that most folks on the “left” are viewed by the right as Russian-style communists (a true, communist state has never existed).

    In fact, I would wager that “some” if not “many” on the right are afflicted with a greater degree of ignorance about the economy, government, the U.S. Constitution, and the history of labor movements, and it is “pointed” articles like this that add to that ignorance.

    Besides, that a few on the left or the right use the term “scabs” wrongly, is hardly a cause celebre, but it is a lame excuse to bash the left. If anything, the far left might be as ignorant of the power of genetically inherited human impulse to self interest as the right is of classical fascism.

    Nor is an article that uses the term “scabs” incorrectly, or as a metaphor, a good reason to cast either side of the political spectrum as ignorant fools.

    Personally, I would love to have a pure communist system, but such a state is not possible in the present day world because it would require all people to have “universal empathy” (a genetically based impulse strong enough to override self interest).

    Humans do not have it, and this is why a truly just society has never existed and likely never will, at least for another millennium of the evolution of the human power of reason and the demise of religious exclusivity.

  6. Nay, you have friends on the right. Disdain for “low-cost replacement workers” is a huge theme with non-libertarian conservatives. But they have another name for that group. Can you guess what it is?

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