How Unions Use "Scab" Lists to Intimidate Workers

Unions have long sought to demonize replacement workers, union members who cross picket lines, and others whom the unions label “scabs.” Sometimes, this takes the form of implied or explicit threats or other efforts to create fear and to intimidate. Now the Obama administration’s National Labor Relations Board is pressuring employers to give personal information to unions, while the Internet is providing new ways to publicize “scab lists” and make people toe the union line.

In the annals of labor history, few characters are more reviled than the so-called “scab”—the worker who refuses to join a union, or worse, whether or not a member, crosses a picket line during a strike. Unions have long have practiced the dark art of gathering the identities of such persons and exposing them to shame and intimidation among fellow workers. Often, names are compiled on a “scab list.” Over the years, unions have made effective use of the hatred of scabs, to maximize their bargaining advantage. You may have seen this description:

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 corkscrew soul, a water 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.

Jack London, the early-20th Century fiction writer and journalist, is supposed to have said that. He didn’t, but the passage is often cited by union activists to express their opinion of replacement workers and picket-line crossers.

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The word scab suggests something unsightly and diseased. That’s the point. The intent is to inflict intense feelings of fear, shame, and self-loathing upon persons who choose to go to work at wages less than those demanded by a union, to tell dissenting individuals that they must join the union-driven majority or face frightful consequences. A union anti-scab campaign does more than simply express disapproval; it enables full-scale character assassination. Such campaigns may produce assaults, vandalism, and among the targets, medical problems and suicide attempts.

The term comes from Latin scabere, “to scratch,” and from Old Norse for the crust that forms over a wound or sore. For more than 800 years, it’s been applied to people who are untrustworthy or despicable. In 18th Century England, laborers used it to denounce their peers who were unwilling to join a strike. One description from 1777 stated that “the Conflict would not have been so sharp had there not been so many dirty Scabs; no Doubt but timely Notice will be taken of them.” The spurious quote from Jack London was in use by 1926.

Today’s union loyalists know the power of the term “scab,” and understand that it serves their purposes more effectively than something less incendiary on the order of “replacement worker” or “strikebreaker.” To diehard unionists, scabs, even if poor and barely scraping by, are the vilest of the vile, lowest of the low.

Obama Administration policies are now helping unions in their witch hunts for “scabs.” The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), as Diana Furchtgott-Roth reported in the February 2015 Labor Watch, is assisting the Administration’s friends in unions by issuing a new regulation that will force companies that face union elections to turn over workers’ contact information, such as home phone numbers and e-mail addresses, to labor organizers, who will then be able to threaten the employees with ostracism if they don’t do as they’re told.

The website of United Auto Workers Local 31 in Kansas City, Kansas published a “Scab List” from July 2014 that names employees and gives their department numbers. Similarly, during a 2010 employer lockout, United Steelworkers Local 7-669, which represents workers at the Honeywell uranium enrichment plant in Metropolis, Ill., posted a list of hundreds of “confirmed scabs” who “infect our community.”

Members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local Lodge 1426, the union representing workers at the Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. plant in Sioux City, Iowa (and which struck in 2007), addressed an open letter to “scabs” within the local.

Dear Union Scab:
You have now sunk to the deepest point in the bowels of life. You have sold out your brothers and sisters. Was it you who fed management information in the months leading up to the contract? Every company has one! You, my former brother, have now turned into the lowly yellow-tailed scab rat. This type of rat is rarely seen up close. They slither along through the cracks and crevices. However, I did get a good glimpse of your yellow tail though as you scurried into the plant.

Members of the Air Line Pilots Association periodically update a “U.S. Master Pilot Scablist” that describes scabs this way:

A SCAB takes your job, a job he could not get under normal circumstances. He can only advance himself by taking advantage of labor disputes over the backs of workers trying to maintain decent wages and working conditions. He helps management destroy his and your profession, often ending up under conditions he/she wouldn’t even have scabbed for. No matter. A SCAB doesn’t think long term, nor does he think of anything other than himself. His smile shows fangs that drip with your blood, for he willingly destroys families, lives, careers, opportunities and professions at the drop of a hat. He takes from a striker what he knows he could never earn by his own merit: a decent job. He steals that which others earned at the bargaining table through blood, sweat and tears, and throws it away in an instant—ruining lives, jobs and careers.

This is ugly stuff. Yet it constitutes rational and expected union behavior—so commonplace, in fact, that the “Jack London” scab definition made its way into a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court opinion on libel, as an example of the usual attitude toward replacement workers: “Jack London’s ‘definition of a scab’” is “a lusty and imaginative expression of the contempt felt by union members towards those who refuse to join. . . . It has become a familiar piece of trade union literature . . . published countless times in union publications . . . “ In an earlier case, the National Labor Relations Board cited the “Jack London” description as permissible speech during a labor dispute.

Why the hate?

Strikebreakers, whether or not they belong to a union, undercut representation and collective bargaining. By making themselves available for work in the event of a strike, they effectively lessen the power of the strike as a bargaining tool. Employers, especially in local labor markets with high unemployment rates, may have large pools of such workers at their disposal, especially for unskilled jobs. And these employees, by providing labor in a quantity sufficient to maintain production at full or near-full levels, induce strikers to return to work with their demands unmet.

Unions see an employer’s decision to hire replacements as an act of war. Their response often includes old-school persuasion against non-joining workers, who make for more vulnerable targets than the employer. When solidarity is critical to success, a forgiving approach to dissent isn’t an option. The imposition of violence, and fear of it, becomes a way of doing business. Even independent-minded employees may decide against crossing a picket line if retaliation against them appears imminent, overwhelming, and lasting. The label “scab,” once acquired, becomes almost impossible to remove.

To what extremes do unions go to discourage non-joining workers?

Consider the behavior of the United Auto Workers during a pair of strikes against Caterpillar Inc. during the 1990s. The union’s behavior during these strikes, which lasted a total of nearly two years, prompted eight “scabs,” and four of their spouses, to sue the UAW and an affiliate for “extraordinary harm caused to them by the union’s outrageous conduct.” Operating from scab lists, union loyalists made frequent threatening phone calls to the line-crossers’ homes on the order of: “Look out for your wife and son” and “Look out for your house.” Callers also would warn wives with lines such as “Your husband could get shot” and “Your husband better not cross that picket line if he knows what’s good for him.” Offspring were not spared either. In one case, a union caller asked a scab’s daughter, “How would you like to have your home burned down?” Another caller delivered this message: “Your daughter has a cute ass. It would be a shame if something happened to her.”

Automobile surveillance was a part of the scab treatment. Brawny men would cruise up and down streets where known picket line-crossers lived, honking their horns, staring at family members, making violent gestures and yelling threats. Union saboteurs also vandalized employee cars, often planting jack rocks and roofing nails under their tires, whether at home or work. Union officials not only didn’t discourage such behavior, they openly encouraged it. The president of one UAW local addressed a meeting of stewards and committeemen this way: “If you happen to recognize any of the people going across the line and it happens to be your neighbor, and you happen to catch him out at night with a baseball bat or a golf club and beat the hell out of him and put him in the hospital, that’s alright, but no violence on the picket line.” And a bargaining committee chairman told stewards: “Give us their names and we will counsel them (line crossers) over the phone. If I see them on the street, I will counsel them on the street. Then, if that doesn’t work, you guys can go out and beat them up.”

In the end, Caterpillar in March 1998 renewed its collective bargaining agreement with the UAW, after a period of more than six years in which no contract was in force. While the new contract preserved management-supported productivity gains, it also required that all 160 workers fired for participation in acts of violence be rehired. Regardless of who won, if anyone truly won, one thing was clear: The UAW had no compunctions about inflicting criminal terror upon its competition. Equally to the point, the compilation and posting of scab lists made the terror possible.

Right to Work states targeted

The United Auto Workers’ fondness for scab lists never really went away; it just went south. In Right to Work southern states, where “voluntary” unionism ostensibly prevails, the UAW increasingly has been resorting to this tactic in trying to organize foreign-owned assembly plants. It is of more than passing significance that a key organizer of those Caterpillar strikes, Dennis Williams, last June became UAW general president after having served as secretary-treasurer. Whether or not Williams had sanctioned or taken part in the intimidation campaign is a separate issue. But he is a supporter of using scab lists to win representation. The new UAW secretary-treasurer, Gary Casteel, the union’s point man during its unsuccessful 2013-14 organizing drive at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, also backs the practice. It’s much easier to persuade reluctant workers to join, he argues, when the law tells them that “if you don’t think the system’s earning its keep, then you don’t have to pay.” Yet the true test of a union’s respect for individual worker rights is what happens if and when the union wins representation. And the UAW, predictably, isn’t about to defend any dissenters.

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According to an article appearing in the Washington Free Beacon in early-October 2014, United Auto Workers officials at General Motors’ unionized Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., which closed for a while when GM when bankrupt in 2009, but reopened later on, have been putting the squeeze on non-joiners. UAW Local 1853 published a “Scab Report” listing the names and work stations of more than 40 Spring Hill workers. The heading read: “The following individuals are NON-dues-paying workers. They have chosen to STOP paying Union Dues. If you work near one of these people please explain the importance of Solidarity and the power of collective bargaining.”

Apparently, this was more than a polite request. One nonunion employee, who requested anonymity for fear of union retribution, said harassment began soon after the release of the report. Three separate persons approached him, two of them visibly hostile. “They put our names out there so people will pressure us,” said the worker. “One guy called me a scab outright. I don’t appreciate that. I was disgusted by it.” Local 1853 President Tim Stannard admitted to publishing the list. Another anonymous employee, a longtime union member, already disenchanted with union nepotism and support for subpar workers, stated that the scab list was the reason for his desire to drop out of the United Auto Workers. He stated: “I’ve had more trouble with the union than with management. After this I will never come back to the UAW.” And he added: “What they do behind the scenes is harass non-members, those who choose not to belong. The workers [in Chattanooga] can look forward to seeing their names on a list just like this one.”

United Auto Workers scab lists have popped up in the Midwest, too. UAW Local 31, which represents nearly 3,000 wage and salary workers at the Fairfax GM assembly plant in Kansas City, Kan., has published the names of non-joining workers on its website under the category, “Important Information.” One nonunion worker at the plant, insisting upon anonymity, said the motive is coercion: “They can’t have dissenters among their ranks because it doesn’t look good to anyone thinking about joining.”

Other unions also are using scab lists to intimidate dissenting workers. In August 2011, two days into a two-week walkout at Verizon by 45,000 members of the Communications Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a group of strikers sent a message to “scabs” via Facebook. Dripping with low, taunting sarcasm, the message read:

Dear Scab:
I bet you didn’t expect to see us at 4 A.M. this morning! We were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and waiting to give you our daily union greeting. You looked a little tired…is everything ok? Pretty tricky trying to get the jump on us, but we’re a lot smarter than you think. Can you see how our tactics are changing? How it seems like you can’t shake us? Can you feel the noose tightening? That noose is called union brotherhood. See, you’ve got only yourself to rely on, we have each other and our families. When we shut you down, stop insulting me by saying, “I had no choice.” I’m tired of hearing it. Life is full of choices. You’re just too cowardly to make the right one.

Government workers, too

Public employee unions also have taken to assembling scab lists. Like their private-sector brethren, they are adept at rationalizing the practice. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 25 recently revealed the identities of workers who had opted out of continued union membership in the wake of Michigan’s enactment late in 2012 of Right to Work legislation. Lawrence Roehrig, secretary-treasurer of the Lansing, Michigan-based council, sees such lists as nothing more than an attempt to educate and inform. “You’re not harassing them,” says Roehrig. “It gives you an indication of who’s paying and who isn’t.” Yet anyone with political smarts can see the ulterior motive is to ostracize and intimidate non-members. The context of his remark was a news report that AFSCME Local 1603, which represents workers at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, had posted the names of workers who exercised their legal right to leave the union. A number of unidentified workers at the facility had stated the point of the campaign was pressure.

Unions, ever on the lookout to expand membership, may become more brazen in their use of scab lists as an organizing and bargaining tool. So long as they know that making (or carrying out) threats of physical assault and property damage have a good chance of not being punished, they have an incentive to generate these lists.

The issue thus can be restated as one of colliding rights. On the one hand, a union, as a matter of freedom of speech, has a right to collect and disseminate the names of non-joiners. On the other hand, non-joiners, who for obvious reasons don’t consent to having their names revealed, have a right not to be harassed or assaulted.

Actual malice

The courts have set a high bar for successful defamation suits against unions with regard to scab lists.

In 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled in Dunn v. Air Line Pilots Association that ALPA’s compilation of a scab list during a 1989 sympathy strike against Eastern Air Lines, and its distribution of 50,000 copies of that list after the strike, did not constitute defamation. The court applied the “actual malice” test established by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which applied to public figures and public issues. Actual malice means that one must have made the statement “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” That must be shown by clear and convincing evidence. (On labor law, as in this case, federal law often preempts—that is, takes the place—of state and local law.)

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Similarly, the Supreme Court of Iowa, in Delaney v. UAW Local 94 of John Deere Manufacturing Co. (2004), dismissed a suit filed by four nonunion workers who routinely had been subjected to taunts, insults, and threats for crossing a picket line during a 1987 strike at the John Deere Dubuque Works. A union newsletter contained what could be called incitements to violence against the nonunion workers. Yet the court concluded: “The content of the union newsletter is protected speech, and federal law preempts the plaintiffs’ state defamation claim.”

One potentially effective approach to protect dissenting workers from union bullying would be a wider application of the doctrine known as Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, or the “tort of outrage.” Here, a claim of harassment must pass a four-part test: (1) the defendant acted intentionally or recklessly; (2) the defendant’s conduct was extreme and outrageous; (3) the defendant’s act was the cause of the distress; and (4) the plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress as a result of the defendant’s behavior. The bar is at once high enough to guard against abusive and/or frivolous lawsuits, yet low enough to discourage behavior palpably intended to traumatize the innocent. In the UAW’s Caterpillar campaign of two decades ago, dissenting workers and family members suffered a good deal more than the proverbial hurt feelings. They lived for months with a well-grounded fear of being beaten or killed—and unions are no strangers to beating or killing.

Scab lists enable the creation of such duress. Would it not make sense, therefore, to treat the dissemination of such lists as punishable insofar as they facilitate terroristic threats or behavior.

From unions’ perspective, it makes sense to employ every method at their disposal, legal or otherwise, to persuade new workers at a unionized worksite to join—and once having joined, to behave in accordance with union dictates. Yet the primary goal of sound labor policy is to facilitate worker freedom, whether with or without unionism. Union bargaining power is a means to this end, not an end unto itself. While unions have a right to expand their membership, they decidedly don’t have a right to terrorize workers into becoming members and being docile in the event of a strike.

Time and again, by their demonstrated behavior, unions have revealed that the real purpose behind creating and disseminating scab lists is intimidation. Glenn Taubmann, a staff attorney with the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, puts it this way: “It comes as no surprise that unions in Right to Work states engage in all sorts of harassment and pressure tactics against independent-minded workers. The ugly truth is that once UAW bosses get into power, they will not tolerate any worker who refused to ‘voluntarily’ join and pay dues.

“Their view of ‘voluntary’ unionism,” he said, “is an iron fist against anyone who dissents.”

About the Author:  Carl F. Horowitz heads the Organized Labor Accountability Project for the National Legal and Policy Center in Falls Church, Virginia. This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of “Labor Watch” and appears here with permission.

1 reply
  1. C. Stah says:

    Anyone who crosses a picket line should feel intimidated. They are stealing a loyal person’s livelihood. Who finds that a respectful noble act? Few.

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