STRIKEWATCH: What's worse — a boss's spy in the union's ranks — or a scab?

"Don't scab for the bosses, don't listen to their lies. Us poor folks haven't go a chance unless we organize..." goes the lyrics to one of the classic songs of the union movement, "Which Side Are You On." SCAB is one of the most powerful words in the English language, and it has to be understood clearly as working people move towards a strike. So, today's lesson plan is about SCAB in its sociological, not physiological, context. The URL for the Pete Seeger version of Which Side are You On, for those who can't get the hotlink, is:

Jack London, best known for "The Call of the Wild", was also a militant trade unionist and socialist during the early part of the 20th Century, and his novel "The Iron Heel" depicted what fascism might look like in the USA two decades before fascism arose. Above, the "scab sticker" that was used to decorate certain automobiles and the possessions of certain people during the Chicago Teachers Union strikes of the 20th Century is one of the many artifacts of history that is being brought back to life for the needs of working people in the 21st Century.Before going forward, people might also want to hear the song sung by the lady who wrote it, Florence Reese. Although "Which Side Are You On?" deals with the miners' struggles (and particularly in Harlan County), it has long become a universal song of unions and workers rights. The lyrics are somewhat different from the Seeger version, but equally powerful:

As the day draws closer when Chicago teachers and other Chicago Teachers Union members vote for the first strike against Chicago Public Schools in a quarter century, our Devil's Dictionary needs to refresh some memories, clarify some realities, and break some new ground. Fans of the literature of the USA will recall that Civil War veteran and journalist Ambrose Bierce (who survived almost every major conflict from Shiloh to the war's end as an infantryman) produced, during his literary years, a now classic book called "The Devil's Dictionary." In many ways, the Bierce book was in response a previous time in US History when the "one percent" ruled Plutocratically absolutist against the "ninety-nine percent" (and perhaps more nastily than today). Then, as now, the massive attempts by the ruling class to dictate thinking by dictating the meaning of language was in full swing, with the same triumverate of "Rent-A-s..." doing the literary dirty work.

Today, Chicago has seen the "Rent A Preachers" and "Rent A Protesters." Back during Bierce's time, the three major groups providing the linguistic camouflage for the rule of the Plutocrats were Preachers, Professors, and Publishers. (Sound Familiar). By the early 20th Century, most preachers were still preaching the natural inferiority of the working classes (with special attention to immigrants from Southern Europe and Black people); the professors were proving (by "science" like the IQ tests) that the inferior had gotten that way "naturally", and the publishers were doing their usual work, providing the masses with "news" that was really propaganda on behalf of the ruling class (and against unions, Bolsheviks, anarchists, and anyone who tried to improve the lot of working people).

So, if the beginning of the 20th Century sounds like the beginning of the 21st Century in the USA, it's not surprising. In Bierce's day, we wouldn't have been able to use terms like "Orwellian" to describe the works of men like Arne Duncan and Jean-Claude Brizard, but the meaning was the same. Lies told from behind smarmy smiles, all for the benefits of oppressing the majority and cementing the power of the plutocrats. Bierce would have understood terms like "accountability" and the obscene meaning of the word "turnaround" in current public education.

But our first iterations of this year's Devil's Dictionary require just two words: Scab and Spy.

A Scab, in its narrowest definition, is a worker who crosses a picket line and helps the Boss break a strike.

But in its broader definition, a scab is any worker who helps the boss play "divide and conquer" against the union or the unity of the workers. Thus, the teachers who play the game of "good teacher/bad teacher" over coffee in the morning are being semi-scabby. Everybody with an ounce of common sense knows that in any large-scale human institution, the range of people is going to go from a "best" to a "not best" and across the reality in between. No baseball team has nothing but .300 hitters or 20 game winners among the pitchers. Reality is even that challenging when it comes to any medium or large sized family. Yet some teachers can get into scabby talking simply by playing "good teacher / back teacher", a game only the boss can love.

Not I'm not taking here about teachers who join Instructional Leadership Teams (ILTs) out of good motivations, but really more the Michelle Rhee types, those who never really taught and who then turned their scabby talents to playing a well-financed game of "Good Teacher / Bad Teacher" on the grandest scale.

Some people try to expand the definition of scab too far, of course.

But, finally, a scab is the man or woman who betrays his fellow workers by crossing a picket line during a strike.

In the history of the strikes in Chicago's public schools there have been two phases the union has had to deal with scabs: the identification of the scab and the bringing of the scab to justice.

Once the union has called a strike, a scab is anyone who crosses the line and gets paid while his brothers and sisters are on strike. The scab is not someone in management who is forced to go to work during a strike (although such people should be reminded of their problems, especially since few volunteer to provide the money they are being paid to the strike fund, or to the children they say they care so much about).

Every day from the picket lines, strikers blow the whistle on scabs as the scabs cross the line. Often, strikers also photograph the scabs as evidence (since, believe it or not, many scabs try to claim they didn't really scab; some have even been known to go to "work" very early -- before the pickets arrive -- in order not to be seen). The union's strike coordinators (usually district supervisors) take the names of the scabs every day from the union delegates and picket captains. Those names are kept in a list at the union.

When the strike is over, the union informs the scabs that they have been identified as "Strike Breakers." The scabs have the right to appear before the union's executive board (or a sub-committee of it) at the "Scab Hearings." The only way the scabs have the right to return to the good graces of the union is to appear at the hearing, apologize to their brothers and sisters, and immediately pay the union an amount equal to every penny the scab earned during the strike. At that point, the Strike Breaker is reinstated into the union.

Anyone who scabs is listed forever in the union's print out of union members and eligible members at a school with the designation "SB" for "Strike Breaker." Generally, a person who had the "SB" with his name is shunned by others at the schools. Only one time in CTU history, and in one dramatic instance, has an SB been honored. And that time ended in 2010.

There has been a long history of creativity among teachers who have dealt with scabs following our successful strikes (and all CTU strikes were successful; don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise...). After the 1987 strike, when Amundsen High School was chagrined at not being a 100 percent striker school (we had one scab), we asked upon our return to work that we never have to see that scab again. By the end of the first day back, he was gone from Amundsen, and we never had to see him aqain (because he had clout with some prominent politician on the north side, that particular scab continued working in CPS; the best we could do was get him out of Amundsen before things got nasty...).

At other schools, the post-strike relationships between scab and humanity were stressful. At Marshall High School, where the union delegate was also in charge of supplies, the few scabs always found that their chalk supply was soggy, and they paper wrinkled or worse. Some times, the materials looked as if they had been used to line a cat box or a bird cage before the got to the scab.

At Juarez High School after the 1983 strike, the lone scab found unique items in her mailbox on a regular basis. No one was ever able to figure out how a filled roach motel or a dead rat got there, but it got to the point where the scab, who had proudly proclaimed her superiority to her brothers and sisters. Had someone else go to her mailbox every day.

Of course, there are hundreds of similar stories from the days when CTU was standing up and striking regularly and for dignity and the contract which was the strongest in the USA. I'm confident that as our Devil's Dictionary grows, we'll have more examples to share.

About those who spy for the bosses, we can share more information soon, and in a relevant form as the "teachable moment" approaches for all CTU members. For now, one of the best dramatic versions of that reality is in the union movies "Matewan." In addition to showing how to "turn a scab..." (i.e. to talk a scab into becoming a strike), "Matewan" also shows how difficult it is sometimes to unmask a rat who spies for the boss....

And what to do with the rat and the rat's nest when he is exposed.


March 12, 2012 at 10:31 AM

By: Bob Busch

1983 strike memories

The tale of a union scab. It was winter 1983, I think, and we were on strike. All the scabs reported to the old Chicago State office building which at that time housed the district office.

This was a freestanding metal building more at home as a barn than an office. We all blew our scab whistles and some lady teachers made loud comments to the effect that one

of the scabs did her best work on her back.

To our chagrin one of our own, a shop teacher to boot crossed the line. As people we knew left they asked us to keep him out of the building. Seems he was causing a real commotion

inside. The other scabs felt uncomfortable with his tirades. When it was over we talked. Why I asked him did you cross the line he told me he caused more shit inside than he could outside.

Rest in peace OB.

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