STRIKEWATCH: THE SCAB. An Introduction to Scabology, the philosophical and scientific study of Scabs... Scabs and rats from ancient times to 2012

As the Chicago teachers strike of 2012 draws nearer, and as the Chicago Teachers Union begins a weekend of strike training for delegates on Saturday, August 25, and Sunday, August 26, one of the most basic questions about unions and strikes is being discussed: What is a scab? Following the huge turnout for the Lane Tech meeting of the CTU House of Delegates, the question began circulating on various blogs and other Internet locations.

Former Chicago Schools Superintendent Ruth B. Love crossing the picket line at Piccolo Elementary School during the 1983 strike. Love's attempt to open three schools "for the sake of the children" was the typical kind of provocation that bosses try during a teachers' strike in Chicago. Her attempt failed, and in the process she shredded her credibility and ended her career in Chicago.Although I was qualified to be certified by the Chicago Board of Education in "Philosophy" (as well as various versions of "History" and "English") back in the day, I chose to hold just one certificate, and that was in English. One of the reasons for that decision came back during the recent discussion, because some people are trying to make the question of Scabs as complex as the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas (I read it in translation decades ago, not in Latin). While that complexity might be fun, during the battle that every picket line becomes a more simplified answer must be given.

Anyone who crosses a union picket line during a strike is a scab.

Also, the famous literary definition from Jack London is not very helpful. Even though I was moved deeply when I had dinner eight years ago in Oakland's Jack London Square, it was double-edged for reasons we can discuss much later if necessary. London was a man of his times, for better or worse. Anyone who wants to read London at his socialist and union best can read The Iron Heel. Anyone who wants to read London at his racist worst can read The Call of the Wild and two of the other dog books. Basically, despite its attractiveness, London's brutal definition of a scab is not useful when you are walking a picket line and asked to report a scab.

Back to readily available definitions of scabs:

Anyone who crosses a picket line during a union strike is a scab.

Simple. Direct. Conclusive. It's nice to have something unambiguous in an era when a religious leader can get away with having once been a member of Hitler Youth (again, another story for another time).

Back to scabs... This definition has been true of every strike led by the Chicago Teachers Union since the first official one in 1969 (my first one was 1971; it was cold in January that year). Dozens of union members will discuss the strikes and scabs twice next week at the CORE strike forums (Tuesday at Sulzer Library on the North Side; Wednesday in Foster Park on the South Side, both at 6:00 p.m.). Everyone invited. We will have retired teachers who are strike veterans, and one of the things we'll discuss is dealing with scabs.

Now to the praxis:

Scabology (the science of scabs) has two basic components: taxonomy and conclusiveness.

The first line is the taxonomy: Identifying and classifying scabs during the strike. During all the strikes, each school's picket captain is in charge of doing the daily scab report. That usually requests witnesses, since anyone who is a scab is remembered forever, and rightly so. It is the equivalent of treason. So we report first; We sort out the details later.

Under the law and CTU bylaws, every reported scab is entitled to a trial before a sub-committee of the executive board. Even during the years of UPC dominance I was on the executive board twice, and participated in this. Basically, the charge is betraying the union (the same charge that resulted in the recent expulsion of Mark Wigler, former Quest Center honcho under Marilyn Stewart).

The scab is informed by registered mail and told the date and time and its right to respond. If, as on some rare occasions, there was a case of mistaken identify (about once out of each 100 iterations), that's easily taken care of. And the person is reinstated.

Usually, though, scabs have been arrogantly self-involved. The basic motivation of scabs is greed. I remember one woman who showed up in her mink and told us that she couldn't afford to be bothered with the strike, because she "needed the money."

The trial board was almost speechless, until one of our teacher aides (as they were called then) rose up and thundered "How dare you tell us that... I live in the projects..." etc. If the scab wants to repent, she has to pay the union the complete amount she "earned" during the strike. At that point, most (not all, ever) is officially forgiven. Remember, as in the coming strike, every person who crosses the picket line is aiding and abetting our enemies. Even later repentance is a sad reality. Crossing the line is a huge decision, and always a bad one.

If they don't pay the fines, scabs are expelled from the union. They are then eternally noted in the union school membership roles, with the designation SB (for "Strike Breaker").

While the fate of scabs after we've won our strikes was never as severe at it should have been (my preference was shaved heads, as was done with collaborators after the defeat if Vichy France), most serious people, especially after the sacrifices we have made for our dignity, our profession, and our union during a bitter strike are not happy with scabs.

Most union people shun them. I personally never found a reason to talk with a scab after they had betrayed us. I once ran into an Amundsen scab at another school 15 years after he had crossed our line at Lane Tech in 1987 (he was an SEIU scab; not CTU, but he was out of Amundsen in less than a day after our return from the 19 day strike; if the principal hadn't gotten him out of there things would have deteriorated quickly...). He was on security duty at Senn one day when I went up to bring some materials to Jesse Sharkey, who at the time was delegate from Senn. He asked me to identify myself and I simply said, "F____ you scab..." and kept walking to the main office. He may not have remembered me, but I never forgot him. SEIU should never have allowed him to remain in union membership, but that's only part of the problems of Local 73 and its president at this point in history.

At various schools where I've been where someone had scabbed and was unrepentant, the tribulations were interesting.

At one school after the 1983 strike, rats kept dying in the scab's mailbox.

At another school, every time the scab tried to get supplies, there was a weather problem. Soggy duplicating paper. Wet chalk (back in the days of chalkboards).

Many delegates follow the "principal of reciprocal sacrifice" during and after a strike. I was first taught it by veteran teachers back when I was an FNG at the time of the 1971 strike. As a result, it's best for a scab to watch his vehicle carefully for all eternity. Don't spill anti-freeze near an auto paint job, for example. There are other fluids that have a similar impact.

Wise principals (and even higher administrators) who are forced to go inside buildings can be very helpful. I was on several picket lines where the principal would verify and add to our scab lists (some scabs try to sneak into buildings before dawn and lurk until there are no pickets outside). At one picket line, we (the union leadership) assured the building administrator that we had no problem with him, but that we would be parking strikers' cars in the Board of Education — "No Parking During Strike" — parking lot. It was sort of a "Don't Ask. Don't Tell" deal. It worked, and saved us from disrupting the community with a hundred cars parked on side streets. The principal of Dunbar (back in the day) used to serve coffee and donuts to strikers on the picket line. Wise veterans know that one day we are going to be back in the building, and we had better be on the same side.

Crazy MBA, Broad Foundation, and McKinsey Consulting types (Chicago hasn't seen any from Bain yet, but we probably will) are probably too dumb to realize these important realities. Chicago currently has the largest number of HTSDARs (High Test Scores but Dumb As Rocks) administrators as at any time in history. They are the boring types of kids who went around making sure, in any conversation, that you knew their SAT or ACT scores during the first 90 seconds. Ignorant of anything about the working class and stuck in the world of books, studies, and official "data", they are essentially intellectual and emotional cripples.

But we will soon be teaching them lessons they never learned when their parents were keeping them in school forever and every so they could not only read "Atlas Shrugged," but memorize large parts of it for the Brizard qualification test (a sort of REACH for the depths for current CPS toads).


August 24, 2012 at 9:49 AM

By: Kati Gilson NBCT

Scab history needed for everyone

This article should be give to every delegate to share with every person in their building — especially CTU members, who will eternally lose the respect of their colleauges if they scab.

August 24, 2012 at 12:07 PM

By: Kimberly Bowsky


Were it not for the scabs, the UFW's fight might have been shorter and less costly to the workers. I'm concentrating not only on the workers bussed in to take the place of the farmworkers, but the scab families that continued to buy non-union California grapes. Now, we can list thousands of scabby incidents, but make no mistake: a SCAB will spy and tell on you, they'll sit on their dumpy rumps in the school and collect a check while you walk and go home and fix your family cheese sandwiches. They'll get whatever benefits you won in the fight, then THEY'LL COMPLAIN ABOUT HOW UNFAIR THE TERMS WERE AND DISS YOUR WORK AND THE UNION.

August 24, 2012 at 1:03 PM

By: George N. Schmidt

'Solidarity' messages must be messages, not URLs

We have a new rule. We will not publish comments or messages at unless they have content. Given the fact that many of the more dangerous forms of spam simply include a URL, we will automatically delete any "Comment" that simply includes a URL, like one we received earlier today that purportedly came from "Madison."

August 24, 2012 at 1:06 PM

By: Bob Busch

Let me add about Scab Centers

George I would like to point out some things you left out.

Up until the 1980's scabs all reported to their home school. That is where we established our picket lines. That was simple enough — just get somebody there early. Then the Board began to put all the scabs in one place. For us at Simeon that was the old district office at

69th and Stewart. That was not too bad, but it did cover more ground and had a lot more people. The last time we picketed at the area (district?) office behind Harlan HS. I know a lot of scabs slipped in there because it was in the middle of a public park. I havent heard what the Board plans to do this time.

August 24, 2012 at 4:43 PM

By: Steve Blank

Messages of Solidarity from Madison

My name is Steve Blank and I am a comrade with the ISO.

On Wednesday evening, a member of the CTU made a presentation at Madison's Labor Temple. In attendance were members of Madison Teachers Inc., the teachers union that walked off the job in February of 2011 and initiated the tremendous solidarity movement and occupation of the state capitol.

This is video of solidarity messages filmed right after Becca's presentation.

August 24, 2012 at 7:29 PM

By: Rich Gibson

Jack London and The Scab

At the risk of using a url, Jack London's essay, "The Scab," is better than the blurb that's usually used. The essay presents strikes and scabbing inside the social context that persists, about 100 years after he wrote the essay (and the "Iron Heel" which GS rightly says is worth the read). That context is: class war.

September 6, 2012 at 11:51 PM

By: Isaiah Allen

Children First and Crossing the Picket Lines

If the teachers strike on Monday, is bringing our children to the Children First program breaking the picket lines?

September 7, 2012 at 2:15 AM

By: George N. Schmidt

Children are not scabs

Children should not be taught to cross picket lines. "Children First" is another Orwellian hoax from the House of Rahm and the multi-million dollar scriptoria he oversees at the Mayor" s Press Office and on the sixth floor "Communications Department" of CPS. Better to go to Rahm's home or the lairs of the billionaire Board members and ask them how this puts children first than to teach a young child to cross a picket line. Our two children, currently in sixth and second grades at O.A. Thorp, will be on the picket lines, not crossing them. That's how is should be in any strike. No exceptions.

September 7, 2012 at 7:47 AM

By: Kati Gilson NBCT


As a delegate, I am required to have everyone sign in on the picket line. I am also required to take note of anyone that enters the building. I had one person tell me "You'd better not write down my name". This person also told me they would not picket or cross a picket line. With people being sent to other locations, how do you know if one of your members scabs?

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

2 + 2 =