What is anarcho-syndicalism: the line you do not cross
The fourth part of a series exploring anarcho-syndicalism, its aims and principles, and the practicalities of enacting them in the real world.
There is one principle that organised workers of different tendencies all agree on. Ask trade unionists, syndicalists, anarcho-syndicalists, communists, and socialists of any stripe, and you’ll get the same answer. Never cross the picket line.
For over 150 years of class antagonism, the strike has been the most powerful weapon in the organised workforce’s arsenal. Although in a minority, the employing class have always been dominant over the working class because of the concentration of capital in their hands, backed by the force of the state. To match that, we needed the strength of collective organisation built upon solidarity as a class and the idea that an injury to one was an injury to all.
The strike was – and is – one of the most potent manifestations of that. Though capital is concentrated in a few hands, the bosses still require workers in order to produce and gain wealth. Withdrawing our labour, and so the source of the bosses wealth, is one of the most powerful bargaining tools in the organised workers’ arsenal. In some cases, it even has the potential to be revolutionary.
This is why those with power are so afraid of strikes, and have gone to incredible lengths to break them. But part of the success of the labour movement through its history has been its resolve. In the face of untold maliciousness and violence, solidarity has won out far more than it has been defeated.
That’s where the scab comes in. Crossing the picket line is not a neutral act. The nature of work means that a worker cannot simply say they are not involved in the dispute and remain neutral. Since the point of withdrawing labour is to cease production and force the bosses to negotiate or capitulate, going back to work is to objectively favour those in charge.
It gives them a way to carry on work (even at a reduced rate) without the strikers and so lessens the impact of the action. It is, in short, a betrayal of your fellow workers and of the spirit of solidarity that brought us to the (limited) rights and freedoms we enjoy today from conditions comparable to Chinese sweatshops.
It is for the reasons above that there is a great deal of hostility towards individuals and organisations who break strikes amongst organised workers. But also that use of them is favoured by the bosses.
Historically, scabs were the workers bussed in from elsewhere to (often unknowingly) replace their striking fellows. That still happens today, as we saw when City Councils brought in workers from other cities during bin strikes, and when Royal Mail advertised scab jobs to the unemployed. But more often now those who cross picket lines are individuals from the workforce in dispute, either with their hand forced or out of disregard for those in struggle.
In neither case should it simply be accepted that the line will be crossed, those who do so will be condemned, and that’s that. The question has to be asked what steps you can take to prevent people going into work.
Taking steps to strengthen the picket line
Everybody in employment goes to work for one simple reason – to keep themselves afloat. The need to sell our labour in order to put food on the table and maintain a roof over our heads is quite simply a part of the proletarian condition. This doesn’t change when an industrial dispute arises.
If anything, the situation becomes more acute. A walk-out means less pay at the end of the week or month, and more difficulty staying solvent. Especially in difficult times, this can dissuade many from standing up for themselves – in the long term, it might be worth it, but in the immediate they still have to eat. The point of organisation and solidarity is to put the measures in place so that people can do both.
Strike funds are vital to maintaining industrial action and ensuring that people respect picket lines. Not merely the centrally controlled “hardship fund,” but local monies controlled by the rank-and-file.
Not only is a central pot controlled by officials who will use it to turn action on and off like a tap and demobilise from above when they wish, but a bureaucrat in a central office has only a piece of paper to go on when processing applications. With no first-hand knowledge of members’ circumstances, they are more likely to deny the needy and pay out to the greedy.
Local funds, on the other hand, can be distributed based on genuine need. And the act of raising them – through whip-rounds, benefits, quiz nights, etc, only strengthens the bonds of comradeship and solidarity.
At the same time, the war of ideas needs to be fought aggressively. Inside work, the bosses will tell everyone why the strike is a waste of time, unnecessary, or outright scandalous. They have near-inexhaustible propaganda resources and constant access to their subjects. This needs to be countered – not only with leaflets, but through word of mouth and workers assemblies.
People need to be not only kept in the loop but included in the decision-making process. This makes support for action more likely, whilst scabs come from the ranks of the demobilised and disempowered.
Outside of the workplace, any potential scabs sought externally – in other cities, or on the unemployment lines – need to be reached by the message of those in dispute. Requests for solidarity must be met with the promise of same in return. For example, organising unemployed workers to challenge the injustices of workfare and seek meaningful help to find real (non-scab) employment that is worth their time would be an integral part of the effort to persuade them against breaking the strike.
The last resort is talking to people as they come into work. Having a substantial picket line – i.e. all workers rather than just the mandated six “official pickets” – will add considerable weight to this, as people can speak to fellow rank-and-file workers as well as union stewards. But, ultimately, even at the last moment people can be talked around.
Don’t give up on anybody until they physically cross the line.
Once a scab – always a scab?
Those who do cross the picket line have, as argued above, chosen to side with the bosses over their fellow workers. They are scabs, and those in struggle have every right to scorn or shun them.
As Jack London put it;
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 (or woman) 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 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 sold his Savior for thirty pieces of silver.
Benedict Arnold sold his country for a promise of a commission in the british army.
The scab sells his birthright, country, his wife, his children and his fellowmen for an unfulfilled promise from his employer.
Esau was a traitor to himself; Judas was a traitor to his God; Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country.
A scab is a traitor to his God, his country, his family and his class.
But is that traitor an irredeemable one? Does crossing a picket line once condemn you forever to be excluded from polite company and looked upon with hatred and distrust – or is it possible to make amends?
Having stood on a picket line for the duration of several full days, and seen people walk past without a second thought, I know how easy it is to lean towards the latter. There are several people in my work I know as scabs and I go out of my way to not talk to them. A couple of them, I have to restrain myself from beating senseless whenever they open their mouths. If they spontaneously combusted tomorrow, I would feel no pity or sorrow.
But I have also seen people cross on the first day of a strike and, after being challenged on it and having a case put to them about why they were wrong, not done so on the second. I know people can reform from being hardened racists and fascists. And I have argued in favour of a rehabilitative justice system over a punitive one.
I cannot, therefore, say with any conviction that people cannot make amends for even the betrayal of their class. It would be a hypocritical statement on my part.
Obviously, simply saying “sorry” and then hoping for support when they need it simply won’t be enough. There are people who will join a union for representation then opt out when expected to return such support. Such people are nothing but weasels and scroungers seeking something for nothing. One might as well eternally lend money off friends and family, but never pay it back and never return the favour.
On the other hand, rebuilding that trust with fellow workers – supporting disputes, helping to build and maintain solidarity in the manner described above, and simply being sincere about your intentions – can repair the bridges burnt when the picket line was crossed.
This will not be easy. It must be understood that this is atonement – the scab has not simply washed their hands of a dispute but actively taken the other side – and it is up to the individual workers involved whether trust can be restored. But it is not utterly impossible.
The bonds of solidarity
The aim in deterring scabbing, of course, is to strengthen support for industrial action. The less people who cross the picket line, the more pressure is exerted on the boss to capitulate.
But, in the post-Thatcher era, class-consciousness cannot be taken for granted. Whereas once the picket line was sacrosanct, now many people don’t see the point. With anti-strike laws inhibiting the promotion of industrial action at work, and no concerted effort to educate people on the subject taking place elsewhere, the bonds of working class solidarity are breaking apart.
The point now must be to rebuild those bonds, and explicitly making the case against scabbing is part of that. As is organising from the ground up and returning control to the rank-and-file to challenge demobilisation. It is a task that has been put off for too long and can no longer be ignored.
The old slogans are true. An injury to one is an injury to all, and the longer the picket line, the shorter the strike. To make people realise the former and enact the latter, scabbing must be rooted out by working class solidarity.