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How Labor Scabs Work

Arguments Against Scab Labor

Arguments against scab labor continue to this day. As we mentioned earlier, the existence of scab labor is a constant threat to the viability of collective bargaining. Unfortunately for unions, the popularity of permanent replacement workers has been on the rise for years. There are large staffing companies throughout the U.S. that specialize providing emergency labor during strikes, and the courts have increasingly sided with employers in cases where striking laborers return to work to find that their jobs have been permanently filled by scabs.

Prior to 1981, no major U.S. industry had hired permanent replacements during a strike, even though the law allowed them to do so [source: Schlach]. The turning point came with the federal air traffic controllers' strike [source: Kilborn]. When 11,500 air traffic controllers walked off the job in 1981, President Ronald Reagan declared the strike illegal and called for all striking workers to be fired and permanently replaced with scabs. Reagan's decision was a huge blow to the power of unions. In the decades leading up to the air traffic controllers' strike, there was an average of 300 major labor strikes a year in the U.S. By 2006, the average had dropped to less than 30 a year [source: Schlach]. The lesson: Scabs make strikes ineffective.

Another negative side of scab labor -- for unions, employers and consumers -- is that some replacement workers have been accused of producing lower quality, even dangerous products. The most high-profile case is the Bridgestone-Firestone tire recall of the late 1990s. According to an independent study, a significant number of tires produced by replacement workers at the Firestone plan in Decatur, Ill. in 1994 and 1995 were defective and had potentially deadly tread separations. One out of every 400 tires manufactured in Decatur during the strike was returned by 2000 [source: Krueger].

Due to the deep resentment that some strikers have toward scabs, people who cross picket lines may face great danger. Nearly every major labor strike of the19th and early 20th century includes tales of injury, torture and even the death of scabs at the hands of striking workers.

A New York Times article from 1910 describes conditions during a plumbers' strike in Paris. Strikebreakers were detained by union officials who beat them, robbed them and forced them to join the union [source: The New York Times]. During the British miners' strike of the early 1980s, violent clashes between miners and police escalated when buses of scabs were brought in to replace them. Public opinion turned against the union when two striking miners dropped a 45-pound (20.4-kilogram) cement block onto the car of a scab, killing the driver [source: BBC]. Recently, a scab truck driver in Spain was badly burned when strikers set his vehicle on fire [source: Mail Online].

Some striking teachers and nurses have threatened and intimidated colleagues who cross the picket line. In 2007, a striking teacher was forced to shut down a Web site where he posted photos of teachers who crossed the picket line, implying that strikebreakers would pay for their actions [source: Noceda].

Despite the arguments against scab labor, some experts claim that scabs can also serve a positive purpose. Read more in the next section.