Intimidation is more than simply the use of physical force. It also is about the instilling of fear and shame in one’s intended targets. Among labor leaders, one of the best tactics for getting the job done is the ‘scab list.’ The term refers to a longstanding union practice of compiling a list of employees at a given worksite who choose not to join a union or participate in a strike. The United Auto Workers in particular lately has been stepping up this practice as part of organizing drives in Right to Work states. Whether or not this tactic is legal, one thing is for certain: It amounts to bullying. By divulging the identities of workers who don’t toe the union line, the scab list, like its close cousin, the card check, serves as a brake on a worker’s right to say no. It is a reminder that “voluntary unionism” isn’t quite voluntary in practice.
In the annals of labor history, few characters are more reviled by union officials and their loyalists than the “scab” – that is, the worker who won’t join the union or worse, even if he is a member, crosses a picket line in the event of a strike and goes to work. In its current context, the term “scab” originated in late-18th century England. It connotes an image of something unsightly and diseased. That pretty much sums up the union view. Union true believers see scabs, whether existing or replacement employees, as undoing the good work of organizing and bargaining. In sufficient numbers, scabs, by making themselves available for hiring if a strike is looming or underway, effectively remove the strike as a bargaining tool. Employers, especially in labor markets with high unemployment rates, may have large pools of such workers at their disposal. By providing labor in sufficient quantity as to maintain full or near-full production, scabs induce striking workers to return to work with their previous conditions intact unless the latter want to look for a new job. Aware of this Hobson’s choice, a union may respond with Old School brass-knuckles persuasion, with legality beside the point. Union goons are more than happy to terrorize those known to have crossed a picket line. They also are not above bribing law enforcement officials to look the other way. When solidarity is the name of the game, dissent isn’t an option.
The behavior of the United Auto Workers during a pair of strikes in the Nineties against Caterpillar Inc. is telling. Indeed, in late 1995, following the walkouts, eight employees who had crossed picket lines, and four of their spouses, sued the UAW and one of its locals for “extraordinary harm caused to them by the union’s outrageous conduct.” It wasn’t an exaggeration. During the strikes, which lasted a combined nearly two years, union loyalists routinely made 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 a wife with lines such as “Your husband could get shot” and “Your fucking husband better not cross that picket line if he knows what’s good for him.” Offspring were not spared union wrath either. In one case, a caller asked a scab’s daughter, “”How would you like to have your home burned down?” Vigilante auto surveillance also was common. 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.” No doubt dissenting workers and their families were comforted by the prospect of a “peaceful” picket line.
Eventually, the United Auto Workers yielded. Caterpillar in March 1998 renewed its collective bargaining agreement with the union – there had been no contract in force for more than six years. 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. It was hard to tell which side “won,” but one thing was clear: The UAW had no compunctions at all about inflicting terror.
It is of more than passing significance that a key organizer of those strikes was the current UAW president, Dennis Williams, who prior to taking office this June had been union secretary-treasurer. Whether or not Williams had sanctioned or taken part in that intimidation is a separate issue. More apropos is the fact that this aggressive harassment could not possibly have been carried out to the extent it was without the compilation of a scab list. And Williams is an avid supporter of the practice. So is the union’s new secretary-treasurer, Gary Casteel, the UAW’s lead person during its unsuccessful 2013-14 organizing drive at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga. Casteel is especially big on compiling scab lists in Right to Work southern states such as Tennessee and Alabama, the latter of which is the organizing focus of the UAW at a Mercedes-Benz plant. It’s much easier to persuade reluctant workers not to oppose union organizing, 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. Intimidation has a way of lurking in the background.
United Auto Workers officials at the unionized General Motors Saturn assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tenn., which closed for a while after GM’s bankruptcy in 2009, but since has reopened, for example, have been putting the squeeze on non-joining workers. UAW Local 1853 published a “Scab Report” listing the names and work stations of more than 40 Spring Hill workers. The union website 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 that 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,” remarked the employee. “One guy called me a scab outright. I don’t appreciate that. I was disgusted by it.” Another worker, a longtime union member, already disenchanted with the union’s nepotism and support for subpar workers, stated that the scab list is the reason for his desire to drop out of the United Auto Workers. “I’ve had more trouble with the union than with management,” he said. “After this I will never come back to the UAW.” Local 1853 President Tim Stannard admitted to publishing the list, but denied that the purpose was intimidation.
United Auto Workers scab lists are popping up in other Right to Work states as well. UAW Local 31, which represents nearly 3,000 wage and salary workers at the Fairfax GM assembly plant in Kansas City, Kan., is highlighting the names of non-joining workers. The local list recently was published on its website under “Important Information.” One nonunion worker at the plant, insisting upon anonymity, explained that the motive is coercion: “They can’t have dissenters among their ranks because it doesn’t look good to anyone thinking about joining.” Local 31 President Vicki Hale thus far has not commented on the situation.
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” on a Facebook page. Dripping with low, menacing sarcasm, the message read:
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.
Public employee unions also are rationalizing the identification of scabs. Lawrence Roehrig, secretary-treasurer of the Lansing, Mich.-based American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 25, recently defended the practice of compiling lists revealing the identities of workers who had opted out of continued union membership in the wake of Michigan’s enactment of Right to Work legislation two years ago. He sees such lists as an attempt to educate and inform. “You’re not harassing them,” said Roehrig. “It gives you an indication of who’s paying and who isn’t.” Anyone with street smarts can see the ulterior motive: to locate, 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. Any number of workers at the facility expressed the view that the union motive is pressure to remain.
Member-hungry unions, especially the United Auto Workers, may become more brazen over the next few years in their use of scab lists. Their purpose is to build membership and collective bargaining power. As long as scab lists facilitate that goal, they will be an attractive means. Glenn Taubmann, a staff attorney with the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, argues scab lists are meant to intimidate workers into joining, and once having joined, to do the union’s bidding. “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,” he said. “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 is an iron fist against anyone who dissents.” The UAW, of course, would insist the goal is solidarity, not intimidation. But in their world, all too often that’s a distinction without a difference.