A "scab" a derogatory term used to describe a strike breaker. The term is actually an old English insult that has been in use to describe a despicable person since at least 1590. In the 1700s, this term was used for someone who refused to join a labor union, and by 1806, the word had reached its modern usage. More temperate labor activists and unions use the term “strike breaker” instead, but the slang term is often used in speeches and literature designed to fire up the strikers.
Whenever workers refuse to work in order to gain concessions, it is called a strike. Strikes were an important part of the early labor movement, which agitated for safer working conditions, better pay, and more reasonable hours. These early strikes were often brutally put down, and workers had a choice between going back to work and starving. Labor unions attempted to help with this by organizing workers, who paid dues that could be used to support them during a strike. A single scab could greatly weaken the cause of the union.
In response to more organized labor, companies started to recruit people who were willing to break the strike. These people might be existing employees or outside contractors. By crossing the picket line of strikers marching and holding signs for better working conditions, the strike breaker hurts the cause of the workers. For this reason, the term “scab” started to become widespread, as this was someone who behaved dishonorably in 18th century culture. Retaliation against suck workers could sometimes be brutal.
The term is also used to refer to workers who cave too easily to concessions offered by a company. Labor activists believe that striking is an effective tool, and that if the workers band together, they can achieve their goals. Workers who agree to partial concessions weaken the cause of the whole, as do people who work through the strike. Sometimes, striking workers are surprised when the temporary workers hired to replace them up becoming permanent.
When a strike is in progress, people who support it should refrain from crossing the picket line. Workers typically form a band in front of the company they work for to inform people that a strike is going on, and why. By crossing the picket line, scabs and consumers indicate that they are not concerned about the rights of the workers, and they weaken the case of the strikers. In some cases, people may feel forced to cross a picket line; university students, for example, may be told that they must attend class whether or not university staff are striking. This tactic is often used to cause strikes to fail.