In Labor Terms, what is a Scab?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

The term "scab" refers to workers brought in to work during a union labor strike.
The term "scab" refers to workers brought in to work during a union labor strike.

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.

A scab breaks a strike by crossing a picket line.
A scab breaks a strike by crossing a picket line.

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.

Labor activists may strike in order to gain increased pay.
Labor activists may strike in order to gain increased pay.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@anon334692: Unions were a great thing at a time when the populace needed a way to protect themselves from greedy corporate owners who mistreated them. Now they are futile. There are enough labor laws in each state to protect the worker from being mistreated.

As someone who has grown up in a primarily union town, I know all it does is inflate the local economy and produce sloppy, lazy workers who are paid more than individuals who know how to work. When they act a riot, they get counseled and a slap on the hand. To fire one requires a legitimate criminal offense. To that end, a significant portion of the money a union worker gets paid goes to supporting the union leeches who convince them that their existence is necessary.

America became what it is today because of hard working individuals, not unions. Turn your nose up to someone else, because I know I work harder, faster, and do a better job than the union counterparts. I'm sure many of you posted this while on one of your 15 breaks throughout the day, too.


The decline in unions is equal to the decline of the U.S.A. At its highest the unions represented 34-40 percent of the workforce. That was in the 50s. What has our country done since? About 11 percent of us are union now. How are your finances? Do you have a pension? Can you live on Social Security benefits?


No Anonymous, nurses who work during a strike should not be called scabs. In fact, they are not, because all bargaining units in essential services have agreed upon terms for maintaining emergency services in the event of a labor dispute. A nurse working during a strike is a continuation of essential services, not strikebreaking.


Anonymous that said unions are outdated and retarded. You get the pay you deserve. Also, quit taking Saturday and Sunday off. Those are Union-won days. No more overtime pay, either, since that was Union-won. Also, no more holidays or vacations because they were Union fought for, too.

As for health care, I'm sure your employer gave that to you out of the goodness of their hearts. Yeah, right --and pigs fly.

And when your 9 or 10 year old goes to work in a factory for 12 hours a day, don't complain, You might just be living in Korea or Cambodia.

My Union retirees fought for these benefits, so if you don't want them, don't take them. But don't gripe if you're getting them for free.


Do I think hospitals should strike? For example, should nurses be able to strike? I am a nurse and I personally do not think that human beings (patients who are sick) should be treated like a box of cereal. If the Post cereal company went on strike, people would not die if they could not find their favorite cereal on the shelf. They would end up buying another brand. Unfortunately, if nurses at a hospital go on strike, the chances are patients would die (those who are critically ill) if no one was left to care for them. Sort of like what happened during Katrina. Of course it is a different scenario. One is an act of God (or devil) and the other is an act of man.

Should we call a professional nurse a scab because he/she crosses the picket line to care for patients who deserve to be cared for or should we stand on the side lines and let people die, or better yet, be transferred to another hospital in which overcrowding would become a possibility? Just my thoughts.


"Unions are out-dated and retarded." Your example sounds typical of those who reason in favor of profits and productivity for the benefit of large corporations who pay their board of directors and executive staff millions while their workers starve.

I was working in Silicon Valley, CA for a very lucrative non-union company that pays their Techs/Installers $16 per hour. Their union counterparts are earning $37-50 per hour plus benefits and retirement for the same highly skilled work.

Who's got a better chance of paying the cost of living in the Bay Area? (Regardless of your "productivity equation.")


Unions are outdated and retarded. In general, people want more money and benefits, yet are not putting out any more work effort.

Example: They want a 30 percent pay increase but are they outputting 30 percent more productivity? Well, 99 percent of the time, the answer is no.

So if you want to gripe and complain and strike, don't be mad when people who need a job and are willing to work without crying about everything take your spot.


I totally respect the rights of workers to strike, and to want others to provide a united front, but it can't be easy for people to make the decision to cross the picket line. When you have a family to provide for you can't always think about the greater good.


@anon72477 - If you read the first paragraph you will find your question was answered. The only thing I can add to the origins of this word is this: prior to being introduced into 17th century English it was a Scandanavian word for a medical wound type of scab.

Looking at the word in the context of that time, many people with veneral diseases had nasty scabs on their skin. So it makes sense that 'scab' would become an insult, rather than acar.


I can't find anything here that explains where the term came from. What language? Why scab and not scar or stab, whatever. This article just explains what a scab does.

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