SCAB — What an ugly word. When used in the context of a strike, the word not only refers to replacement workers in a matter of fact way; it also adds a value judgment. It very clearly says that replacement workers are not welcome.
For those walking the picket line, replacement workers are immoral, indecent, despicable human beings because they cross a picket line and do their work. They are taking their jobs away, even if it is only temporarily. In the eyes of the strikers, the use of replacement workers by employers is unethical. That is why unions usually call for anti-scab laws that will prohibit the use of replacement workers. Are such laws ethical?
To answer this ethical question is not easy. There are many factors to consider. Some factors concern the role of law, in particular, labour law. In Canada, labour law is both provincial and federal. Some jurisdictions, such as Quebec and British Columbia, have anti-scab laws, but most others in Canada do not. Ultimately, labour law is a political matter. It is politicians, our democratically elected representatives, which have the authority to enact labour legislation.
Do our current labour laws as well as our economic system and institutions respect and uphold the democratic values of individual freedom and equality?
Politicians will enact labour laws by mainly considering economic factors. Since business and corporate interests are often opposed to union and labour interests, this means that labour laws often try to balance these competing economic interests. What are some of the economic reasons and arguments for and against anti-scab laws?
Opponents of anti-scab laws argue that such laws disrupt the balance between business and labour by giving an unfair advantage to unions in labour disputes. They also claim that such laws drive away business and investment, and frustrate management’s ability to control the workplace. Furthermore, they prevent individual employees from breaking ranks with their union by crossing a picket line to work in the event of a strike.
Proponents of anti-scab laws counter that the employment relationship has never been characterized by balance. The employer and capital always have more power compared to individual employees and their labour. That is why unions were originally formed: to give individual workers some power in the face of the employer by acting collectively. A ban on replacement workers would certainly give some power to workers, but an anti-scab law would not tip the balance in their favour.
They also argue that anti-scab laws do not necessarily have negative economic consequences. There are many other economic factors besides labour law which can influence business and investment, such as economic cycles, interest rates, and taxation. Blaming only anti-scab laws, or labour laws in general, for poor economics is not plausible.
The list of economic reasons could be continued; however, they do not provide ethical reasons for or against anti-scab laws. Ethics deals with the question: How should we as human beings act? Since we are dealing with economic activities, the ethical question is: How should we act when conducting our economic activities? This is the broader question under which we should ask the narrower question about the ethical status of anti-scab laws.
Some of the ethical questions we must ask ourselves, I think, include: Is making a profit the only value in economic activity? Is there an ethical way of making a profit? What would be an ethical way of distributing or sharing the profits?
Do our current labour laws as well as our economic system and institutions respect and uphold the democratic values of individual freedom and equality? Do they show respect for the dignity and autonomy of each member of the community?
The answers we give to such questions would provide ethical reasons for or against anti-scab laws. Labour law can and does reveal the values of a society. In a society which upholds the democratic values of individual freedom, equality, and respect for individual autonomy and human dignity, perhaps political democracy is not enough. Economic democracy would be required as well.
Dr. Paolo Biondi is an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sudbury, Laurentian University.